How to answer very pointed questions from the kids

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Penny Lane

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How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« on: June 13, 2019, 03:24:28 PM »
Awhile back, maybe a year or two ago, I posted on here that I thought my stepkids were hearing bad stuff about us from their mom and asked whether it made sense to start saying stuff like "things are tense right now but you are allowed to love both parents." Or whatever. I got some very good advice to just let it rest unless the kids bring it up. So DH and I have been doing that. Well, now DSS is a preteen and his mom has started back up again. But this time we're hearing some extremely pointed questions that get right to the heart of recent conflict between BM and DH.

I can only assume that he's hearing ... something ... from BM, and he's trying to assess the reality of it.

Example 1: BM is supposed to offer DH right of first refusal. If she did it as ordered the kids would be with DH for several hours every weekday including her time. Instead she hires a rotating cast of sitters, etc. Out of the blue, DSS asks DH "Why do we have to go to X, why can't we be with you during the day? You're home."

Example 2: DH tried repeatedly to discuss dates and times for the kids' ongoing lessons with BM. She didn't respond to any of them, and he finally signed the kids up for lessons on his time roughly once a week. She could sign them up for more on her time but hasn't. She was pretty mad that he signed them up without her "permission." When the kids figured this out they asked why none of their lessons were on mom's time.

Example 3: DSS gets off the phone with BM, who brought up the cost of a potential activity he wanted to do. He asks DH, "who pays for camps and stuff?" The answer is, they're both supposed to pay half but BM rarely pays her portion. She makes nearly as much as DH and I combined, and her parents subsidize her rent and other bills. We believe she's been telling the kids that they can't do activities because she can't afford it and possibly that DH takes all her money, which is certainly not true.

This is coinciding with a time of incredible bad behavior on BM's part. The kids are clearly stressed anyway. I don't want to add to their stress by bringing them more into the middle of parenting conflicts. But it seems that they're already in the middle of it. I also don't want them to come away believing whatever inaccurate information BM is giving them. Like, "you can't be with dad on my time because he doesn't want you there." Or "your dad doesn't pay for camps and I can't afford it and that's why you're missing out."

We tried the whole "those are grownup problems and you don't need to worry about them" on #3 but DSS was very insistent and he tried to argue that he should be allowed to see the message that DH sends DSS. We said no and finally told him that the rule is that dad pays half and mom pays half. We also said we are always happy to pay for half or all of his activities and this is part of what adults do for kids. He seemed ok with this answer, but then he immediately said he didn't want to do the activity anymore.

On the others we basically tried to give them accurate information without needlessly trashing their mom. I'm not sure we've succeeded in both each time, in part because these questions have blindsided us and it's really hard to find the balance of what to say in the moment.

So, what should we do?

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Stepping lightly

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #1 on: June 13, 2019, 04:28:26 PM »
Hi PL,

As the kids get older, you are probably going to run into this a bit more, because they will have hunches they want to investigate. 

Example 1:  This is tricky-you don't want him in the middle trying to negotiate this for himself, and based on your recent posts- the adults aren't getting anywhere negotiating it with BM anyway.  I would just say, "we would love that".  Then he'll probably ask, "Why doesn't it happen?", so maybe, "we aren't sure why it isn't happening, but that is how it is supposed to happen".  Honestly, you can't speak to BMs intentions, but you can tell him that you want him there during those times, but you don't know why BM is choosing an alternative sitter.  This will at least ensure he isn't be fed that you don't want him there.

Example 2: Again, you can't answer for BM, don't try to.  My response would be, "Honey, I don't know, I am not aware of why your mom has made that decision".

Example 3- gotta love the money piece.  My SKs believe BM pays for everything, even though DH pays for 75% of everything on top of CS.  If the kids say, "We can't do that activity because it is too expensive", we tell them, "If it is something you really want to do, we can make it happen" .  We try to stay away from money discussions, BM has made the kids so hyper-conscious about cost, but we are willing to pay for all of an activity if it is something they really want and BM is denying them due to cost. BM used to tell DSD that DH was "stealing from her" as well, even though he was paying her CS every month.

You really can't explain the actions of BM, nobody really can.  We can all make assumptions, but nobody knows for sure except BM (and that may also be questionable).

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athene1399

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #2 on: June 14, 2019, 08:40:19 AM »
This is a little tricky. I think SL has great advice here. :) Keeping it vague and not saying what you assume BM is doing are good points as well.

