One of the most important ways to avoid conflict and strengthen your marriage in a foster or blended family is to agree on clear boundaries with your child’s biological parents. Establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries is essential for all of you. Boundaries support healthy relationships between your children and their birth parents, give your family members security and structure, and help avoid conflict in your marriage. In this blog post, I’ll explore why we set boundaries and which ones to set.
Why Boundaries are Important
Boundaries are invisible fences that protect the emotional and physical spaces that families need to thrive. Healthy boundaries create a safe space for your family to thrive and face challenges together. Clear boundaries help establish a sense of security for your children and provide foster or stepparents with the space you need to build a healthy relationship. The healthier your boundaries, the better chance you have of building a positive relationship with your foster child or stepchild.
Boundaries can also reassure biological parents about their role as their children become part of a new and different family. Healthy boundaries leave space for our children’s relationships with their bio parents to grow. In fact, an important role of a stepparent or foster parent, consistent with safety and court orders, is to help our children have as strong a relationship with their parents — all of their parents — as they can. By establishing boundaries for all the adults involved in a child's life and forging at least respectful relationships with each other, we can encourage the close relationships that our stepchildren and foster children need and crave with their biological family.
Finally, healthy boundaries keep us in our lane. From our kids’ perspectives, we are not the people who are supposed to be in their lives, and they may or may not accept our parental role. Wise stepparents and foster parents understand that we cannot replace a child’s birth parent. Of course, we may think we are the better parent, but even if we are right, our children have an unbreakable emotional attachment to a birth family. Our job is to support those relationships that our children already have. If we and our spouse have agreed on the boundary lines with our child's biological mother or father, we are much less likely to commit our own boundary violations and create conflict in our family.
Which Boundaries to Set
Every foster or blended family has its own unique issues, and every family member has his or her own thoughts about how to approach those issues. The following four (4) areas, however, are the ones that I've found to be the most common trouble spots, and the areas in which families most often need to think through and set clear boundaries.
1. Court Orders or Case Plans. Blended families have to deal with the custody issues set out in court orders, and foster families have to deal with both court orders and case plans. Those documents set limits on what we can decide. In many cases, we have no choice about visitation, holidays, or vacations. However, those documents never cover every situation. There is always a lot of gray between the black and white words. Try to think ahead and decide with your spouse how you will deal with a particular situation. Imposing boundaries to protect visitation, vacations, and family time sooner rather than later is the best way to avoid conflict and build supportive relationships in the entire family.
2. Communications. One of the unique challenges of parenting another person's child is having discussions with people you may or may not like. It can be hard to put aside your negative feelings and concentrate on your child's best interests. You may or may not be able to establish a good relationship with your child's parent. For that reason, it's usually a good idea to discuss with your spouse who will communicate with the child’s biological parent. One of you may be better able to discuss issues logically than the other. I learned that I was better than my husband at discussing visitation issues involving my stepchildren. My experience as a single foster parent, when I was the only one available to communicate, taught me how to lower the emotional temperature of a conversation and concentrate on the best outcome for my child. I wasn’t always able to avoid being snarky, but I had a better track record than my husband. In other families, your spouse may have the better relationship and certainly will know more about the family history of everyone involved. In that case, let your spouse be the point person. The point is to affirmatively think about this issue, make a decision, and then stick with it.
Also, decide how you will communicate. Some relationships are so toxic that you can only communicate in writing. In that case, use text and email. In most cases, you can talk on the phone. The only absolute rule about how to communicate is to never send messages by your children. These discussions are between adults; keep your children out of the middle of them.
Finally, be sure that everyone knows and that at least you and your spouse agree on the rules for communication between your children and their biological parents. Regular contact is important to children, so you need as few rules as possible. Still, you may need rules about such issues as times for phone calls and who calls whom on which phone. You need to have reasonable boundaries, communicate them clearly, and enforce them consistently.
3. House Rules. Decide with your spouse whether your family and your child’s biological parents need to follow the same rules in both houses. Some experts say that such consistency is good for children, and I don’t doubt it. However, I’ve rarely been able to agree with bio parents on enough of the rules to make that process work. Most of the time, I opted for house rules — whoever manages the house sets the rules for that house. Of course, that option allowed my kids to compare the rules at different houses (usually complaining that I was too strict), but kids will find a way to argue for their preferred rules in any situation. I learned to just say, “I’m glad you are happy there. Here, we have these house rules.” As long as you and your spouse have agreed, and consistently back each other up, your kids can adjust to different rules at different parents’ homes.
4. Respect Each Other’s Privacy and Personal Space. One strong boundary you need, and need to respect, is that whatever happens with each parent stays with each parent. Each side of the discussion needs to respect the other's personal space. Unless you have solid reasons to suspect abuse or neglect, nothing about the other parent's life choices is any of your business. For example, if you are a foster parent, it’s up to the caseworker, not you, to decide whether the birth parent is following his or her parenting plan. Similarly, you may have opinions about a bio parent’s house rules, but it's usually more important to the well-being of the child you share for you to keep that opinion to yourself.
We should always be concerned about our child’s safety, but we can’t use that concern as an excuse for meddling or satisfying our curiosity. For example, do we have any real reason to worry about a bio parent’s new romantic partner, or are we just trying to get interesting details? Do the other parent’s house rules really put our child at risk, or do we just disagree with the rules? We need to respect the other parent’s right to make adult decisions, even if we think they are unwise decisions.
Similarly, we should never ask our children questions about what happens when they are with their biological parents. If we have reason to suspect abuse, then report it to the authorities and let trained people investigate. Otherwise, we should not put our children in the middle of a situation that should involve only adults.
Finally, we need to agree with our spouses about these boundaries for both the other parent and for our families. We need to agree how much information we want to share, and then we share only what we have agreed to. Protecting those boundaries is an essential part of protecting our marriages and our relationships.
I’ve only scratched the surface of issues that can arise between biological parents and foster or stepparents about children. Navigating these difficult relationships requires patience, empathy, and a commitment to open communication. Boundaries are an important part of creating a nurturing and supportive environment for our children. Protect your marriage and your family by clearly communicating and enforcing boundaries. Healthy boundaries are essential to a strong foundation for the well-being and happiness of the children you are parenting.