Ever Get Angry When Your Stepkids Get Away with Things?
Discover the Reasons for Your Strong Reactions
By Cathryn Bond Doyle
Differing opinions about childrearing between you and your partner are to be expected and many things will be worked out over time. However, have you ever noticed that sometimes your stepkids will do something you don’t like or agree with and then out of the blue—POW!—an unexpected wave of rage pours through you that seems disproportionate to the situation, even to you? When this happens, it’s extremely beneficial if you can hit the internal “pause” button on your voice and actions so you can take time to reflect on what just happened. Chapter 9 presents the general principle of what’s happening when situations in our present trigger seemingly over-the-top reactions. This chapter covers the specifics of how to apply this wisdom to the emotional upheaval that can be caused by particular situations with your stepkids.
Time spent understanding exactly what triggers such strong waves of emotions can save you a lot of future pain and help you understand a lot about your past behaviors. This pause can also prevent you from creating more stress in your relationships. It gives you a valuable opportunity to recognize and heal your childhood wounds. Realizing and claiming greater empowerment is only one benefit of this work. We all have childhood wounds—every single human being. The key is to choose to become aware of them so you can help yourself and respond to your present situations in more calm and effective ways.
When your stepkids get what you didn’t get as a child—or what you don’t have now—intense emotions can surge through you. Why is that?
- Have you ever felt a jolt of bitterness shoot through you as you watch or hear your stepkids receiving all sorts of compliments, privileges and material things? Do you feel this way if they are being given opportunities and experiences even when they behave badly or do nothing to deserve rewards?
- Have you ever felt stunned at the rudeness your stepkids are allowed to get away with when talking with you or either of their parents?
- Does the fact that your stepkids get stuff without having to earn it ever stick in your craw or make you feel like you want to scream or have a little (or big) temper tantrum?
- Do you ever secretly hope your stepkids will get in trouble for doing something bad and then shift into rage when they get caught but nothing happens?
- Have you ever felt a burst of excitement when you catch your stepkids doing something they shouldn’t be doing, only to get criticized or rebuked by your partner (or stepkids or their bio-mom) for pointing it out in the first place?
- Have you ever noticed yourself becoming cold, hostile or harsh toward your stepkids when they refuse to go along with your “house rules”?
This stuff can be crazy-making. Although your feelings may not be pretty or something you like to admit, most stepmothers have experienced them to some degree. This intense sense of unfairness, plus the pain, fear and rage that are triggered, come from an unconscious emotional comparison of their childhood and your own. Stepmothers seem to be triggered more deeply when their stepkids are involved because they are not their own children. No matter how much you’ve come to love your stepkids, you’re most likely not bonded to them the way bio-parents are and society reminds us of this often.
This combination of circumstances can make the impact of your stepkids’ actions gut wrenching and emotionally charged beyond logic. If you factor in the actions or inactions of a partner mired in divorce guilt, the emotional impact on you can be overwhelming. Judging yourself for feeling whatever you’re feeling isn’t going to help—not ever. No amount of self-judgment will shift, heal or resolve your feelings. Temporarily numb them? Yes. But never heal them. It’s about becoming compassionately aware that you’ve been triggered or hooked by a situation. Once you’re conscious of this you can choose to suspend all outward actions and get curious about your feelings and how to help yourself feel better. This is an amazing awareness that creates a space for transformative personal insights.
When you judge something or someone, all that energy gets locked up—sort of frozen in place. Although it can be tempting to judge yourself or others because being numb feels better than the pain, it’s not healthy or helpful. Also, it’s not always the actual activity or situation that’s upsetting. Ever notice that another child can do whatever your stepkids do and you would not only not care at all, but would happily fix things, comfort them or go with the flow? Why is this?
Could it be that your stepkids sometimes fail to treat you with the same basic manners and respect you watch them offer a stranger, teacher or friend’s parent? It’s helpful to look into your own upbringing and experiences to help you have compassion for the part of you who’s upset when you notice these things. Next time this happens, take a moment to breathe and recognize, “Hey, something deeper than this present situation is happening right now.” Take time to reflect—before reacting—so you can identify the issue being triggered. This is the key. It’s extremely helpful and healing to take that detouring thought process. What can you do about this sort of thing so you can remain your loving, adult self no matter what your stepkids do?
