Stepchildren Making You Crazy? 5 Ways to Manage Conflict in Blended Families

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney  Studaker-Cordner LMSW

 

Recently, I was sitting at lunch with a friend, swapping stories about our  families. I shared that I was concerned about  how my adult stepdaughter was  doing—she was facing a difficult situation  thousands of miles away from home. “Well,” my friend said, “You don’t have to  worry about that. You’re not her  real mom.”

Related:  Defiant,  disrespectful kids?

You’re  not “The Real Parent.” How many times do stepparents hear that phrase?

 

You’re not “The Real Parent.” How many times do stepparents  hear that  phrase? It comes from stepchildren, biological parents, friends,  extended  family, teachers and generally anyone in society who hasn’t had the first-hand   experience of being a stepparent. It’s a verbal reminder of what every   stepparent knows: that we often have most—or all—of the responsibilities a  “Real Parent” has, but without the inherent or legal rights of biological   parents. We are expected to give our love, time and often money, as Real   Parents do; to understand and always put the relationship of the biological   parent and child first (sometimes above the marriage); to provide our stepchild   with a positive role model but defer to the biological parent on matters of   house rules and discipline. It’s a constant balancing act of being involved,   but not too involved; loving, but respectful of the biological parent’s role   and our place in the parental hierarchy.

Raising children in a blended family can be challenging,  frustrating, and  overwhelming at times.   It can be a real test of endurance to manage to  stay together through  some of the tough times that can erupt with your  stepchildren.  It can also be a time of growth and lasting   relationships—but as every stepparent we know would agree, it’s not always  easy.

Related:  How to get on  the same page with your mate.

Stepfamily Conflicts? 5  Ways to Keep Issues from  Escalating

Many stepparents feel resentful because they can’t stand an  “Ex,” guilty for  not liking their stepchild’s behavior (or sometimes personality)  and frustrated  with a spouse who just won’t get “on the same page” about  parenting. Statistics  show that the most common type of family in America today—65  percent of us—are  part of a blended family where there are biological and  non-biological parents  present. Complex and often misunderstood, it offers  unique challenges—and the  opportunity for rich emotional rewards.

The truth is, whether you’re co-parenting in an “original” or  “complex” family, conflict is going to occur. It’s natural. You can’t live  together  without some disagreements occurring. These 5 tips can help you keep  issues  from escalating:

    1. Be mindful of your  expectations. When blending a family, everyone  has expectations.  Unspoken or unrecognized expectations can set you up for  conflict. Your  spouse/partner may expect you to discipline their child at  times, but their  child may not be expecting that. Now who’s caught in the  middle? You may be expecting your stepchild to love and respect you.  That child may be  feeling confused or insecure and actually behave in a way  that communicates the  exact opposite. Unmet expectations can lead to  disappointment, anger, hurt and  resentment. If you find yourself upset about  something, take a moment to  identify what expectation you had that wasn’t met. Ask  yourself these  questions:
      • Was  the expectation realistic or fair?
      • Did  the other person have any idea you had  that expectation?
      • Is  it an expectation you can let go of, or  is it important enough to discuss as a  family?

      Remember, you  can only control yourself and your own  reactions. When you have expectations  for others to behave or feel a certain  way, you have no control over that.  Also, be mindful of the expectations you  have of yourself. Don’t be  too hard  on yourself. We all have expectations for ourselves as parents. Rarely  do we  always live up to them 100 percent of the time. If you don’t like how  you’re  responding to your stepchild, take steps to change things—within  yourself.Related:  Oppositional,  Defiant child or teen driving you crazy? How to Parent more  effectively.

    2. Give respect…even if you don’t  always  receive it. This  doesn’t necessarily mean you respect a  behavior,  it means you respect your stepchild as a personOne  biological parent said, “My son was  always terribly disrespectful to my second  husband. He would give dirty looks,  ignore him if my husband said anything to  him and in general just treat him  with utter disrespect.” We recommend teaching  your stepchild what you hope will  be a lesson in morals and values, by  remaining respectful toward them.  This is extremely challenging and  requires  patience.  When you’re responding, do not  give in to requests  that your stepchild hasn’t earned.  Ex:   This stepfather worked hard  at treating his stepson with nothing less  than respect. But when his stepson  would ask for money or to get a ride to a  friend’s house, this stepdad would  simply reply, “You know, I’d like to do that  for you. But you treated me pretty  terribly earlier today, so I’m not going to  be able to do that. Maybe next  time.” Stay calm and polite but send the following  message: In real life,  if you treat  someone disrespectfully, they don’t do favors for you. This  is an excellent  way to role model respect for both your stepchild and yourself.  As in all  parenting – with biological or stepkids – sometimes we don’t see the  payoff in  the short run, but these kinds of lessons last a  lifetime.
    3. Identify your intentions. We’ve worked with couples where  it’s clear there are different  intentions. A biological parent may have the  intention that “We’re all going to  come together with everyone’s best interests  in mind and build a family.” The  new spouse may just plain dislike that stepchild  and have the intention, “He  needs to get out of my house as soon as possible.”  These are competing  intentions and expectations that will lead to conflict  between everyone in the  family, including within the marriage. If it feels like  there are competing  intentions occurring, communicate with your mate. You may  need to speak with a  therapist who can help you find common ground.
    4. Remember why you’re there. Many stepparents have expressed  feeling trapped in a situation with a  stepchild whose behavior is awful: the  kids may break the rules constantly, be  disrespectful, and possibly even  physically aggressive. Whenever a child  behaves this way, even biological  parents can feel trapped and terrified.  You’ve made the choice to come together  with another person and form this  family. Why? Most of the time it’s out of  love. Remembering that you are  choosing to be in this family—and focusing on the  “why”—can help lighten  feelings of resentment or helplessness and remind you  why you stay.

Related:  Fighting with your spouse  about parenting issues?

  1. Communication is the key. In blended families, you have the  coming together of two sets of rules,  discipline and expectations.  If there isn’t some discussion ahead of time   about things such as values and beliefs about limits and discipline, it can   lead to conflict between parents down the road, which will trickle down to the   relationship between children and their stepparents. These differences in   parenting can have a very tangible effect. As one parent shared, “It’s hard to   hold my son accountable for breaking a rule when my husband holds my   stepdaughter to a different standard.”

Agreeing on how you will discipline your kids—and coming up with a plan   together—is a good way to go about getting on the same page. Many families have   a system where the biological parent will discipline his or her own child, with   the stepparent’s support. This works as long as the two of you agree on a fair   method of discipline for all kids.

But remember, all families are different and have different needs.  One  stepchild we saw in therapy actually  complained about her stepfather never  providing any discipline for her.  She felt he favored her half-brother  over her  because he would discipline his own son, but avoided giving her  consequences or  setting limits with her.  Although this  is a rare case,  it brings up the importance of finding what works best for you, your spouse  and your stepchildren. Communication between you and your mate is essential  for a successful family,  in any situation. Do you agree on parenting styles,  discipline techniques,  rules of the house and expectations? If you can talk  about these things before  joining a family, that’s the best case scenario—but  it’s never too late to  start.

Related:  Does your ODD child or  stepchild control the house?

Blended and stepfamilies can be tough  at times, but they can also be an  opportunity for unique and loving  relationships. If you’re lucky, you’ll get  acceptance along the way. Sometimes,  surviving through conflicts can bring  people closer together, but it takes  commitment, forgiveness and an open  heart.

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