Building a healthy relationship with our Stepkids.
Part 1 of a 2-part article.
The more conscious we can be, the more powerful, effective, kind and compassionate we can be when interacting with our Stepkids. We don’t have control over a lot of things but how we behave is something we do have control over. This first part talks about the more emotional, attitudinal aspects of being a wise SMOM. Part 2 is more about the practical rituals and traditions we can create for our families.
The overall goal for most SMOMs is to have, at the very least, a pleasant and peaceful relationship with our stepkids so that our family life can be as happy as possible. We love their Dad and we would like everyone to get along. It’s natural to have dreams and high hopes that things can go well. In the beginning, we’re often filled with energy and in the “giving without expectations of receiving” mood. We’ll do little (and big) things trying to make the stepkids feel at home when they are with their Dad and in our homes. SMOMs are usually pretty creative women and connecting with our stepkids is a great chance to put this creativity into action. It’s wonderful for everyone when the stepkids respond positively to this attention. Seems the younger the stepkids are, the more willing they are to give and receive our love. Not always true nice whenever it happens.
This is Part 1 of a 2-part Smommentary. Part 1 deals with approaches and attitudes that will help you keep your composure and compassion. Part 2 offers very practical, creative activities, traditions and rituals you can create with your Stepkids.
If you’re just beginning your life as a SMOM, this will be a great chance to learn from past experiences and will hopefully save you lots of time and frustration. If you’re already in the midst of a relationship that is good, strained or very difficult at this time, this will give you some ideas and it may shed some light on ways you can be different to cause a change.
Generally, SMOMs report that the younger the stepkids are when they meet us, the easier the initial connection. If your stepkids are 6 or younger, bonding is usually more fun than work. Younger children tend to melt into authentic love and depending on the individual personality of each child; they’ll be more or less obvious about their feelings for us. The ages 7-12 seem to be a mixed bag where the stepkids are more open than teens yet also greatly influenced by their bio-mom.
Teenage stepkids can be more complicated and difficult to connect with. Some feel good that there fathers are happy and are a pleasure to be around. Others, particularly girls, can react negatively when a SMOM enters the picture (and the house) as another woman’s presence changes the “balance of power” in the household and may impact the stepkids’ ability to manipulate their father. Maybe; maybe not.
However; it seems that no matter how young the stepkids are when they first meet us, there’s a rebellious phase that occurs in the teenage years. How much of this is normal teen rebellion and how much is about being a skid? That’s a pertinent and difficult question. Becoming a SMOM to teenage stepkids appears to require the most patience, initially, and can be either very smooth or a nightmare depending on the circumstances. If you have teenage Stepkids, get a copy of Anthony Wolf’s excellent book about today’s teens called, “Get out of my life, but first could you take me and Cheryl to the mall.?” It is priceless, practical and filled with terrific insights.
There are as many different ways to build relationships with stepkids as there are stepkids. Their ages now and at the time of the divorce, their sex, their pasts, their emotional and physical health and the behavior of their parents since the marriage broke up are all factors that are going to dramatically impact how stepkids interact with their SMOM. In spite all these “out of control” variables, what’s helpful to you and your situation? Even though the specifics of every situation are unique, we’ve learned we share many, many of the same feelings and challenges. So, here are some ideas that have worked for me and other SMOMs; some insights that have helped SMOMs create their approach and a few stories from SMOMs who have had success with their approaches.
No matter how old your stepkids are a bio-mom who’s willing to help their children adjust to the divorce and help them accept having two loving homes is a huge blessing for everyone involved. On the other hand, a hostile bio-mom who is unwilling to become allies with her children’s father and Stepmom can inflict tremendous emotional pain on their own children. Sadly, this huge and impactful factor is out of our control and can make life very stressful and unpredictable.
The good news is that there are some things we can do to create the setting that gives us the greatest chance for a rewarding relationship with our stepkids. For now, we’re going to be very optimistic and let reality find us in its own time. In regards to expectations; this is the place to have only one. Expect yourself to do your best to create a positive relationship with your stepkids AND to continually remind yourself that it takes two willing people to build a relationship.