The following four specific Stepmom/Stepkids examples offer some ideas for ways to get past, over and through your upsetting reactions in a new way that can lead you to more empowerment.
Stepmom/Stepkids Example #1
Your elementary school-aged stepkid loses his/her new raincoat (or lunch box or backpack, etc.) twice in the first month of school. One or both of the parents rush to get another new raincoat without any consequences, chores or efforts required from the stepkid who repeatedly loses the item. You may feel upset by this, “free pass.” You may think, “no big deal” or find this consequence-free scenario infuriating.
If you didn’t have an unlimited supply of things when you were a kid, or if you were given consequences every time you lost or broke things, this situation will likely upset you. Imagine yourself as “the child you used to be,” watching your stepkids repeatedly getting away with this carelessness, while you were punished or shamed in some way. Doesn’t it make sense that your younger self would feel upset? The way to work with these feelings is by learning how to separate the feelings you’re having now (in response to the present situation) from similar feelings (from your past) which are surfacing now because they are so like much like your present feelings. Emotions are timeless and so any of those feelings that never got processed and released will come to you, through you—in an instant.
Stepmoms who have their own bio-kids often talk about how upsetting it is for their own children to watch their step-siblings get away with things they would never get away with. However, since “the child you used to be” isn’t physical, it may never occur to you or you may not understand (or believe) that those feelings could still be alive and real after all this time. In these situations you’re likely to discover that they are very real and surprisingly strong emotions at that. Being willing to explore your feelings gives you a chance to help yourself, learn about yourself and spare yourself a lot of future distress.
Here’s a SMOM’s story from one of my workshops. Once she decided to get curious about the possibilities, she turned her attention away from reacting to her stepkids’ behavior and toward her own feelings.
“When I realized that much of my anger and hurt came from my own childhood stuff—stuff I brought into the relationship—I was caught up short, yet it made sense to me. I found some quiet time then shut my eyes and invited an imaginary younger version of me to come sit with me and tell me what she was thinking and feeling about whatever was going on at the time. Since this was all happening in my imagination, I invited this young me to climb up in my lap.
The first time I did this, I asked her what she needed from me. Boy oh boy did I get a surprise! This little me, in my imagination, was about five years old. She was incredibly upset. I was really amazed at how real all of this felt. I encouraged her to talk to me. After she told me all about her anger, which I could obviously relate to and understand, her tears came—then my tears. The wave of tears was followed by a deep exhale and then she looked at me for some major TLC. The tears I shed were real. The rest of it was all in my imagination yet I felt very different afterwards. I’ve done this countless times since this first experience and each time, a different younger me seems to show up with more information and feelings that no one acknowledged at the time I first experienced them.
It wasn’t a weird thing or even scary, it was profound for me. After that experience, I became aware that I was less triggered when others got away with things. What a relief.”
This is a very common experience for Stepmoms engaging in this work. It’s so easy to become so focused on your stepkids and their well-being, that you can end up unknowingly ignoring how your own younger self might be feeling. Being ignored is painful in and of itself. Being ignored when also feeling hurt or afraid is infuriating.
Instead, you need to be willing to acknowledge and help your younger selves. Yes, all of them—you as a child, a teen, a young adult, a newbie Stepmom and even the you from before you acquired this book. You can do this work for yourself anytime you have a few moments to yourself to go into your imagination and give your feelings your loving attention and compassion. You can start having these inner dialogues whenever you feel that surge of unfairness and rage. You can start by gently and lovingly saying reassuring and supportive things to yourself, imagining a younger you looking to you for compassion and support. Perhaps say something like this to yourself, in a very patient and kind tone.
“I can see why this situation would be upsetting for you. What exactly does it feel like to you? Tell me what this situation reminded you of from your life. I’ll listen and totally be on your side. You can count on me.”
When Stepmoms I work with try this technique, they almost always remember new memories and realize, much to the surprise of many, that the feelings triggered by their stepkids today feel just like their feelings from sometime in their childhoods. Many times these feelings were from experiences when they were the same age as the stepkid whose behavior triggered them. This correlation has proven startling, fascinating and profoundly healing. Why? Because it helps you get to the core of these upsetting feelings so you can process and release them. That’s the goal and relief is your reward.
What might “the child you used to be” desire from you?
