My husband travels a lot for work and when he's gone I do my best to help with his children from a previous marriage but the kids are out-of-control. They break into the house and damage my property, steal money from my children's rooms and defy everything I ask them to do. Their biological mother is just as frustrated and sends them to my house when they are too much for her to handle. I don't know what to do
This is certainly an intense situation that will require some cooperation and coordination with all of the adults involved. Not only is this making things more difficult from a parenting perspective, but it has the potential to weaken the marriage bond.
First, I would call a mandatory meeting with your husband, his ex-wife, and her husband (if she's remarried). The four of you need to sit down and take charge of this situation. The main objective of this meeting is to re-establish who is in charge of and responsible for these children. Even though your husband travels a lot, he and his ex-wife need to understand that they are ultimately in charge of their children.
As you know, stepparents are there to support the biological parents, but typically don't have the influence of a biological parent. Granted, there are some situations where the stepparent has raised the children from early childhood and they see and respect the stepparent as a full parent. It doesn't sound like this is the case with your family.
The meeting needs to outline the expectations for each adult. If you need help defining roles and expectations, please seek the help of a counselor or mediator who can help facilitate the meeting. It's easy for a meeting like this to turn into a blame session, especially since it's likely that everyone feels powerless over the situation.
This meeting may produce some difficult questions and decisions that will require flexibility and sacrifice. I believe that if the four of you can't come up with a solution, then it's critical to expand the circle of adults to include extended family, neighbors, friends, and others who care about your family.
You may discover that the children have individual needs that need to be addressed. Divorce is traumatic for children and these children may not be dealing well the pain of losing their family. They may need additional support and one-on-one time with parents and other adults. I believe that as you talk about each child individually and look to understand this situation from their perspective, you might discover some areas where you can make a difference.
Of course, appropriate boundaries are essential, as the children are breaking in and stealing money. Although law enforcement shouldn't be your first option, you might consult the authorities to understand what you might do if the children continue to violate your personal space and steal property.
If the parents are overwhelmed, the children are going to feel more anxious and out of control. It's dangerous for a child to see that they are more powerful than their parent. The parents need to receive the proper support and guidance to provide structure, accountability, and emotional connection to these children. If your husband and the other adults involved refuse to meet, then please contact me again and I'll give you "Plan B."
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. Please send questions for future columns to: [email protected]. Geoff maintains a blog and article archive at www.geoffsteurer.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/geoffsteurer.