SMOMS etiquette-Note: Every time SMOMs are faced with a choice as to how to behave in reaction or response to something regarding or involving the stepkids there are many paths we can take. Everything I write for SMOMS is written with the assumption that every SMOM strives to behave as a wise woman trying to do the right and healthy thing for everyone involved, in spite of the many temptations and pay-offs other behaviors offer.
Part 1-Issues to consider when interacting with your stepkids.
Let’s start with the philosophical, psychological and emotional factors to be aware of and to consider and as you’re building a relationship with your stepkids:
1. Take Nothing Personally. Just another reminder about this important attitude. Write it down and post this on your mirror, your fridge, anywhere to help you remember that whatever your stepkids do is not about you. It’s about them and their inner feelings and attitudes. (Reread “The Four Agreements” Pages 47-61)
2. Be Yourself. Do whatever you can to be your true and wonderful self whenever you’re with your stepkids. You know you’re not their mother but you’re not a second class citizen either. You’re in a position to care for them when they’re in your home. Their Dad loves you. This is your home also so find ways to share your unique self with them. Do your best to hold onto your true nature as you will be tested time and time again.
3. Be Trustworthy & Reliable. Next to being yourself, I think being trustworthy is one of the greatest gifts you can give your stepkids. Show them that they can count on you to keep your word. If you say you’ll do something; do it. If you can’t keep your word; make the effort to acknowledge that and then make amends for the change of circumstances. This is not about being perfect; this is about walking the talk and being adult, mature and responsible in your behavior. Many stepkids grow up hearing their parents or other adults make promises that sound good, but don’t happen and therefore the stepkids end up dealing with the hurt or angry feelings that often follow broken promises. Stepkids develop beliefs and survival strategies to protect themselves from being disappointed or hurt and you can show them that some people DO keep their promises and can be counted on. Watch your words and understand how powerful they are when you speak with your stepkids. You may never know how important this is but children of all ages can sense trustworthiness.
A personal story: A couple of years ago my stepson and I were having a tough time getting along. As I was tending to things around the house, I had the fortunate experience to over hear him talking with a friend about their plans later in the week. They were talking about getting rides to and from the movie and much to my delight, I heard my stepson say to his friend, “If Cath says she’ll be there at 7:30, she’ll be there.” I was really touched by his confidence in me. Even though we were at odds with each other he still trusted that I would keep my word.
4. Recognize the power of the mother-child connection. If you have your own kids then you already know about this. If you’re a “Mother by Marriage” like me, then you’ll save yourself a lot of frustrations by recognizing and acknowledging this factor as soon as possible. The mother of your stepkids has incredible influence over their feelings, habits, actions and emotional well-being. The bio-mom can make her feelings about you and their Dad very clear to her children with or without words. We know this from living with our own mothers. No matter how much our stepkids love us (or are angry with their bio-moms) they’ll chose, side with and defend their mothers in most situations. Knowing that will help you avoid any kind of “testing and proving” comparison or choice whenever possible. See my article about “Testing and Proving Love” for more insights into this common and hurtful behavior.
5. Loving someone else’s child. The mere act of caring for a child often leads to loving them, whether you gave birth to them or not. Simply stated: Love them the best you can. If you don’t feel love for them, treat them with as much lovingkindness as you can muster. If you can’t muster even basic civil feelings, get yourself out of the room, house or situation. Take a break, however brief, to give yourself a chance to regroup, reground and return to your wise Self.
6. Honor their past as you create your future. It’s natural to be excited about the future when you have found the man of your dreams. However, as far as the stepkids are concerned your happiness is possible only because of their parents’ divorce, no matter when or under what circumstances that occurred. Therefore it calls for some diplomacy and once again, more lovingkindness. Many things will affect their reaction to you and your presence. Being aware of their potential for feeling grief and anger (both understandable) will probably trigger your natural caring and compassion for the stepkids and will hopefully enable you to remain as patient as possible when their past interferes with your future. Staying aware of this issue will help keep your compassion alive and well.
7. Dual-personality stepkids. You may find that your stepkids are happy, interested and thoughtful children when you are alone with them. Yet when Dad walks in, they morph into angry human beings. I’ve watched this transformation. Over the years I’ve learned it’s a fairly common occurrence. It’s my view that this is because they have no history with us. They’re willing to receive attention and kindness from us and for the most part will be well-behaved in order to continue the benefits of the relationship. However, when they’re around their dad, they may have feelings of blame and anger over the divorce and the impact it’s had on their lives. One can only speculate what negativity the stepkids may be hearing from their bio-mom.