- She may want you to pay more attention to her needs.
- She may want to be heard by someone who genuinely wants to support her—and that could be you.
- She may want her feelings to be respected and acknowledged as valid instead of tolerated, judged or disregarded like the first time she experienced them.
- She may want your unconditional loving attention.
- She may want you to seem (be) truly happy to spend time with her.
Giving this younger you a voice, even when only in your imagination, is a huge step in shifting how you’ll view whatever your stepkids do or say. Why? Because somehow when you have honored and supported your younger self, the actions of other children don’t generate rage, jealousy or nearly as much upset. Really! If you begin looking at the things your stepkids do that upset you as valuable clues to finding out more about your own unhealed stuff, it can one day result in you sending them a silent “thanks for the clue” and then getting busy helping yourself. Going forward, let their father deal with them while you start paying attention to your feelings in this new way. Before you go thinking I’m nuts, give it a try and see what happens in your imagination. According to feedback from clients and workshop attendees over the years, this has been one of the most profoundly insightful, helpful and empowering practices to add to your emotion-processing skill set.
Stepmom/Stepkids Example #2
Your stepkids speaks rudely to you or to his/her father and there are no consequences or even corrections made for this behavior. This could be upsetting to you or no big deal. What could be happening if it is upsetting to you? It wouldn’t occur to many Stepmoms to speak to their parents—much less another adult—in the ways many kids of today are talking with their parents. Many, dare I say most, women dealt with their disempowered rage in childhood by creating beliefs that one day, when they were adults, kids would have to speak to them with respect or there’d be heck to pay, just like when they were kids. Can you relate to this coping strategy?
When your stepkids speak rudely or disrespectfully to their parents or you and then either get away with it and are uncorrected or their transgressions are ignored, a younger version of you may rise up and say with or without words yet with strong emotions, something like this:
“Wait a gosh darn minute! This is wrong and something should be done here. This is not the way children speak to adults. This makes me furious and I want someone to do something about my anger!”
If their father doesn’t react the way you believe he should, your inner child or teen, who was most likely threatened into behaving and punished if misbehaved—starts to balk at the injustice through your feelings. Unless you’re conscious of this additional source of your own emotional energy, you’re likely to just get angry and try to get your partner to do something. If you lash out or blow up in anger, you may feel badly. You may be judged and criticized for over-reacting. I want to assure you that the anger you feel is real but can feel obscured by the present situation and your lack of understanding about what’s happening. Hopefully you will be more compassionate with yourself the next time something triggers your anger.
Ever noticed how when something feels unfair, it can strike a very intense energy chord in you? Becoming aware that present situations can tap into past memories can help you respond to present situations more wisely and process your feelings in more compassionate productive ways. Instead of unconsciously using the situation as an avenue to spew out rage or anger (getting you nowhere, healing nothing in your emotional life and often causing damage to your relationships) you can now stop yourself and get clear on what was then and what’s now before reacting or saying a word. This is a powerful moment of consciousness awareness. This is you being an empowered adult. It feels great!
Note to Self: This awareness and new strategy can really avoid a lot of stress and reduce your need for damage control with your partner. It’s also a great way to turn a previously upsetting situation into a chance for you to heal from past wounds you didn’t even know you had. I’ve heard this feedback from so many Stepmoms. Being aware of these two separate sets of feelings (those from then and now) really helps you see the actions of your stepkids in a new more insight-filled light. Oh you may still be annoyed or upset about what they do, but it will feel less charged, like how you’d feel if a neighbor kid behaved in that way.
The questions below can help you glean personal insights about what’s happening when your stepkids are rude or misbehave. Learning how to separate and identify the true source of your feelings changes so much in so many good ways. You can help yourself by reflecting on specific situations that have enraged you in the past. Think about one of those times now and ask yourself:
- Were your stepkids speaking to you directly or did you observe or just hear about their behavior?
- If they spoke directly to you, did you speak up for yourself, saying, “This is not OK with me” or did you stay quiet, now feeling mistreated and upset they got away with something? If you stayed quiet, what was your reasoning? Was it a fear choice or a growth choice?
- What can you do to make yourself feel better once your feelings are triggered? Yes, right this minute—what can you do or say to yourself to help yourself feel more respected, acknowledged, at peace and loved by YOU?
