Category Archives: Children

How Much is Too Much?

Happy New Year, my dear friends! 2020 is here, like it or not. I hope you are growing closer together and looking forward to being more happily in love with each other throughout the next twelve months.

Two couples are weighing heavily on my mind this morning, as I pull myself into a new day, week, month, year, and decade; both couples’ families are facing a rough new dawn.


One couple, Tom and Mel, (names changed, as well as some of the more identifiable facts below) first came to our weekly stepparenting support group classes around nine years ago. They weren’t married yet but she was helping him raise his two pre-teen children from a previous marriage. The battles with his ex and the conflicts between Mel and Tom’s children were putting a serious strain on their relationship.

They continued attending classes weekly while looking for ways to deal with their problems. Eventually, I began seeing them privately for couples’ mediation sessions and we were able to settle the dust. His children grew older; things evened off a bit between Mel and Tom’s kids; the couple settled down and had a baby of their own, which helped solidify the new family as Tom’s daughter fell in love with her new stepsister.

As with most couples, Tom and Mel had ups and downs. His kids grew up and became quite a bit better; Mel and he had a second baby of their own; they moved to another state and we lost touch. I recently got an email from Mel saying that things had worsened to the point that Tom finally moved out saying he didn’t love her any more.

Mel stays in touch via Facebook, and I watched her struggle through a Christmas and into this new year alone with her two young kids. Both Tom and Mel are broken hearted and alone and wondering what went wrong – but they both agree they don’t feel like trying any more.


About the same time, another couple — Drew and Anna — began attending the group classes. He was a local man who was engaged to a younger Russian woman after exchanging letters and emails for a few months. They were attending our support group, like Tom and Mel, to prepare for the daunting prospect of joining two touchy situations into one more touchy situation. He, too, had two children from a previous failed marriage.

Like the first couple, Drew and Anna struggled with not only the same, common stepfamily conflicts – kids, an ex, and new relationship upsets – but with the extra frustration of different culture expectations. I met with them privately some over the years and together we managed to find the patience, understanding, and love to push through together.

They had a baby boy whom they were both crazy about, and life spiraled on through the ups and downs. At one point, Anna contacted me and asked for help with some tougher-than-usual conflicts during which Drew had moved out. But, in this case love won out, and they got back together and moved on in love.

Then Drew had a slight health complication which, suddenly, lead to his totally unexpected death. Anna and their grade school age son were crushed. We all felt the shock as the joy of reunion was followed so quickly by tragedy.

Today, through her postings on Facebook I see Anna recovering from her loss and blooming again with their son. Of course she longs for her sweetheart, but Anna has the comfort of beautiful memories of his love and their happy time together before he was gone from her.


And now, in this turning over of a year and lives, I watch these two families — one broken and alone, the other alone but still full of love. Neither knew what the future held for them. Neither could have anticipated the unexpected turns their lives would take in 2020.

NOW my friends, which future will you choose for your own family to experience in a year or a decade? Will you give up and submit your children to broken hearts and a future of watching Mom and Dad bicker and play tug-of-war with them, teaching their children lessons of warfare and how to hurt someone you once loved?

Or will you look beyond the petty arguments that attack every stepfamily, choosing to teach your children, like Anna is doing, that love goes on beyond disappointments, and even beyond death?

Yes, both mothers are now raising their children without their partners, but — oh! — what a difference stubborn, determined love can make! One household filled with warmth and sweet memories versus another filled with ache and bitterness.

You have the choice. During every fight, every upset, every disappointment, you get to choose your future. And please remember, not only are you choosing your own possible future, but you are consciously deciding what you want to demonstrate to your children.

Step carefully, my friends.

Stepcoach Bob Collins

P. S. If you appreciated this insight onto other couples’ rollercoaster of stepfamily lives, 1) let me know and 2) if you have a story of survival or of loss tell me so I can share it.

And, if you let me know you liked this article in the comments, I’ll give you another picture of possibilities and eventualities in families like yours.

God bless your whole family!

What makes someone a “stepparent”?

This week I received the following question, and I thought you might like to know the answer, too…

The question was, “What makes someone a “stepparent”? Is it only through marriage, or can it be someone who “volunteered” for that position?”

My answer was:

A stepparent is someone in a committed relationship – legally married or not – with a parent. Stepparents – legally married or not – have no legal standing for their partner’s children. In other words, if you are a stepparent (as I have been for 24 years) you cannot, without your partner’s written permission, pick up your stepchild from school, sign for medical care for them, get their grades, or most other legal actions.

As a stepparent, you are legally just a stranger helping with someone else’s child. That’s the legal stance. It’s also a good starting point for the personal relationship with your Sweetheart’s children. I teach couples to focus on their “marriage” relationship. Let the biological parent take responsibility for their kids. That’s how the law looks at it and if the stepparent looks at it that way, too, all will be easier.

