A big challenge for many blended families is dealing with toxic biological parents. I didn’t have conflicts with my stepsons’ biological mother, but I had a lot of conflict with my foster children’s parents. I have never had the good fortune of being able to be friends with any of them; I was simply unable to look beyond how those parents treated my kids. Through those experiences, I developed several principles for dealing with toxic bio-parents that helped keep things on a somewhat even keel.
Keep Communication Limited and in Writing
One principle that saved me a lot of stress was to limit communication with them when I could. I learned to simply ignore a lot of venting, and especially to not react to anything my kids repeated to me. It wasn’t easy, as I tend to like to always have the last word. But I eventually learned that I was happier in the long run if I didn’t try to win disagreements with them.
Of course, sometimes I had to communicate about visits or school events. They had a right to know about big things, so I always passed on grades and invitations to special events. My legal training stood me in good stead, as I soon learned that putting things in writing was the best way to avoid misunderstandings. Furthermore, if I ever had to talk to a caseworker about the conversation, having the emails or texts made very clear who had said what and when.
Boundaries are important to protect everyone in the family. The court orders set the outer boundaries. After that, set the boundaries that you need to protect your relationships within the family. Be clear to everyone about your expectations, and then be firm in enforcing them. Of course, you have to be flexible in extraordinary circumstances, but firm boundaries in all other situations are very important.
For example, one of my kids’ parent often failed to show up for visitation. That child was always devastated, especially when they were all packed and waiting until long after the parent was supposed to show up. I sent a (written) message that if I didn’t hear by 24 hours before the scheduled pickup time, I would assume that the parent wouldn’t be coming and I would make other plans. Of course, I had to have the caseworker’s agreement, just as you have to abide by whatever rules are in your custody order. But the early deadline made that child’s parent pay more attention and show up much more often. On those days when I hadn’t heard anything, I planned something else so the child wasn’t just sitting at home feeling abandoned.
Of course, there were days when the parent didn’t call me until well after the 24-hour deadline. Sometimes I accepted the reasons and let them visit. Other times, I enforced the deadline, making me the bad guy in my kid’s eyes. Those times were tough on all of us. But in the long run, my child benefitted from having clear boundaries that I was willing to enforce.
Focus on What Your Kids Need
The guiding star in dealing with toxic family members is what is best for our children. It can be easy to get sidetracked into a popularity contest with the biological parent, and some of them really enjoy creating drama. But we have to keep our eyes on what is important — not proving that we are right or the better parent, but giving our kids what they need in a particular situation.
One absolute principle is to keep kids out of the middle. Our decisions usually will affect them (see boundaries discussion above), but we can keep them out of the middle of the decisions. As I explained to my foster child when I didn’t allow visitation, it was my decision and the negotiations were between me and the child’s parent. I was happy to discuss it with my child and listen to their preferences, but I was not willing to let them negotiate different boundaries. They were not part of the adult decision.
Another absolute principle is to never criticize the biological parents to your children. This one can be hard, particularly when the bio-parent is trashing you or being obnoxious. It is human nature to want to set the record straight. We also want our kids to think well of us. Unfortunately, we cannot convince our kids that their biological patents are wrong just by explaining things. They are hardwired to be biased toward their biological parents, and we can’t overcome that trait with words. We have to keep our mouths shut, prove our point by our actions, and let the bio-parent’s actions speak for themselves. It’s tough being the only adult in the room, but that’s our job.
Sometimes our kids will want to talk to us about their parents and will even ask our opinion. We have to be extremely careful in these conversations. We owe it to our kids to be honest with them. That doesn’t mean that we have to tell them all of our opinions. It’s also better to phrase character flaws as challenges. For example, instead of saying that their parents make empty promises, explain how difficult it can be for adults to do everything they want to do. Instead of saying their parents are addicts, explain how adults can struggle with dependence on various things. You are being honest with your kids, but honesty mixed with empathy is the most powerful way to encourage your kids.
Finally, don’t send messages via your children. This rule can be particularly hard when the bio-parent sends messages to you. I know how tempting it is to say to your child, “Well, tell your mom that the actual facts are . . . !” I learned to bite my tongue and just say, “Thank you. I’ll email her.” Being vague to your child not as emotionally satisfying as venting, but it builds a much healthier relationship.
There are many other principles that you will find helpful, such as having a support network and finding a therapist to help you navigate this minefield. The three principles above, however, will give you a solid foundation for your relationships with your children. Be patient and keep doing the right thing. If nothing else, you can show your children how emotionally healthy adults navigate stressful situations.