Parenting in the 21st century is challenging enough with all the pressure families deal with on a day-to-day basis. Add to this “parenting pressure cooker” the specific issues related to blended families (issues including financial challenges due to uncollected child support and legal fees; navigating parenting differences in two households; children living part-time in the home, while others are there full-time; shifts in birth order and status; as well as the ever-present struggles with former spouses) and you have a recipe for disaster. It’s no wonder that two out of three second marriages fail and that this figure has been quoted to be as high as 80 percent when children are in the mix.
“The anger, hurt, and sadness your stepchildren feel are not because of you. They would still have those feelings even if you never entered their life, and they would still have those feelings if you left tomorrow, only even more so.”
Successful Step-Parenting is Possible
As a stepdaughter and a stepmother, I am passionate about changing those odds and bringing peace into the lives of blended families. My training as a social worker and marital and family therapist only partially prepared me for the challenges of being a stepmother to two teenagers. It was through “being in the trenches” in my blended family that I discovered what worked and what did not. In 2003 I launched a blended families website, www.blended-families.com, which serves stepparents who are looking for answers to their toughest stepparenting questions. Since that time, we have supported over 5,000 stepfamilies with coaching, articles, ebooks, workshops, and teleconferences. Through my own experience and our work with these blended families there are some key distinctions I have learned that make all the difference in your blended family relationships:
1. Develop a strong attitude of gratitude. So many times we get stuck in families and relationships focusing on what’s wrong and what needs to change in order to feel content. Unfortunately in life, what we focus on tends to persist, and we end up getting a whole lot more of what we wish would go away. A powerful way to shift this way of thinking (and begin to get more of what we want) is to notice what’s right instead of only focusing on what we’re unhappy about. I discovered this one with the shoes left in the entryway of our home. After months of complaining, requesting, holding family meetings, coming up with agreements, and still finding myself tripping over a pile of messy shoes left in front of the door, I decided to try something radically different. Every time I saw the girls’ shoes, I would stop, take a deep breath and feel deep gratitude that they were home and that they wanted me to know that they were home. I took the shoes in the entry as an invitation to go upstairs and check in with them and let them know how glad I was that they were home. Within a very short period of time, without me saying another word about the shoes, they began to be put away and were no longer a hazard in our entry. As I started applying that level of gratitude to other behaviors that would get under my skin, those too went away within a short period of time, and I got closer to my stepdaughters instead of having regular arguments and feeling frustrated with them.
When I share this story and the concept of gratitude, I often encounter resistance from stepparents who think that this would be the same as ignoring and denying the problems. Here’s what I recommend: Try coming from genuine gratitude about some aspect of your life with your stepchildren and stick with it for a week – putting your attention and focus on what you are grateful for, and then moving towards the children in your life from that place in your heart. See what you experience. Be sure to notice any contrasts in your life during that time. Give it a chance…what have you got to lose?
2. Don’t take complaints, attacks, or criticism personally. The anger, hurt, and sadness your stepchildren feel are not because of you. They would still have those feelings even if you never entered their life, and they would still have those feelings if you left tomorrow, only even more so.
When remarks are made about you, it is very easy to fall into the trap of taking what is said personally. Repeat this phrase to yourself until it becomes embedded in your mind– “It’s not about you!” If you can remember, in the heat of the moment especially, that their behaviors and their upset are about them and their loss, you will have the ability to be present for your stepchildren in a way that will shift everything in that moment. Questions like: “What’s that like for you?” and “Can you tell me more?” let your unhappy stepchild know that their feelings matter and that it is okay to get upset, while also showing them that you won’t get hooked or upset back at them. Know that what they are telling you has way more to do with them and their internal conflict with being in a blended family than about you as a person.
3. Have clear and consistent boundaries as a couple – don’t let the kids in your life play you off each other. While this secret is important in all parenting situations, it is essential in blended families, where you are already dealing with different parenting styles, different schedules with the children, and parents in other homes also making decisions for the children in your life. The more you two are in consistent communication with each other about decision-making around any of the children’s requests, the better. If a stepparent says “yes” to something the birth parent has said “no” to (or visa versa), you’ve got a recipe for mischief that will erode trust and create an undercurrent of resentment which can destroy your relationship.
If a stepchild comes to you asking for your permission and tells you that “dad said it was okay,” meet them first with an acknowledgment that they are asking you for your consent, and then let them know you’ll be happy to tell them your thoughts about it after speaking with their father. Teens are especially good at catching you at inopportune times. This is actually a great way to connect with them about what’s important to them in that moment, and then show them clearly how you will proceed. Whatever tack you choose to take, stick with it, no matter what your stepchild pulls. One strategy that works well is using a combination of empathy for what they care about along with hard-and-fast agreements about what life as a family looks like – and do not shift it out of either a need to please or take care of in the moment. What the children in your home need more than anything is for the parents in their home to be united and unwavering in whatever parenting methodology works for you. They need you to set a boundary and keep it, no matter what they may do or say to try and convince you otherwise. Their job is to test limits and test the strength of your new relationship, because they are in doubt of this one working out since the one that meant the most to them did not. By keeping this basic need of theirs in mind, you’ll be more empowered to love them as you keep the safe container you’ve created for them secure and never in doubt. I love how Nancy Thomas calls this philosophy of parenting “raising your children in a steel box with a velvet lining.”
4. Use humor, play, and surprise to shift the energy and further your connections. Stepparenting is serious business and there is a lot of pressure and stress involved, as I mentioned right from the start. One thing that will carry you through is to laugh often and loudly together, to choose connecting over schedules, to choose to lighten up about yourself and each other, and have a sense of humor about your humanity. Know that we are all doing the best we can, and that the more we can enjoy the journey along the way, the more worthwhile it all seems. This is essential for stepparents who, as far as I’m concerned, are StepHeroes™ for stepping in to a thankless role where they are the target for all the unhappiness, hurt, and anger in the household!
For more information, free resources and ebooks about how to Win and Stepparent, please visit www.blended-families.com