One of the most difficult challenges of parenting bonus or foster children is dealing with all the drama. Our kids’ lives are not what they want, and many of our kids have trauma reactions that can be hard to manage. It also seems that, even when our kids are doing well, biological family members can inject a lot of drama into our family lives. The holiday season can add its own challenges, making a successful blended family or foster family seem as remote as the North Pole. Fortunately, there are ways to make the drama more manageable. One of the best ways that I have found is to learn from professional drama in theater and movies. Principles from those situations can help us avoid, or at least better handle, the drama in our own foster or blended families.
• Be in the Audience, Not on the Stage. The first rule of watching a drama is to stay in the audience. You are not an actor, director, or stage manager. In other words, don’t try to become part of the action. Concentrate on letting the drama play out without getting personally involved. Of course, good dramas always engage your emotions. You will feel hurt or rejected or inspired. When we watch horror movies, we always want to yell, “Don’t open that door!” Family dramas are no different. Of course we’ll be emotionally affected. But, just as in watching a stage play or movie, we can’t expect to change the script.
That clear distinction is key to handling family drama. People who set up dramatic situations have their script, and they will do all sorts of psychological gymnastics to keep some form of control over it. We can’t win in those situations. We can’t rewrite the script, at least not without harming our family relationships, and it’s counterproductive to try. We are better off just keeping ourselves in the audience.
If we have to respond to something, try to remain in that audience role. Give the verbal equivalent of polite applause, aiming for something that doesn’t increase the drama or commit you to anything. For example, you can simply say, “Hmm, I’ll have to think about that.”
I admit that this principle is very hard to put into practice. By nature I fix things and by profession I convince people. For a while after college, I volunteered with a community theater group, and I was the stage manager. I thoroughly enjoyed being in charge back stage. So, when I see a family drama playing out badly, my first instinct is to jump back into my stage manager role, trying to get some actors off the stage and redirect others. It took me many years to realize that my skills just don’t work in family settings. I have to stay in the audience.
Once you realize that you are in the audience of family dramas and not on the stage, then it becomes much easier to follow other common advice. For example, you can take things less personally by reminding yourself that the drama is not about you. It’s about the people on the stage, and your flaws or virtues or feelings are not part of the calculation. Similarly, you can more easily ignore unrealistic expectations when you realize that the script is not your responsibility. Most important, if we aren't trying to direct the actors, we can keep our focus where it needs to be, which is on our kids and how they are responding. Just as with movies, we may need to discuss with them what they are seeing, or even leave the performance. If we keep our focus on a loving relationships with our kids, we can better resist our impulse to try to tell the adults what to do.
If you anticipate that family drama will break out any time soon, it may be a good idea to start thinking about how you can stay in the audience rather than jumping into the middle of the action. Start planning calm and noncommittal responses. Think ahead about how to keep your emotional distance and how to remind yourself that the drama is not about you. Above all, remember that the most important thing is how the kids are reacting to the drama.
• You Don’t Have to Buy a Ticket. One important way to deal with family drama is to avoid it. If you suspect that certain topics or behaviors will trigger controversy, then avoid them. That’s the principle that underlies the long-standing advice not to discuss politics or religion at family gatherings. By training, I enjoy discussing and analyzing controversial topics. I have learned, however, that not everyone can bring the same clinical distance to those topics, and any discussions become mired in emotional hurt. So I avoid such topics in most gatherings, only indulging myself with long-standing friends whom I know enjoy the discussions as much as I do.
Blended and foster families have a lot of minefields that we are just better off avoiding. For example, I rarely discuss my kids’ biological family, and then I wait for them to bring up the topic. If I do ask about their family, I confine myself to a genuine inquiry about recent news, such as a medical issue or other life challenge. I try very hard to keep any other opinions to myself.
Every family has its own triggers and family problems. This time of year also seems to bring new adjustments, such as biological parent's new spouse or new relationship. Sometimes, the best way to to avoid family drama is just to not buy a ticket in the first place. If there’s no audience, there often is no drama.
• Ignore Plot Holes. Every movie or stage play requires that we in the audience don’t analyze things too closely. If we get bogged down in all the inconsistencies in superhero movies, we’ll miss the whole point. We also won’t enjoy them. When I was a prosecutor, my law enforcement friends and I used to laugh hysterically at the line in The Fugitive where Tommy Lee Jones’ character instructs a subordinate to “tell [the judge] I want a bunch of phone taps.” That tactic definitely does not work in real life. But we never let that logical flaw interfere with our enjoyment of a great movie and one of the most memorable characters ever seen on the screen.
In the same way, we have to let go of our preconceptions and grievances when dealing with family. Even valid grievances need to be on the chopping block, and we have to be willing to let go of them in order to build strong relationships. Of course, I’m not talking about offenses involving abuse or safety issues. But within the usual range of ways that our kids’ family can make us crazy, we have to let go of our resentment.
We also have to accept that family members, in spite of their flaws, can bring a lot of value to our lives. If we are not likely to want our kids’ biological family to ever be our own circle of friends, we still have to find common ground and recognize the value that they bring to our kids’ lives. I have rarely liked any of my foster kids’ biological parents, but they loved their kids and their kids loved them. That fact had to be enough for me to ignore my own negative feelings and work on a cordial relationship with them. Just as with movies and plays, the more we can overlook the plot holes, the more we will enjoy our experiences.
• Take An Intermission. One constant feature of stage plays is an intermission. Between acts, the lights come up and the audience can head to the restrooms or get more refreshments. People who are particularly bored can even leave the theater entirely. In the same way, we need to plan ahead for a break from family drama, or as a last resort plan a time to escape entirely. Be sure that you and your kids have a safe space to retreat to if the drama becomes overwhelming.
Part of making that plan is to set clear and healthy boundaries. We may or may not need to communicate those boundaries to our family members. At a minimum, however, we need to articulate them to ourselves. Knowing our boundaries is essential to knowing when we need to withdraw from a situation.
The next thing to consider is the timing. Just as in a stage play, a noisy and dramatic withdrawal can needlessly upset other innocent bystanders. Try to back out of a situation at the most logical time and as discreetly as possible. Maybe you and your kids just need a walk around the block, or you need to find a quiet room to replenish your resources. If you think you might need to just physically leave the situation, try to plan ahead and notice the time that will least disrupt the family. Model for your children how to be considerate of other people, even flawed people who seriously annoy you.
• Enjoy the Show. Finally, be grateful for the relationships that you have. Even when I was most annoyed at my kids’ biological parents, I knew that I was lucky to have those kids in my life. I often could trace much of their parents’ drama back to the fact that I spent more time with their kids than they did. That’s a tough reality to deal with, and not every parent can find the grace to concentrate on what their kids need. Certainly, I struggle enough with putting other people first that I can’t throw any stones.
When it was my kids causing the drama, I had to affirmatively remind myself that, on balance, I would rather have them in my life than not. Their trauma, their reactions, and their annoying attitudes were all part of the total package, and I had to be grateful for that package.
Being in a blended or foster family is incredibly challenging. Our kids’ world is off-center, and we have to make sacrifices for their sakes that most people never will know about. Yet, these very situations give us opportunities to build amazing relationships with kids that we otherwise would never know. In the midst of the chaos, be grateful for those opportunities.
Family drama is always stressful and sometimes very painful. If we learn to apply the principles we follow when watching professionals, we can learn to navigate those stressful times with more grace and balance.