If you and your husband know or believe the bio-mom is encouraging angry or disrespectful behavior, the stepkids may believe they are demonstrating love for their bio-mom by acting this way. If the stepkids learn that they get more love and attention from their bio-mom by complaining about their life with their dad’s, then chances are the stepkids will fall prey to this bad behavior. Sad but true due to the strong mother-child connection. (See the Smommentary on “The Loyalty Wars.”)
Also, be aware of other Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dual personality stepkids who treats their SMOM with disrespect but charms their Dad blindly. This behavior triggers a whole other set of feelings and requires a different set of coping skills. Just knowing that this may happen will better prepare you for both possibilities.
8. Recognize you can’t heal the past and their wounds-as much as you may want to. You can love them, care for them, do fun things with them and that’s all good. However, there will come a time (now or later) when the stepkids (and their parents) will have to deal with their own emotional wounds. You can help them by modeling and teaching stepkids good coping skills, demonstrating healthy boundaries and behaviors and keeping the lines of communication as open as possible. You can be there for them; you just can’t do it for them. I know that’s frustrating but the sooner SMOMs can accept this, the better.
9. Are you offering gifts or trades? Be aware of your expectations when you do things for, or with, your stepkids. Asking yourself this question, “Is this a gift or trade?” before you do something, can be enlightening. Please know there’s nothing wrong with either one. The key is to be conscious of your motives and true intentions. Are you trying to get them to like you by doing something? Are you doing something to help them feel better or to score points for yourself? Can you give/do with no expectation of anything in return OR are you hoping to receive something in trade for your actions?
Be brutally honest with yourself. Again, there’s no right or wrong here, just be aware of your motives so you’ll not be caught off guard by (or feel at the mercy of) their reaction. Gauging acts of giving, as a gift or trade, is a good way to keep the over-eager or overfunctioning SMOM from getting hurt or disappointed in the short and long term. If you’re feeling overworked, exhausted from trying and unappreciated, please see my article, “Overfunctioning: A natural pitfall for caregivers.”
10. Set and uphold limits.
Remember in school where the teacher who was very strict for the first week or so, often ended up being your favorite teacher? It’s my theory that he/she was able to be so nice and fun because right up front the teacher established who the boss was in that classroom. We learned right up front that any bad behavior resulted in predictable and unpleasant consequences. We may not have liked him or her but we behaved and at some point bad behavior was no longer an issue and the teacher loosened up and class was fun for the rest of the year. I recently polled a few teachers about my theory and they confirmed this strategy. As SMOMs, looking to get along and be liked by our stepkids, many of us came into our situations from the other extreme strategy. We tolerated lots of not-so-good behavior because we weren’t willing for them to dislike us. It’s not an either/or thing, but just an overall observation.
A personal story: Grocery Store ChoicesThis limit setting strategy occurred to me in my attempt to problem solve a situation with my newly acquired stepson while at the grocery store. He was 5 at the time. According to his father, it had always been a nightmare to shop with him. Enter me, Miss Optimistic Rookie SMOM 1996. I had an idea that I thought would work and I convinced his father to let me take my stepson grocery shopping.
As we were walking up to the store, I told him about something my parents did with me when I was young. I was going to let him pick any 3 things that he wanted to eat. (My Mom gave my sister and me 1 thing to choose, but that was the 50’s) Anyway, I told him we would shop for everything else together but he was in charge of his 3 things. (1-2 felt like not enough from what he was used to and more than 3 felt like too many for his little mind to think about.)
Throughout the shopping he was chattering away about his choices. I let him use the front part of the cart for his things and I smiled as I listened to his logic. Kids and stepkids say the darndest things sometimes, don’t they? Once he picked 3 things, we were into the choices phase of this idea. “Can I have this?” he’d say about item number 4. “Sure, but you’ll have to put back one of the other things.” I was very upbeat about it and excited for him. He stayed with me and made lots of swaps during our trip. I am happy to report that during the entire time there was no bad behavior. I couldn’t wait to tell his dad about my success. However, the trip was not over yet.