With #2 maybe you could say a bit more like "DH sent the info to BM, but she didn't respond  in time so we just signed you up on our days because we didn't want to assume that she could take you on her days." That may be too much info though. 

I think we've thrown out #3 a few times ourselves. BM would blame DH for things SD "couldn't" do, so we said exactly what SL suggested and it worked well for us. Although we did say no to the exchange program because it was extremely expensive. So maybe just add "if it's something we can afford, we will make it happen" or "in most cases, if it's something you really want to do we can make it happen". Just so you have an out if they say they want something out of the question.  ;)

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Arkhangelsk

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #3 on: June 14, 2019, 05:43:02 PM »
Hi Penny Lane,

I think this constantly repeated trope about not talking about adult things with kids is standard advice that may be useful in most cases, but that is NOT useful to people in our shoes.  So I stopped following it over a year ago and honestly, things are far, far better.  For context, my kids are 7 and 9 and the older one is really advanced in his ability to process these things, but the younger one is not.  So we do adopt different strategies for each kid.  I will also note that the book "Co-Parenting with a Toxic Ex," was a very helpful resource.

But here are some principles we use for communication:
- Validate what the kid is saying.  Acknowledge it - and how confusing it must be;
- Admit when we do not know or do not have control over something;
- Do not disparage the other parent.  But that does not mean you cannot point out how things are done in your house, or explain your rationales, ask questions that encourage critical thinking, or simply reserve some space for yourself;
- Do not let the other parent control the narrative.  At the very least remark, "Well, I have a different viewpoint on that then your dad/mom does."
- Ask questions.  A lot of them.  "What do you think?"  "How do you feel?"  Kids are really good at spotting things that are unfair.  I ask a ton of questions.  But I let them come up with the answers.  They tend to conclude that their dad is really unfair and arbitrary.  I do not verbally respond to this.  I just let them sit with their conclusion.

Here is how that works around here.

Small incursion via insult:

Kid:  "Dad says Stepdad's dog is stinky and ugly." 
Parent: "Who lives here with the dog?"
Kid: "We do."
Parent: "Seems to me you would need to live with the dog to know about that."
Kid: "I think Gus is nice."
Parent: "That is good. I am glad you enjoy him."

Reaction to the fact that I put red tips in the kid's hair - because they asked me too:

Kid: "Dad says that only punk kids have hair dyed red and that if you do not put our hair color back, he is going to shave our heads.  He says there is no red hair allowed in his house."
Parent: "That sounds hard.  How do you feel about that?"
Kid: "I do not want my head shaved!"
Parent: "I can understand that.  So, here is the deal.  It is really important to follow rules set by your parents.  I want you to follow rules and I want you to follow your dad's rules.  But I also think that parents do not have to make rules about everything.  I make rules to help you be safe and to help your grow to be a good person.  I think that the color of your hair or the clothes you wear is *most of the time* a thing that I can just leave alone.  So I am not going to make a rule about it.  I noticed, for example, that the principal at your school has red tips in her hair and the vice principal has purple!"
Kid: "Yeah, but dad said you were not allowed to send us to his house with red hair."
Parent: "That is really hard.  I do not want you to be upset about it.  If you need my help to make your hair brown again, I will help you."

As it turns out, the kids came back to me and said that they think their dad is not really going to shave their heads, rather they thought he was just threatening them.  I told them I would support them either way.

I do not think we can shield them from the manipulative crap that is coming their way.  But I am pretty sure that if we ignore it, they will feel lost.  So my goal is to help them think and analyze. 

Quite outside of this, we practice these skills ALL the time - with commercials, with things politicians say, with the news.  Critical thinking skills are a major part of the dialog in our house.  We also explain to them how we make decisions about things and how we assess other people (not their dad) for credibility.  Maybe I cannot tell them their dad is a bully.  But man oh man - if there is someone doing something similar out there and I can help them break it down, I do it. 

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Stepping lightly

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #4 on: June 14, 2019, 06:52:43 PM »
Nicely said Arkhangelsk!

I like the last part "  Maybe I cannot tell them their dad is a bully.  But man oh man - if there is someone doing something similar out there and I can help them break it down, I do it. "  I did this just recently, when I told DH he was like "I bet that felt good".  DSD had an experience in school where some kids were pushing her/her friends around.  They blocked her from being able to leave the classroom and she ultimately had to push past them.  She was saying terrible that behavior was and how you shouldn't ever physically block someone in like that.  I said, "that must have been really difficult, and I think you handled it the right way.  I have been physically blocked in the corner by someone before (BM- but I didn't name names) who was yelling at me and it was not appropriate behavior and made me uncomfortable".  Maybe my link was too close, because DSD had witnessed my situation years ago, but ....it's not ok behavior...to me then...or to her now.