Yes, a stepparent should help out their partner whenever they can – with errands, shopping, housekeeping, etc. But only when asked, in relation to the children. If a stepparent goes into a relationship thinking they can “fix” the parent-child situation, they will find themselves receiving resentment from both the parent and the child, AND the child’s other parent, AND the child’s grandparents, on BOTH sides. Stepparents have the opportunity to be a blessing to their partner and his/her kids, but you have no rights to make decisions for these children of another couple.

My favorite motto is

“Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

When/if the kids start driving you crazy, react as you would with kids in the mall – either let their parent know they’re causing trouble, or step away from the children! And if you let their parent know how they’re acting out, do it gently with love.

Remember, your most important job in the relationship is to support and comfort your Darling. Most likely, you married for love, not to Fix their family. You are not their teacher or their trainer. If they ask your advice, give it softly and with care. These are not your children. Someday, if you play your cards right, you may hear your stepchildren refer to you as “Dad” or “Mom.”
And that, my friend, is a joy you can’t imagine!

StepDad Asks: How do I make my Stepkids like me?

Short answer – you can’t. That is, you cannot make them feel comfortable with your being in their mom’s life. That is up to them (and somewhat to how their mom leads them). The best thing you can do is be polite with them while being appropriately close to their mom. (“Appropriately” means close and passionate when alone; courtly and pleasant when the kids are around.)

You are not – and this is often the hard part for guys, it was for me – taking on any part of raising her children. That is her and their dad’s job. Not yours. Not at all.

You should treat them as you would the children of one of your church (or club) friends: friendly, casually, but politley. Do anything the mom asks you to for them – pick them up, drop them off, offer input If She Asks.

Consider their behavior as that of a neighbor’s kids’. Would you try to correct or instruct the kids who live three doors down from you? Probably not. If you see them acting up, you’d tell their parent – and then, probably only if it involved your stuff. It they were being unruly and you felt you HAD to say somthing, tell their parent (your girlfriend), but don’t try to correct them yourself.

NOTE: your relationship with them as a part of their lives will not begin in any tangible way until you and Mom are married. This makes a huge difference to children who have watched Mom and Dad divorce. Boyfriends are just “Mom’s passing fancy.” Stepdads (= the guy married to mom and therefore a permanent part of the family) are different in childrens’ minds. They are at once the opposition, the outsider, the invader, the unknown equation, the interesting oddity, and someone in between Mom and them. Winning them means EARNING their trust. THEY hold the keys to that lock. Eventually, a stepdad (or stepmom) will become less irksome, more acceptible, and even entertaining.

Nationally, it takes from 4 to 7 years for a stepfamily to gel and start functioning as a family – sometimes longer, rarely less time. Prepare to be the third wheel with the kids for that long and your expectations won’t make you crazy. Focus your time, energy, and mind on creating a strong relationship with your wife. When the kids have grown, moved away, and have families of their own, it will just be you two. Build your marriage relationship solidly.

(NOTE 2: If you are a Christian, pray and trust completely. If you are not a Christian … well, your best hope is to get in the Family ASAP. Stepfamilies have between a 66% and 75% divorce rate. That’s three out of four chance you’ll divorce again. With God’s guidance and help, those odds improve greatly.)


Stepcoach Bob Collins

Holiday Survival Strategies

Holiday survival guide for divorced parents

[SOURCE: – from 2011]

<NOTE: The following is an article I ran across while researching my divorcing parents’ guidebook. The advice is sound, and the need is ripe. If your children have been through a divorce, especially if it’s been this year, you need to be prepared for the shock and pain they will experience in their first big holiday with a broken family. Please don’t underestimate the impact this will have on your kids. Thanksgiving and Christmas are hyped so strongly that the divorced child is left behind on the frantic rush to The Perfect Christmas Morning. And for “our” kids, that Perfect picture doesn’t exist. Start now to prepare to guide them through the parties, the gift giving, the visitation, and the separation of the next few weeks. STEPcoach Bob Collins]

The holidays can be rough on divorced parents and their children David Murphy hasn’t started shopping for his two boys yet, and he knows he had better get started. The div orced father of two boys, ages 11 and 14, has custody for a full week around Christmas Day this year and needs to get a tree and start buying presents.

Every other year, Murphy (who didn’t want his real name used to protect his children’s privacy) doesn’t have Christmas custody. So, he tries to do something completely different. Divorced for four years, he has traveled with his mother to visit England, where she was born. He has joined his father and stepmother on a trip to Carmel, California.

He hasn’t crashed his ex-wife’s Christmas Day plans, even though she lives only three miles away from his home in suburban Virginia.

