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by Brenda Rodstrom, LCSW

When I was a kid, summers were the greatest. It was a time of playing with friends and great vacations with my family. We went to the beach, to Maine, to Cape Cod. That was my nuclear family—mom, dad, and two sisters.

Today's family is as often as not a stepfamily, or a single parent family where the child visits both homes. In the summer, the child may spend extended periods of time in either home, sometimes far away from one parent or the other. Summer vacations become a time of tremendous stress and conflict for parents, stepparents, and children.

How can we make this better? I'm going to share some real-life scenarios with you and some potential solutions.

Mom's point of view
Karen's son Brad, who is 12, will visit his father and stepmother for an extended period of time. Karen knows she will miss him terribly, but she can accept that. The problem she is facing is that Tommy's father is a real "Disney Dad" and Tommy will return to her spoiled and saying things like "I don't have to do chores at Dad's house—why do I have to do them here?" Tommy's father can afford to spend a lot more money on a vacation than she can, and that just plain bothers her. In addition, she does not approve of Tommy's stepmother—the woman has no values.

Dad's point of view
Stuart has been planning for his three-week vacation with Tommy for so long. They will spend some time at his lake house, and then go to Disney World. He doesn't see Tommy very often as he lives 300 miles away. It is important to him that Tommy have great memories of their time together, and he is also looking forward to his son bonding with his new wife Susan.

Tommy's point of view
Tommy is really looking forward to a vacation with his Dad, but he feels guilty about leaving his Mom. He knows she is lonely without him—last year he saw her crying when he left. He is also not too comfortable with his new stepmother, and wish she just weren't always there. As usual, he feels conflicted about going from one household to the other.

Stepparent's point of view
Susan and Brad have only been married for a year, and since they both have busy travel schedules they don't spend as much time together as she would like. She understands that he and Tommy need time together, but she feels so left out when he visits. And whose house is this, anyway? Tommy leaves his stuff around for her to pick up. She feels like the maid. She also thinks that Brad is pushing the relationship between Tommy and her too hard, and wishes he would ease up. She feels very pressured to be the perfect stepparent.

So, how do we solve these problems?

Tips for Mom:
  1. Plan to do things that you cannot do when Tommy is home. Time with friends, a weekend away, evening activities that you can't do with a 12 year old at home.
  2. Accept the things that you cannot change—he won't stay spoiled once he returns.
  3. It is hard to accept you cannot give him expensive vacations, but that is not what makes a child love his/her parent. Keep telling yourself that.
  4. Understand that this is hard for Tommy—that he has mixed feelings about leaving you. We ask a lot of our children in terms of visitation—make sure he knows that you want him to have a good time.
Tips for Dad
  1. One of your jobs as a parent is to build a sense of achievement in your child. No child gets that from sitting on the couch. Make sure you do something that builds his self esteem—improving in sports or a hobby.
  2. Let the relationships between your son and your wife develop at their speed—not yours. Spend time alone with your son and give her some time off.
  3. As Tommy doesn't visit often, it's important to make him at home—and one of the ways to do this is to give him a set of simple chores. Guests don't have chores—family members do.
  4. Realize that Tommy will have mixed feelings about leaving Mom. Encourage him to call and e mail as often as he likes.
Tips for the Stepparent
  1. Recognize that your husband and his son have been a family unit prior to your marriage. You WILL feel left out to some degree. This will change as you become your own family unit.
  2. About the mess in the house—talk to your husband and set up some household rules.
  3. Insist that your relationship with your stepson emerge on your terms and his—not your husband's.
  4. Put yourself in Tommy's shoes. He probably feels awkward when he visits, and may miss his Mom. Children are usually afraid that when their parent re-marries they will not be number one anymore. That is pretty scary for a kid. Let them have special time together.