- What specific new boundaries and consequences for future occurrences can you create for those situations that happen directly to you? How likely is your partner to support these new boundaries and consequences? If he won’t, what can you do, what actions can you take to avoid or spare yourself from any future negative impact?
If you’re lucky, your partner will support your right to avoid feeling hurt or disrespected by his kids. If he thinks you’re making a big deal over nothing or if he feels that since he needs to endure disrespectful treatment you should too, that’s a bit more difficult. If he asks you to endure because he fears losing the love of his children, that’s another tough row to hoe. It’s now going to be up to you to decide what you will (and won’t) accept from your stepkids. Thankfully, using your creativity and focusing on yourself, you really can find ways to take their behavior less personally. Letting go of being the manners police in your home and deciding to stop agonizing over how your stepkids speak to their father are two choices that you can make to significantly reduce the stress between you and your partner. These are clearly two of those easier-said-than-done suggestions. The good news is, you’re going to discover very quickly that it’s worth the initial effort and gets easier with practice and processing.
Stepmom/Stepkids Example #3
You want to keep all the boots in the laundry room or the back packs off the floor, food out of the bedrooms, etc. but the stepkids are disregarding your wishes and your partner tells you that you’re too controlling. Your partner allows his kids to disregard your house rules and instead permits them to leave their boots, books and dishes wherever they want them to without any consequences or corrections. That could upset a stepmother who feels like she should have some authority in her own home. Or perhaps you’re OK with this situation.
What’s happening here is similar to Example #2 above. Did you grow up being told that when you got a house of your own, you could set the rules? Did you believe this would be true? Do you still believe it should be true? If you’re like many women, you distracted yourself from some of your natural teenage rage, thereby shoving this energy into your unconscious, by telling yourself that one day, when you had your own home, you’d have the power to determine what was and was not OK. Your home = your rules. My guess is that this is true for most non-stepmother women running households today. Women who aren’t stepmothers may have a hard time understanding your feelings because they are in charge of the house rules and consequences of the children they care for.
The possibility below can help non-stepmother friends, family members and partners of Stepmoms have more compassion for your feelings by putting things in terms they might experience. I suggest you ask them:
“How would you feel if a neighborhood kid (the age of one of your stepkids) came into your home and spoke rudely to you, disregarded your polite requests or took your things without your permission and then, in spite of the way they treated you, you were expected to feed, shop for, chauffeur and care for them—all with a smile?”
Non-stepmothers seem to have a hard time understanding how this feels, not because they’re trying to be unsupportive but because they have no reference. Sharing this example might help your partner or family be more supportive of your feelings. Being judged for your feelings or having no support can feel unfair, as if you are truly powerless in a place that was supposed to be your domain, under your house rules. You can end up feeling like a servant in your own home—a home that was supposed to be a safe haven for you but is not at this time or under certain conditions.
First things first—it’s absolutely critical to get clear on your personal beliefs. Being aware of your beliefs about any given situation can be a great source of understanding about why you react as you do. The more aware you can become of your “inner rules,” the more you can understand your responses and where there’s a conflict. A conflict between what’s happening and what you believe should happen is a source of anger that will lead to resentment, if it is left unaddressed. See Section Two.
In all cases, the anger is a clue that some inner emotional boundary or belief is being violated. Anxiety is an indication that you’re anticipating a future boundary violation. You can use these feelings as alerts and give your own feelings priority before taking any action on your present situation. Without this awareness, you’re likely to put your attention on other people and this only makes some part of you feel more ignored and enraged. Why? Because whether you’re conscious of it or not, focusing on others means you’ve abandoned yourself again, believing falsely that the solution to your well-being lies with getting others to change. See Chapter 8 for more about the formation of beliefs and their pivotal impact on your choices and feelings.
Children absolutely need others to help them resolve most of their upsetting circumstances. It makes sense that a child would believe that she needs others to help her solve a problem or help her feel better. However, you aren’t a child anymore, you’re an adult, savvy, smart woman. Realizing you might still carry a belief that others are responsible for making you feel better can now give you motivation to replace your child-created survival beliefs with new adult-created beliefs. How about believing that you are competent and responsible for helping yourself? The good news is that you’re absolutely capable—resourceful and creative too. It’s sort of amazing when you feel the shift into your empowered self. It’s also fascinating how quickly your feelings will change and new ideas will occur to you when you own your newly realized permission and power to help yourself.