“We try not to mess with the schedule when we don’t have to because it’s easier on both parties,” said Murphy. “As each party has moved on, it happened to work that way. We try not to interfere with each other.”

With the U.S. Census Bureau counting nearly 4 million divorced parents in this country, many parents are facing the challenges of negotiating holiday custody schedules, battles over presents, new significant others and simply the pain of being apart.

Whether you have the children for Christmas or not this year, going through a separation or divorce means giving up the dream of a perfect Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa. With the fantasy of the perfect nuclear family obviously over, it can be lonely even with the kids — but much worse without them. Facing the first holiday since the split, how do people ever survive this holiday season? And eventually even thrive?

Many like Murphy — who credits his ex-wife with keeping the focus on their sons’ well-being during the divorce — have found a new way of parenting beyond divorce. Here are some things that work:

Keep it focused on the kids

You may not expect to have a happy holiday but wouldn’t you like your kids to have a reasonably nice time? Even if you’re right, do you want them remembering you put them in the middle of your battles? And no child wants to feel pressure to choose you over the other parent, whom she loves as much as she loves you.

<No matter how you feel about your ex, or whether your feelings are justified or not, one fact remains: your children still love both of you. Kids love their parents. It is in their blood – literally! The sooner you accept this fact the better for you. Parents who try to alienate their children from the other bio-parent aways lose. Always.>

Parents learn about the payoff later, when their grown children make their own choices about where they spend their holidays. In her book “We’re Still Family,” about adult children of divorce, psychologist Constance Ahrons learned that some adult children refused to visit either parent if the bickering continued. “The children were happiest where parents at least communicated,” said Ahrons, also the author of “The Good Divorce.” “They didn’t want to get caught in the middle, and they wanted to be with both parents.”

Sort out details in advance

Nail down the specifics about who gets which days around the winter holidays, including pickup times and locations. Sometimes the details are in your custody agreement, sometimes not. Put it all on e-mail or in writing and stick to the deal — at least until it becomes routine. If you’re a more casual, less detail-oriented parent, know that you’ll score points with your more time-obsessed ex if you’re on time at drop-off and pick-up. If you’re the detail-oriented parent, plan for your always-late ex to be late as usual and you’ll be less stressed. Do not fight about time or anything else with the children present.

<The worst thing a divorced parent can do is to argue with (seen as Bullying to the kids) your child’s other parent. They don’t care at all who is right or wrong about whatever you’re fighting over. They love you both and need both their halves to function smoothly together.>

“Put aside the warfare that so often accompanies divorce,” said Steven Grissom, president of DivorceCare, a Christian-based divorce ministry with chapters around the world. “If that carries into a special time in the eyes of child, it makes the holiday experience excruciating.”

Don’t out-Santa each other

If you can speak civilly with your ex, talk about a general budget for presents, the number of presents and what Santa is getting your children. Santa knows which address to deliver the bike or the castle or the Wii, so don’t screw up his planning by having one at each house (unless you both want one at each house). Don’t outdo each other. Remember the spirit of the holidays and avoid trying to buy the children off with fabulous presents. And don’t buy that violent video game for the specific purpose of angering your ex. The same goes for grandparents and new significant others. If they’re interfering in your co-parenting plan, remind them they are not helping your child. At the same time, accept that parents may have different standards about what are acceptable gifts. If you are opposed to electronic games, you may need to accept they will exist at your ex’s house.

Keep some traditions, within reason

Children love routine and ritual, so keep a few family traditions if you can. If you baked dozens of different types of cookies for everyone in your life, reduce the number and type of cookies during your annual baking party but keep your daughter’s favorite snickerdoodles. If your family liked to take a trip into the woods in your ex’s truck to cut down a tree, you may have to explain that your smaller car can’t haul such a tree. “To the extent you can, talk with your children ahead of time and find out what is really important to them,” Grissom said. “If that won’t be possible, maybe you can create a new tradition.”

<Instead of crushing your children’s cherished traditions and memories, recruit them to come up with new traditions. Maybe including some of the old, but (as you’ll tell them) this is their big chance to build exactly the kind of new family and home they want to live in. Encourage them to make plans, then follow through with them.>

Don’t push too much togetherness

While some ex-spouses can sing carols around the Christmas tree or light the Hanukkah candles together with the kids and both sets of grandparents, that’s not the reality for everyone. Some do not want to spend time with people who left them or whom they chose to leave. Some people fight every time they see each other. Do not force more togetherness than either of you can handle, and don’t feel guilty about it. (That said, if you haven’t broken up yet, wait until January. Don’t be the Divorcing Grinch Who Stole Christmas.)

Don’t lobby for your sweetheart

Bringing a new significant other to the family festivities can really throw the holidays off-balance for the family, Ahrons said. “One parent will say, ‘Are you really going to bring her to this table?’ or ‘You can come without her.’ Avoid if it’s going to cause trouble, even if the new girlfriend is serious.” Remember, it’s about your kids, not you.