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athene1399

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #5 on: June 17, 2019, 09:26:10 AM »
SL, I don't think your link was too close. It would be different if you said "this is exactly what BM did to me. She is such a jerk." You vaguely described a situation that could have been the same one DSD saw but could have been something else, and let her draw her own conclusions.

We had to acknowledge something similar years ago when we were in court but it was very direct. It was really the first time we said anything about BM's behavior. BM was starting to rage on SD. SD would have us pick her up in tears and wouldn't want to talk about it, yet still wanted to live full time with BM. We basically scrolled through a long rant BM sent SO (where SD couldn't read the words, but could see how long it was even though SO wasn't responding) and said something along the lines of " we don't know what's going on there since we are not there, but if she's yelling at you like she is yelling at SO via text, then that is not ok. No matter how upset BM is over something, she should not scream at you if that is what is happening." SD never said anything and we dropped it. We were never sure if that was the right thing to do, but we wanted her to know it wasn't acceptable behavior and that she didn't deserve to be treated like that.  SD was 15 at the time.

I think part of it depends on what is going on. Is it just smaller things or more direct rages. Part of the problem is our own anxiety. We don't want to fall into the alienation trap, yet want to let the kids know that some of what is going on isn't right or that they are begin told a false narrative (without leading to more confusion). Arkhangelsk has the right idea asking the open-ended questions and letting the kids come to their own conclusions. And finding real world examples and letting the kids draw their own conclusions is good too. I think you both have some great examples.

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Stepping lightly

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #6 on: June 17, 2019, 11:43:56 AM »
We' had to do the same thing Athene.  BM told the kids that DH was stealing money from her and that's why she was poor.  DSD was 6 and came back to us in complete meltdown mode.  DH explained to her that he was not stealing from BM, he actually gives BM money, DSD wouldn't believe him.  He ended up pulling up his bank account and showing her the transfers.  BM in her infinite wisdom tried to use this against DH in court, and the judge turned and looked at her and said, "What exactly did you expect him to do?  You gave him no choice".  It was certainly not something we would ever choose to do, but DH had to do something, and it did settle the issue for DSD at that point.

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Arkhangelsk

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #7 on: June 17, 2019, 12:02:19 PM »
Stepping Lightly -
I think you were spot on to show the bank records and the judge was right - there was no choice.

Here is a thing I will NOT do.  I will not allow my ex husband to lie to my children and not correct it.  It is too confusing for them.  My 9 year old has repeatedly told me that he wants the truth.  What I do is very much like you guys did - I stick to facts and only when I am backed in a corner. 

At first, I kept very light with it.  I might say something like, "I have a different way I see things."  Just to mark the fact that there can be more than one version of a story.  Then I did a lot of pointing out misunderstandings and changes in perspective - when they came up in books, movies and TV shows.  Now there is more room to be more direct.  But again, always with facts, never my opinions.

The kids do have feelings about this.  They are tough.  It is really hard to love a parent who is saying crazy things.  So I acknowledge that and I tell them, "I know you love your dad.  And I want you to know that we support you in that and that there is always room here for you to love your dad."

I just think these complicated feelings are better than if we did not address these things - because I do not want my kids to feel alone in their observations that things are not quite right with their parents.

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Associate of Daniel

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #8 on: June 17, 2019, 12:30:57 PM »
Oh boy. The constant having to correct the pd's rewritten history that's pouring from the children's mouths!

I just had to do it again tonight.

And often the kids forget and start believing the pds again. And around it goes.

AOD

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Stepping lightly

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #9 on: June 17, 2019, 12:58:33 PM »
It totally is ROUND and ROUND.

We had a situation recently where DSD had a concert on BMs time (with transition to us later that day).  We needed DSD to bring her instrument back to us, and ideally we would have been able to take it right after the concert, but since it was during the work day, DH and I couldn't stay the whole time. DH emailed with DSD and explained this to her and asked her to bring it that evening when she came to our house, and she wrote back (coached by BM) very passive aggressive with "I don't understand why you can't do this, I was under the impression you would be at the concert"...of course...BM-like....ignoring the pertinent documented fact in the prior email of us having to leave early.  So...we go to the concert, leave as we had said we would.  DSD shows up that night pissed off because "you left without taking my instrument".  We explained...again....we couldn't wait until the end of the concert, so she said, "I went straight out to meet you guys after my section (which is when we left and BM saw us leave), and you didn't wait.  Ramped up she repeated, "why didn't you wait for me?".  I gave her a hug and said, "If we knew we had a chance to see you, we SO would have waited, but we didn't know, nobody told us you would be coming out.  Trust me....we ALWAYS want to see you".  But for reference...this is the SECOND time, "you didn't wait to see me" came up....when we are the impression DSD will not be available to us.....so I know BM is feeding this BS to her to upset her.