Stepmom/Stepkids Example #4
You believe there are some table manners that are appropriate or required for dinnertime but your stepkids are able to get away with behaviors that you feel are unacceptable or ruin the meal for you and your family.
You just want your stepkids to learn to behave well in public yet you’re unable (unauthorized and unsupported by your partner) to get them to comply with your requests at home. It can sometimes feel like you’re trapped in the twilight zone when you and your partner argue over enforcing something you consider basic table manners.
You want your stepkids to grow up to be polite, thoughtful, kind and loving people. When they’re in your home and you’re caring for them, you may feel it’s your duty, role, job, responsibility, etc. to help them learn, right? When you’re not supported or listened to by the stepkids or your partner on topics you feel are important, it can be generate feelings that range from frustrating to extremely infuriating.
Have you ever felt afraid or anxious about speaking up or taking action in response to the behaviors of your stepkids? Do you fear that if you don’t teach your stepkids good manners, they may not learn the things you believe all children should learn? Do you believe it’s your job to correct them? This belief is common and having it in your “book of personal beliefs” can trigger inner tension, plus self-judgment that you’re not doing your job as a good stepmother if you let bad manners go unaddressed. This can be an upsetting issue. When your stepkids’ parents don’t seem to be teaching their bio-kids what you believe are good manners, you may end up feeling even more responsible. How can you feel like a good stepmother when there are children in the house who are unwilling to respond with respect to your requests for basic kindness and manners? What if you hold your own bio-kids to manners that your stepkids aren’t expected to comply with?
Recognizing the impact of your beliefs and your childhood experiences on your present reactions to your stepkids’ behaviors is a big step. Identifying the specific conflicts between your beliefs and your realities can help you better understand how to support yourself. It allows you to choose your battles. It gives you more insights and hopefully self-compassion so you can find more ways to maintain your kind nature and happy personality no matter what your stepkids do or say.
Working with your partner to identify your differing needs and conflicting beliefs in relation to your stepkids’ actions is a very good use of your time. This thoughtful exploration can make any disagreements easier to understand and work through. It’s easier to have compassion for each other when you both understand the reasons you want whatever you want regarding the stepkids. As I’ve written throughout this book, there are darn good reasons for all of your feelings, beliefs and behaviors. Know this is true—even if you don’t yet know what they are or understand them. When there’s a conflict between you and your partner about beliefs and needs, it’s time for some creative brainstorming that honors these upsetting conflicting situations. See Chapter 18 for more about this topic.
The process is a lot more enjoyable when a Stepmom and her partner can look at any conflicting, upsetting situations as “we” problems, and not just a stepmother issue. My goal is to help Stepmoms and their partners find a process that enables them to get to a peaceful place of reconnection. Recognizing, understanding and respecting the conflicts in their underlying beliefs and feelings about difficult situations is a healthy path toward this goal.
If you’re thinking that working with your intense emotions, triggered by the actions of your stepkids is much easier said than done, you’re right—but only at first. As you practice and become more conscious of your needs and beliefs, you won’t become triggered as much when the stepkids get away with things or act out in anger. Going forward, when something they do does hook you, you can use the experience to learn something important about yourself. This is turning lemons into profoundly valuable lemonade. While you can’t control your stepkids’ actions, it’s always helpful to remember you have complete control over how you respond to them.
Going forward with this information, you can now understand that your stepkids’ actions and their attempts to rebel and lash out at you are a result of their own anger toward their life situations. They are disempowered children—truly out of control of much of their lives. This out-of-control reality is actually something that stepmothers and stepkids share in several aspects of their lives. Realizing this shared circumstance can help you have more compassion for them and for yourself. Thankfully you have one huge advantage over your stepkids—as a conscious adult you have much greater resources, life experiences, support and wisdom enabling you to create new solutions that allow you to preserve your well-being no matter how others behave.
For more information about this topic, go to smoms.org/BonusChapters and click on the title “When Stepkids Manipulate Their Fathers (or Try).” See the complete list of additional chapters and follow-up discussions in Chapter 39.
Excerpt from “Stepmoms on a Mission: A Compassionate Exploration to Find Answers, Options and Hope.” Pages 396-406.
Copyright 2018, Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.