<And all this was not their idea. They are struggling to survive with the new set-up their parents created. Make it as good for them ask possible. At least for a few days per year.>

The exception to the rule

If your ex is currently a danger to himself or herself — and/or others — the safety of your children is more important than cooperating during the holidays. In fact, you’re probably trying to break the pattern of your ex ruining holiday celebrations. Elizabeth Jones, who didn’t want her real name used to protect her child, isn’t letting her ex spend the holidays with their daughter for the first time in years. He only recently contacted Jones a couple of weeks ago after disappearing for months. Whenever he sobers up, she first lets him have supervised phone calls for a few weeks, eventually visits with her and their daughter at a neutral location such as a park, followed by visits at her California home. “If my kid weren’t so thrilled every time she got to see him, I would be handling this differently,” said Jones, who has sole custody. “It’s a lot of emotional work for me to put aside my own feelings.”

He’s a jerk

If you’re a saint and your ex is a sinner and won’t take any of your thoughtful recommendations to heart, consider this notion: Safety aside, it’s better for your child for you to let your ex “win” sometimes, even if you’re right. Christmas can sometimes fall on December 27 or even January 6 (the Feast of the Three Kings). Hanukkah is eight nights of fun, so you don’t need to control all eight nights. That doesn’t mean you’re a doormat. It means you’re a good parent.

Your adult child will know you tried to make her life better by trying to compromise with your difficult ex (and yes, children know who was difficult).

<But, don’t point it out to your kids. That will make you look like you are bad-mouthing their other parent, whom they love just as much as you. Let them figure it out themselves. Your kids are very observant. They KNOW who is playing nice and who is not.>

“How you react to your ex-spouse is how you are teaching your child to handle conflict, stress and anger,” said Alan Kazdin, a Yale University psychology professor and director of Yale’s Parenting Center. “Giving up a Christmas here or there means you’ll have your child long-term. You want your child to have an ally in you later in life. It’s not only more rewarding; it’s more worthwhile long term.”

TMI or Just the Facts, Ma’am

By Bob Collins

How much information do your children need in order to do what you require from them? Over load or insufficient data?

I have several devices, tablet, phone, laptop, etc, etc, as I’m sure you probably do, too. And I have several power supplies which I have collected over time with the devices. The power supplies are different amperages, stated in different ways, which drives my poor writer’s brain nuts.

This morning I was trying to choose between one power supply that said “output: 8.5 Amps” and another that said, “output: 500 mAmps.” >sigh< unable to find my old college math books, I consulted my next favorite source, Google.

Three hours later, after learning about basic quantum electronic theory and the origin of lightning-based home-schooled electromechanics, I stumbled upon a simple converter that told me, with the click of a simulated button, which one was more gooderer. 

We now have WAY too much information available for the efficient delivery of answers to befuddled, overworked humanoids. 


In our oversaturated, overstimulated, overinformationalized society, I am seeing so many cases of mis-communication between parents and their kids. We moan about a lack of respect from our children, when – I suspect – the problem is really a lack of connection. 

Parents have lately become victims of “Explain-itis” when it comes to giving directions to their children. The directive to stop hitting a playmate slowly melts into a long, dry lecture on the reasons for mutual respect, societal order, individuals’ personal rights versus self-esteem, and all the other catch words spewed out by everyone from the media to Facebook to educational flyers.

By the time a well-meaning parent has explained the psycho-social theory behind playground fairness and mutual concern for the planet, the poor child has forgotten what the lecture started over. And he has lost a little more respect for Mom’s or Dad’s intellectual usefulness.

A simple, “Tommy! Stop hitting that boy! Now, apologize to him; shake his hand; and get in the car, we’re going home,” is an excellent delivery of the necessary information and steps to be taken for Tommy to end the inappropriate action, reconcile with the other child, and begin his next action.

Our children’s minds are not developed, until their mid-twenties, to incorporate and process complex multiple streams of information. The most effective way to instruct them is with simple directives, delivered in a straightforward order, so that they can process one step at a time.

Long detailed explanations about why some actions must be taken, are best left for later, perhaps at bedtime when the excitement of the moment has passed. 

If you spend too much time carefully enlightening your child about the engineering facts of the internal combustion engine and the momentum-to-surface texture friction ratio required to halt a moving automobile – you may end up finishing the explanation in an ambulance on the way to a hospital.

Just like I was distracted and confused by all the in-depth discussions about amperages, your kids don’t necessarily need to understand the “Why” and the background, as much as they need to know What you want them to do first, second, and third.

Remember that kids don’t like “TMI”! 

[by Bob Collins, Copyright 2017]