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Question

I divorced a few years ago and then remarried about a year ago. During the time I was getting remarried, my ex-husband, who is also the father of my children, committed suicide. We now have the kids 24/7 and it’s not a traditional custody situation. I struggle with how much my current husband should be involved in the discipline with my kids. I have a couple of very challenging kids. They push boundaries a lot. However, they are all good kids. My husband hesitates to discipline, but he is the only dad figure the kids have now. 

Answer

It’s difficult to measure the amount of grief and loss you and your children have been through in the past several years. You didn’t share any details about the nature of your divorce, your ex-husband’s relationship with you or your children, or what your children understand about his passing. Even without knowing those details, I do know that loss sends a shockwave through family systems that is deeply felt, even if there aren’t words to describe it.

I’m not surprised your children are pushing boundaries. Divorce, remarriage, and the death of a parent (especially by suicide) trigger numberless changes that disorient everyone involved. Grieving children don’t generally process their deep feelings of loss the same way as adults. Children often don’t have the words to organize and express what they’re experiencing. And, if the losses come at them in rapid succession, they will have difficulty knowing how to manage the tsunami of physical and emotional reactions. 

Your question centers around how much support you can expect from your new husband in managing your children’s behaviors. Needless to say, when the children’s father suddenly departed, the expectations instantly shifted for you, for him, and for the children. However, I think it’s wise to back up a bit and slow things down before assigning new roles and responsibilities. 

Your children just lost their father and even though you are feeling overwhelmed with the new reality of being their only living parent, you want to be careful not to throw their stepfather in as their permanent father figure. Yes, he’s your husband and he’s in the best possible position to step in and father these children, but his influence is going to be earned over time. I’m not sure what kind of connection your husband had built with your children prior their father’s passing, but this isn’t a time to instantly shift into a father role. 

It’s important to allow his influence as a man and father-figure to develop over time. It’s best to keep those roles and responsibilities as consistent as possible so your children don’t have the pressure to juggle any conflicting feelings toward their deceased father and the new family arrangement. Continue taking the lead in parenting, disciplining, and supporting your children. Allow your husband to support you both publicly and privately as you do the difficult work of parenting and supporting your children. You can do this and, with his loving support, you won’t have to do it alone. 

Even though the reality of your husband’s new role can’t be argued, it doesn’t mean that your children need to automatically accept it. Trust has to be earned and he will need to build individual relationships with each child to increase his influence in their lives. Remember the Lord’s reminder that effective relationships happen by “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned, by kindness, and pure knowledge.”1

I recognize your children are pushing boundaries out of their own emotional chaos and grief. Even though you’ll need to redirect and set firm limits to keep order in the home, please make sure to cut out any unnecessary distractions so you can both spend time with your children individually and as a family. This is soothing and comforting to your children as it helps them cope with the overwhelming feelings of loss. Your presence will non-verbally remind them that they’re not alone, that they will be taken care of, and that they still have a parent who is there for them. 

The chaos of a sudden death combined with the kid’s agitated behaviors can make it hard to slow things down and just be together. Think of this as a preventative measure that will hopefully reduce the amount of redirecting you need to do. For example, lengthen their bedtime routine and spend more time talking, reading, or singing to them. You might make sure you have regular family meals where you can share time together. Look for ways to just be together without distractions so your kids know they have a stable family environment that will support them.

It takes time for the new permanent reality to settle in. Your husband will obviously need to redirect and enforce limits as an adult in the home, but he can make a huge difference by being proactive with these kids instead of reactive. If he’s willing to seek opportunities to spend one-on-one time with them and initiate more family togetherness, he can be a healing force for good in your family. 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected] 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children. 

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT 

1 D&C 121:41-42