When we got to the checkout, he saw the candy shelves (my mistake) and wanted a peppermint patty. I gave him my standard answer. “Sure you can, but you’ll have to trade it for one of your other three things.” He decided he’d had enough of that answer and was going to get 4 things out of me. I repeated my answer. He still didn’t like it. He got this angry look on his face and then said in a low voice. “If you don’t let me have this peppermint patty, I’m going to scream and make a scene.” I was momentarily stunned at his nerve and choice of vocabulary. He looked me straight in the eye while saying this. I don’t think he even knew what a scene was but he’d clearly heard these words before. I had to do something.
“My goodness, let me see if I understand you correctly. You’re going to get loud and upset unless I let you have 4 things?” (How’s that for active listening?!) He said quite proudly, “That’s right.” My next reaction caught us both off guard. I said, “OK Honey. Just give me a second.” Then I cleared my throat and said in my best, loud public speaking voice. “Excuse me everyone. May I have your attention please? This child has just told me he’s going to scream if I don’t let him have 4 things today and 3 is the limit. Since I’m not going to let him do that, I wanted to make sure he had your full attention when he screamed. Thank you.”
The front counters went dead silent. For a couple of seconds he stared at me and then he started to cry and crawled under the cart and sat there crying. People went back to whatever they were doing, I checked out, handed him his little bag of three things and by the time we were walking out, he was over it and into his own stuff. On the way out several people came up to me and shook my hand or told me that was quite the approach and they were going to use it next time it happened to them.
The good news? We never had a problem shopping with him again. We even used the 1, 2 or 3 things rule in other situations, such as going to a ball game, amusement parks or to the movies. Right up front we established how many things and we stuck to it. It has worked beautifully for us. I went to the store, thinking I was going to solve one problem (bad shopping manners) and came out with two big lessons learned. Believe me; I had no idea that I was going to address the crowd. That was just a reflex but it worked. A few months ago, now some 8 years later the conversation led me to remind him about our first shopping trip. I started laughing as I reminisced out loud. To my surprise, he remembered the 3 things rule but had no memory of his threat or my response. We laughed about it even more and upon reflection, by standing up to his childish threats, I gained 8 years of pleasant shopping trips with my stepson.
As you review this story you can see that there are a couple of ideas you can apply to your situations.
1. Give stepkids choices, as often as possible. This gives them a true sense of power in a world that is very often out of their control.
2. Cheerfully stick to your initial limit no matter what. It’ll pay off.
3. Find ways to disarm their threats so they stop using them.
4. Call them on their bluffs if possible.
Moving from being a cool friend to a parental figure. This transition seems to be a common rite of passage. There may come a time when your stepkids shifts from using “company manners” around you to treating you the same way they treat their Dad. “Ouch” that can be a tough transition. The therapists say it happens at the point when the stepkids actually feel and trust that their SMOM loves them. Somehow once they know we love them, they feel OK about being angry and disrespectful. They feel that no matter what they do, we’ll still love them. This is apparently a sign that we have moved into the inner circle of parental units. When this happens; our boundaries, self-care and ability to stand up for ourselves becomes critical for our well-being.
How to handle the “You’re not my mother!” comment. The next time your stepkids say, “You’re not my Mom!” try this response for an interesting reaction. Openly and with a cheerful tone of voice say, “You’re absolutely right.” Then be quiet and wait. It’s amazing (and can be amusing) to see the wind go right out of their angry sails. When stepkids say that, it’s usually an attempt to shift attention from the topic at hand (often their behavior) and either hurt you or distract you into a different debate. Resist the temptation to argue, fully agree with their statement and be curious about their next move.
Another response that SMOMs have used is a variation. “You’re right I’m not but I am the Mom of this house.” OR, “You’re right, I’m not your mom but I am the woman who runs THIS house.” These responses are intending to create another role or category also deserving of respect and have been successful.
After 9 and a half years together, my stepson has never once said, “You’re not my mother!” (note: in 18 years he NEVER said it once) I consider this an accomplishment and the result of something I did very early in our relationship. From the beginning people in stores and restaurants would refer to him as my son or me as his mother. Right away I asked this dear 5 year old for his preference.
