Creating Structure in a Blended Family

The following comments were posted on The House Calls Counseling Facebook page by one of our clients, Shannon O. Shannon is a mom of a child with attachment difficulties. To help her cope with the challenges she and her child face, House Calls’ senior clinician Wendy Kovacs works with Shannon to help her develop a therapeutic attitude (playful, accepting, curious, and empathic), provide appropriate supervision, and implement adequate structure in the home. Shannon’s comments directly address the issue of structure as we at House Calls like to think of it. Instead of telling our kids what we wanted them NOT to do after the fact, and punishing them for things they did in the past, we have found it more useful and therapeutic to think of structure as guiding our children toward what we WANT them to do, by focusing on the positive and providing rewards for it. In our model, structure is created by clearly letting kids know the expectations.
As far as discipline and structure in our family, we struggled to blend our 7 children during the first 4 years because we did not actually sit down and write out our family rules or expectations, until last year. While we were fairly consistent on what we believed the infractions were, our children often complained that "no one ever told me" and often tried to play one parent against the other (and it worked). The stress and aggressiveness within the family was hitting a volatile level. No one felt safe. We were exhausted and really only beginning to understand the magnitude and origins of our children's hurts and traumas. Many are struggling with ADHD, Depression, Addiction, and Reactive Attachment Disorder down to mild attachment issues. We used to "ground" our children; now we use mandatory "family time." This means the child will spend their waking hours (when not at school or at youth group) with mom, dad or both until we feel they have regained control of their behaviors and have demonstrated that they can be responsible, fun- loving people who make good choices. During this time, we make sure to take walks (or rides) in the forest preserve or the zoo and encourage the child to choose a different destination each day or each weekend as time permits. Family time also means the child goes with us to run errands or do the shopping. A cheerful, fun-loving demeanor is required. We really try to take this time to help the children correct misperceptions, validate and/or help them identify their thoughts and feelings, and we also try to assist them with reorganizing and filing the experiences away. Special chores are available to provide them with the opportunity to set aside “family time;” if the child can find a way to do the chores with a cheerful heart and to our expectations, they may earn time alone or with their friends (or with a TV, computer, video games, iPod, etc). We created the following list based on an article by Mark Strobel, LCSW, which you can find here: http://www.ofspirit.com/markstrobel1.htm. The list is on the refrigerator door in our kitchen and is non-disputable. We frequently refer our children to the fridge when they have broken a rule and let them tell us which rule(s) they have broken. They read the rule and commentary out loud so we both know that they understand it. This commentary helps the children understand and alleviates the need for us to re-explain ourselves; plus it helps us to focus more on the positive so we are better able to PACE the children.

Family Rules

1. Always tell the truth. We feel this rule needs no explanation but would like to point out that we should be truthful to one another, to our extended family and friends, to our counselors, teachers or other authority figures. [editor’s note: see previous issue for helping to reduce lying] 2. Speak nicely. This rule addresses behaviors such as inappropriate language, yelling, and interrupting in conversations, as well as the positive use of manners and encouragement or comforting of one another. Speaking nicely promotes respect among the family and others who touch our lives. 3. Strive to be FUN! Give yourself and your family the opportunity to get to know the fun side of each other. Let’s work on showing our best attitudes and intentions. Let us hear your humor and laughter. It’s ok if you are feeling down, just please let us know if you would like time alone or someone to talk to so we can remain sensitive to everyone’s needs. We love you and your contributions to this family. 4. Do as you are told the 1st time, without arguing, complaining or tantrum. We want and value your input and ideas, but arguing means we have made our point more than once. If you disagree or have a complaint, you are expected to complete the chore or task FIRST, then find a way to respectfully discuss it. 5. Keep your hands, feet and bodily fluids to yourself. This rule addresses aggressive use of your body and its parts to tease, intimidate or cause harm to another. It also includes intentional as well as careless disposal of your bodily fluids. 6. Respect property. This rule includes behaviors such as picking up after ones' self, how we walk into the house (at nap time), how we open/close doors, keep our bedrooms clean, and turning off lights or water when not in use. There is to be no stealing and no taking from others without permission. This also includes how we care for our bikes, toys, electronics, etc., as well as our yards and our neighbors’ yards. We do not borrow what we cannot replace. 7. Chores are to be completed by 10:00 AM over the Summer or by 4:30PM during the school year. Chores are defined as tasks that the family contributed to dirtying and must be completed according to Mom/Dad’s instructions. Keeping the bedroom clean falls under the respect property rule instead of the chore rule, as you are the only one who dirtied your bedroom. 8. Complete homework after you return home from school. It’s OK to have a snack and drink before or during homework time. 9. Have good school and public behavior. We are proud of each of you. You represent this family when you are out and about. We expect that you be respectful of yourselves, our family members, and others in our community. Please use your manners and behave according to the rules and guidelines that we have set for this family. We expect that you will maintain good grades, attendance and attitude, avoiding questionable behaviors like cheating and forgery or any others listed below. 10. Ask permission before going somewhere and/or changing locations while you are out. Check in is every 2.5 hours, either by phone or in person, no exceptions. 11. Be home for dinner, unless prior permission has been given. Eating as a family gives everyone an opportunity to share their day or concerns. Weekend dinner times are likely to be more flexible. 12. Curfew is at a specified time. Week Nights: Wxxxx 8:00PM Jxxxx 8:30PM Jxxxx 9:30PM Fri & Sat: Wxxxx 8:30PM Jxxxx 9:30PM Jxxxx 10:00PM 13. Bedtime is at a specified time. Txxxx 8:30PM Wxxxx 9:30PM Jxxxx 10:00PM Jxxxx 10:30PM Everyone should be upstairs by 9:30PM. During the Summer, you may stay up 1 hour later unless special permission has been given. Friday and Saturday nights, please be in bed by 2AM. 14. The following behaviors will not be tolerated for anyone under 21 living in our home. We will involve the Pastor, Therapist, and the Authorities as necessary, regardless of age.
  • Swearing
  • Phone calls after 10:00PM
  • Smoking
  • Sex/ Pornographic Materials
  • Drinking
  • Explicit Dress/ Appearance
  • Drugs/ Inhalants
  • Going in cars without permission
  • Stealing/ Shoplifting
  • Being in car with someone drinking
  • Vandalism
  • Going with a stranger
  • Piercings/ Tattoos
  • Running Away
I would really love to trade ideas with other families on rules and consequences. We've been using our written rules for about a year now, along with our in-home therapy. The combination has made a big difference in all of our relationships but we still find ourselves stuck on consequences. We do try to use natural consequences but sometimes it just doesn't seem to be enough, or doesn't really catch the child's attention and understanding. I am also concerned that we do not have enough structured activities to keep our children out of trouble over the summer. If you do not have your own family or household rules, please feel free to use ours as a starting a point or to draw out some ideas. And if you have your own ideas that are working, I’d love to hear them! If you would like to contact Shannon O., she can be reached via email at: shannonorlyk@yahoo.com. You can also find her posting regularly on our Facebook page.