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Arkhangelsk

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #10 on: June 17, 2019, 01:51:59 PM »
Perfect response, Stepping Lightly.  How frustrating.

This psychological war fare is exhausting. 

Here is another thing I do - I take a lot of photos of our lives.  I "scrapbook" a bit on Facebook.  And then I show the kids the photos and the old posts a lot.  So they are seeing my words about our good times and seeing the images.  I think they are powerful anchor points.  Because we cuddle ALL the time.  And we do tons of super fun family activities.  So this gets well documented and we look back at it and talk about it a lot.  My partner writes little notes to the kids each day before school (when we have them) and always does a re-cap note when they are about to leave for their dad's.  "This weekend was so much fun.  We went to the pickle festival Friday night and out to brunch after the gym.  We got a ton of laundry folded (I think chores are more fun when we do them together!).  You had your playdate with Teddy and then we ate dinner on the couch with Harry Potter.  What a wonderful time.  I cannot wait to see you in 2 days."

With these notes and images we help them get really concrete in their minds about what their life is like with us.  We know their dad spends his days telling them it is awful at our house, so we just try to keep the truth as vivid as we can.  Plus, I think it is just a good mental exercise in gratitude.

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athene1399

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #11 on: June 17, 2019, 02:18:23 PM »
What great Ideas, Arkh. It's like reinforcing the positive memories. I try to tell SD every once and a while that I miss her. I don't want to smother her, yet am afraid her mom says stuff like "They don't care when you're not there" or "they never think of you when you aren't around" or whatever. Kind of the same idea. I should do a bit more of the "had a great weekend doing x with you."

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Penny Lane

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #12 on: June 17, 2019, 02:23:34 PM »
Wow, thanks everyone! All of this is amazing and it's given me a lot to think about.

DH somewhat resolved the ROFR issue. He asked her parents to stop babysitting the kids while BM is at work because that's his parenting time and it's a violation of the court order. They have skin in this game - they pay her lawyer's bills. They didn't respond but she magically started offering H that time. There was one day she didn't offer it when she should've but the kids said they had a sitter (meaning she had to pay for it) and I doubt she can afford to do that regularly. And the good news is that extra time with DH seems to be having a really good effect on the kids.

We had yet another pointed question recently. DSS asked "what time are we going to mom's house tomorrow?" I summoned all the neutral-but-factual vibes you guys have been putting down, and I said "we're not sure yet." It was bedtime and she still hadn't gotten back to DH on whether she was "available" the next day (even though she definitely wasn't). We were annoyed, but we did not convey that to the kids. They were stressed about it but we can't solve that for them, we can only give them the information we have and help them sort through it. We talked about how they'd get up early just in case their mom showed up at some point without warning. But then soon after BM got back and said she was going to let DH have right of first refusal, so that was a relief.

Stepping Lightly I think you helped me make a really good distinction in my mind. We can explain the actions ("we signed you up for lessons, your mom didn't but she still can at any point") without even getting into why. We can just say "I don't know" or just not even bring it up. And like you said Arkhangelsk I think we should not let a lie stand uncorrected - that does more long term damage to the kids than neutrally and quickly telling them the truth. The kids can draw their own conclusions. I think I was struggling because their mom's behavior is objectively bad, and the very logical conclusion would be that she is either not as interested in their well-being or just falling down on the job. But again ... we can't really protect the kids from that, just give them tools to handle it.

And you guys have given me a lot of really concrete ways to help them with those tools, thank you, thank you. We've done a bit of the "building critical thinking through pop culture" and I try hard to do the strategy of "ask questions rather than opine" when they talk about their mom. Other stuff you guys are saying I think we can adopt - we have tons of pictures, no reason to not print them out and put them in frames or even make a scrapbook of our own! And I hope we can implicitly and explicitly tell them that it's ok and even good to love their mom, despite all this. I might start putting little notes like that in their lunch box as well when I get a chance - I love the idea of reinforcing that we have fun together, and putting it on paper makes it seem more real.
« Last Edit: June 17, 2019, 02:43:02 PM by Penny Lane »

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Arkhangelsk

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #13 on: June 17, 2019, 02:25:12 PM »
I kind of switched to focusing on the memories because I felt like telling them I miss them might make them feel sad or responsible for my feelings.