His bio-mom or not? Did he want me to set people straight and tell them that I was not his mom but the Stepmom or just let them think whatever they wanted? He said, “Yes please tell them you’re my Stepmom.” So that’s what I have done and still do. When anyone says “Your son” or “Your Mom” when we’re out and about, I quickly say with a smile and perhaps my arm on his shoulder, “I’m not his Mom. I’m the lucky Stepmom.” He’s heard me say that since the beginning. To me, he’s known right from the beginning that I respect his Mom’s position in his life and that I was happy with my role as his Stepmom.
Involvement with school, day care and community. In a nutshell, I’m all for SMOMs getting involved with their stepkids’ public life. I think it shows support for the stepkids. Since children generally love attention and appreciate demonstrations of love through action, it can be a good thing. However, this enthusiastic involvement can become a “charged” topic when the skid is enthusiastic but the bio-mom gives your husband a hard time about your participation. If the bio-mom reacts negatively this can sadly get complicated and stressful. The more your skid’s dad is willing to stand up for your joint participation, the better and easier it will be for you. If he’ll stand up to the hostile bio-mom’s objections that’s terrific. If he’s not willing to confront her or argue with her about your right to be involved or to attend this or that event, then it can be a source of tremendous pain and rage for a SMOM who wants to be part of their stepkids’ public life. How much do you want to be involved? How does your husband feel about this level of participation? Will he support you?
Tactical idea: Will your husband write a letter stating his permission/support for your involvement with his kids? Will he make sure the school, church and clubs understand that you have the right to be there and speak on his behalf? This kind of letter stating his wishes and your status as a Stepmom and his representative, given to the proper authorities is very empowering for a SMOM. I carried my copy around with me for years.
Teach them to embrace and accept differences instead of comparing and judging them. Right from the beginning my stepson began saying, “At Mom’s we do it this way!” with the clear message that it was the right way and that we were wrong. He was quick to compare things using a very judgmental tone of right and wrong. From his viewpoint, his Mom was right and we were different (therefore wrong). I found this annoying at first. Then I realized that he wasn’t born with this belief, he was taught this point of view. I could teach him another way of looking at things…so I did.
I used an ice cream analogy. I explained the fact that there are many flavors of ice cream and we don’t get mad or judge our friends just because they like a different flavor of ice cream do we? Of course not. Ice cream is good in all kinds of flavors, not just one. He “got” that, even as a 5 year old. Up to this point, he’d been told that there was only one right way. The message he got, or inferred on his own, was that anything else was wrong. It’s very black and white thinking and sadly very common.
Since his mother and father always had very different approaches to child-rearing and to life, I knew we needed to introduce another option. At every chance we had we told him, “There are many ways to be right. There are many ways to do the same thing and still be OK.” He began to “get it” as he watched how we reacted to his on-going comparisons. “Chocolate and vanilla” became our shorthand phrase for pointing out things could be different and yet both OK.
For example, in a critical tone of voice, he would point out something I was doing and say, “You’re doing that wrong. At mommy’s we do it this way.” And he would go on to explain. Instead of defending our approach or method, I listened curiously until he finished. Then I’d say in a very upbeat tone of voice, “That sounds great (or fun or cool or neat or smart). However, we do that same thing differently here and let me tell you why.” I would explain whatever we were talking about without making his mom wrong, just different, and I could see he was beginning to see that things didn’t have to be the same in order for BOTH to be alright.
No one had to be wrong; being different was OK. Many, many times he tried my patience with his comparisons. The more we stay true to the view that people can do (and have) different things, make different decisions and yet BOTH people can be right, the less stress and tension we will feel when our stepkids make comparisons.
This view of not either/or but both extended into funny areas of life as well. One day I asked him, “Do you want mustard or ketchup on your hot dog?” He paused, kind of smiled and said, “I’d like BOTH please…that’s OK here, right?” I smiled, agreed and realized that kids are so willing to embrace new ideas if given the chance. Helping them see that things can be different at Mom’s house and Dad’s house AND that the difference is OK is a real gift to these stepkids. It also helps them get used to (and hopefully accept) the idea that the rules are probably going to be different in the two homes as time goes on.
Judging and comparing is a human characteristic. It’s also hurtful. It’s usually born out of the desire to feel “better than” someone else or to avoid getting in trouble. It’s a survival strategy; figure out what’s right and everything else must be wrong. For more insights about being judgmental, please see the article, “Feeling Judgmental?”