- That was so much fun - I loved getting to bike with you this weekend;
- I cannot wait until we go on our hiking trip, I love our adventures;
- Oh look at this photo, remember when we ______;
- Look how cute you are (random photo from the day before, with the kids cuddled with their stepdad.

Part of this comes from therapy for having an oppositional kid.  All the advice is to praise, praise, praise - and reinforce every good moment.  But it seems to work.  Heck, my partner and I do with more consciously now with each other and it feels good as adults, lol!

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athene1399

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #14 on: June 17, 2019, 02:40:13 PM »
Gotcha. That makes sense. Then you don't give them a guilt trip on accident. Good idea!

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Arkhangelsk

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #15 on: June 17, 2019, 03:38:35 PM »
Penny Lane -
You sound like you are doing so many great things!   :applause:

One more perk I have noticed about the fact that I document our lives a bit on Facebook, is that other people reinforce the message for us as well.  I have posted photos of the notes my partner writes to the kids in a Father's Day post and photos of the notes the kids have written back and photos of them snuggling together.  This causes people we are social with to make comments to the kids like, "I saw you went hiking with your stepdad.  He is a great guy."

The kid beam about such comments and so does my partner!  So, maybe that campaign is a little for him too.  It is hard work, parenting kids when their birthparent hates on you.  I know that my partner likes that kind of recognition, so I make a point to take that into account.

Potential downsides are that our FB friends get tired of seeing us all look so squee.  And I am sure my ex's family members may have opinions, but they never talk to me anyway.  So they can block me, for all I care.  I will pay attention to it, because I suppose my kids might decide they do not like the exposure, especially once they can get on social media.  But it also makes me really, really happy.  FaceBook is always giving you your memories back a few years later - and damn.  My life is really so good.  I managed to get out of hell and make a family that functions.  So I try to be grateful, even when I am dealing with my ex-husbands crap.  It is so much less influential than it was when I lived with him and that is a wonderful thing. 

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acc1984

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Re: How to answer very pointed questions from the kids
« Reply #16 on: June 17, 2019, 04:44:54 PM »
This is all such GOOD advice. Thanks to everyone who has commented. I agree with Arkhangelsk completely. In any normal situation both parents have enough awareness to leave kids out of adult issues/communication. But when you're dealing with a BPD who will always choose to use the kids as weapons/messengers it gets really sticky. Within the last year we began being honest with the kids (in age appropriate ways) about lies/inaccuracies that BM would tell them. Like someone said, we don't speak to what or why she does things but if something isn't true on our end we correct that.

Just yesterday DSS10 was talking about his hair. BM never takes them to get haircuts anymore so we've been doing it. Every time they cut DSS's hair they part and push it over to the right. It seems to just grow better and lay flat that way. I reached over to fix his hair for him  (side note: this time last year he would barely let me so much as pat his shoulder so the fact that he allowed and reacted positively to that made me really happy). He was sort of exasperated and said "My mom said that's the wrong side and my hair is supposed to go to the other side! She gets mad and pushes it over this way!" I said "Well... which way do YOU want to push your hair?" He agreed with me, which wasn't the issue, but I want him to know that it's his hair and not mine or DH's or BM's and he can push it to whatever side he wants! That's a really small, insignificant example but it made me think! A year ago we would have just ignored it and I think that sends the message that BM's behavior is okay!

The older two kids have just recently started being really open with DH about BM and what goes on at her house. It's a long story but basically, she moved her VERY young (like only 4 years older than the oldest kid) boyfriend into their house and he has been really mean and inappropriate with the kids (not sexually inappropriate but trying to act like their parent, ordering them around and making them feel unwelcome at BM's house). The oldest is upset not only that he's acting that way but also that BM lets him. DH has had some pretty candid conversations with DSS17 about it. He obviously wouldn't speak with the younger kids that way but we both think it's really important that if DSS17 is noticing these things and starting to understand that the way BM acts isn't normal or okay, he needs to be equipped to start setting boundaries and standing up for himself.

Anyway... thank you Pennylane for the question and everyone else for the input!
« Last Edit: June 17, 2019, 04:50:00 PM by acc1984 »