Create a “no-grilling/ no asking questions about his life at bio-moms” zone in your home.
Another story: One afternoon, about two years into my role as a Stepmom I picked up my 7 year old skid after school. On the ride home he was asking me about our plans for the weekend. At the time, I was the naïve, self-appointed “Stepkids Cruise Director of Fun Activities” and I launched into our plans for the weekend. When we got home, and as he was unpacking his little backpack, I turned the subject to him, “So, how’ve you been?” He immediately well-up with those big elephant tears and stared back at me. “Honey, what is it? What’s wrong?” I could see he was really upset. What he told me in those next few moments changed the way I dealt with him dramatically. It also helped me see how deeply he was affected by his parents’ divorce and their post-divorce behavior.
He begged me to stop asking him questions about what he did at his Mom’s house. He told me that his mom made him tell her everything he did when he was at his Dad’s and that he was having a hard time remembering everything that he did, ate, saw. He said he was told not to tell us anything about his life at his Mom’s and he didn’t know what to do. He sat there weeping as he asked me to help him.
Well naturally my heart burst open for this little boy and I said, “Honey, absolutely we’ll help you. From this point forward we will not ask you anything about your life at your Mom’s. You’re also welcome to tell her anything you like about your life here as we have no secrets. It’s OK with us. Do you understand?” He was visibly relieved, as if he couldn’t believe I was willing to do this.
I continued, “Honey, I was just asking that question, so you would know I was interested in you. What should I say?” He thought for a moment and said, “What if you just say, ‘How are you?’” I hugged him and happily agreed. My husband and I have kept that promise and my stepson has thanked us for doing so several times over these past 7+ years. Be aware of this potential pressure on your stepkids and do what you can to take the pressure off of them. In spite of the natural temptation and our curiosity, not asking questions can be an emotional gift to our stepkids.
What should they call you? There are many views on this. Here’s one more to consider. I think it’s easiest for the stepkids if they do not call you mom. “SMOM” is now used by some Stepmoms as they learn of our group. I think that’s fun. It gives us a nickname of honor without competing. To me, that’s like the multiple names used for grandparents. All good and usually different. If that isn’t working, I suggest using your first name. Just my opinion. Clearly, you must be the one to make the final decision.
Resist saying anything negative about the bio-mom. This is one of the most unselfish things you can do for your stepkids. No matter how hard it is, do everything you can to say only good things about their bio-mom. Remember the old adage, “If you can’t say anything good, don’t say anything at all.”? That’s a good one in our situation.
Why does staying quiet or being positive help your stepkids? These stepkids know they are part of their Mom and their Dad. When one of their parents is perceived to be wrong or do something wrong, the stepkids feel connected to that action. They can fear they will grow up like them. They can feel compelled to defend them. The stepkids are NOT responsible for what their parents do but they usually don’t know that deep down. Staying positive and/or quiet is something you can look back on and feel good about in the long run.
Many SMOMs have to deal with bio-moms who do not play fair and who are not willing to treat us nicely, even civilly and it’s very tempting to want to set the stepkids straight about things that put us or their Dads in an unfavorable light. If you can embrace the “different is OK” approach, hold your tongue whenever possible and correct the stepkids only when they have been given false information, then you’re already on your way to Sainthood because this is a very difficult aspiration to achieve. However, I believe that this is another area where we can make a huge contribution to our Stepkids’ and ease their emotional stress, while feeling good about our behavior now and in hindsight.
You can see, I understand how hard it is to stay quiet or positive but the benefits far outweigh the short term thrill. I also believe it’s truly a kind thing to do for the sake of the stepkids and their self-esteem. When the bio-mom tells the stepkids things that are not true, there are certainly ways to make your point about the issues at hand, without having to comment on her character. You can tell them your viewpoint in a straightforward way and you’ll find that the stepkids will begin to understand what is happening in their own time.
All in all, if you can conjure up the feelings and image of behaving like “the cool Aunt” or the beloved friend or a best friend’s mom, who expects to be respected and who intends to share loving feelings with her nieces and nephews, you’re on the right track to having a healthy connection with your stepkids. You have no control over how the stepkids react to your efforts but if you bring this goal and these understandings to the relationship with your stepkids and do your best along the way, you can be proud of your efforts to build a relationship with them.
©2006 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.