I am a new stepmom(bonus mom) to a wonderful 9yr. girl. We have been in each others lives for going on 3 years and for going on 2 yrs as(what she like to call us) Love mom and love daughter.
My husband did not have a health co-parenting relationship before I stepped on the scene and it has only gotten worst since we got married.
We only see our little one for two hours on Thursdays and every 1st, 3rd, and 5th weekend, but we try to make the most of every precious moment.
In the beginning our daughter’s bio- mom would text messages of thankfulness stating she was glad I loved our daughter they way I do and respected her, however that has since changed and she now is trying to force our little one to choose(love) only her. So for the pass few months our daughter has been crying (sad) a lot, afraid to been seen with me in public( for fear that a friend or her mom will see and go back and tell her or the P. I. that follows us will take pics) or even at times to come out of her room at home. The only thing my husband and I know to do was talk to her about it and not force her. I now have been spending less time with them and helping him plan more father daughter dates. We are also in the process of finding and receiving counseling for her because she has been asking for a safe person to talk to.
I can see the pain in her eyes because she just wants us as a family but I know she will be questioned to no end or possibly in trouble for the 2 weeks she is not with us…
I love her enough to step away and wait rather than force my love on her. The fear and pain is real. Now with all the court dates/ cost/ and seemingly loss(summer time) I am struggling with a brokenhearted husband and bonus daughter. I really love them and I desire that we survive and thrive in this Blessed Blended Family.
If there is anything you can offer to help or point me in the right direction, I would greatly appreciate it.
Your stepdaughter is very fortunate to have you as her Stepmom. I’m touched by your candor, your kindness, your loving intentions and your awareness of the impact of your choices. You sound like a Stepmom on a Mission to me. 😉
From what you’ve described in your letter above, it sounds like you are dealing with a case of what I call, “the Loyalty Wars.” I felt we SMOMS needed a unique label for this dynamic to differentiate it from Parental Alienation, which was becoming a “topic” back in 2002. Rather than re-explain all that I have to share about this issue of loyalty conflicts for stepkids between their bio-mom and Stepmom, I’ve copied the full chapter from my new book, “Stepmoms on a Mission: A Compassionate Exploration to Find Answers, Options and Hope” and encourage you to get the book for there is a lot of material that will support you and your husband as you support your stepdaughter. You can get it via Amazon link on the site if convenient. https://www.smoms.org/book/
In addition to the material in the chapter, there another suggestion I’d like to offer you about your situation. I write this next idea with the awareness that it might sting, emotionally. It’s never my intention to cause any pain, yet it is possible in our world of complex relationships. I’m writing to you as the adult in this situation, about how you can help this truly disempowered child in ways she cannot. Know that I trust you to pick and choose what’s right for you (or not) since I know only what you have written above.
Please consider NOT using terms that seem to put you and your stepdaughter’s bio-mom on an even playing field as mother’s. I recognize that many women in the role of stepmother like to use the term “Bonus Mom” instead of the very negatively stereotyped term Stepmom—wicked or evil or not. While I plan to spend the rest of my life busting that negative image and replacing it with a new valued, unique and Wise Stepmom image, I do understand the desire to avoid the almost continual pejorative reminders by Society when using the term Stepmom/stepmother. With this in mind, I am still suggesting that you consider re-framing your terms of endearment and relationship with your dear stepdaughter because of the behaviors of your stepdaughter’s bio-mom.
Why the big ask? Because using terms like Bonus Mom and Love Mother or Love daughter is actually, in my experience over the last 18 years, potentially creating an even greater loyalty conflict for stepkids by trying to make the role of stepmother seem even closer to the role of mother. These terms, repeated by the stepkids, may trigger even more overtly punishing reactions by the bio-mom (most of which you will never know about) thereby increasing the internal emotional anxiety of the stepkids.
The Stepmoms I’ve known who chose the term Bonus Mom are clearly good-hearted and well-meaning women yet upon discussing this topic of loyalty wars have realized they were unaware of how using this alternative term for Stepmom may increase the spoken and unspoken hostilities of the bio-mom who feels in competition with their children’s Stepmom. They have a moment of realizing that their desire to feel closer to their stepkids may be increasing the emotional pain and anxiety of stepkids they love so much.
With that said, I urge you to consider re-framing the term Stepmom (in your mind) as if you are creating a brand new category of loving connection with your stepdaughter…for her emotional relief. We call ourselves SMOMS (short for Stepmom on a Mission) as a way to seeing ourselves as the new generation of Wise Stepmoms.
You can be her lucky, happy, grateful, joyful Stepmom—which is how I framed it when anyone asked me if I was my stepson’s mom. I would smile and say sincerely, “Nope, I’m lucky to be his Stepmom.” I can tell you from experience that this significant gesture on your part, along with the many ideas in the chapter that follows will make a significant and positive impact on your stepdaughter’s well-being and ease a lot of her internal emotional angst. It will also help you understand WHY what you’re doing works and your husband will hopefully be very grateful to you for the future angst your actions are eliminating.
As with any unselfish loving gesture, like stepping away from public or school events (been there, done that and felt the feelings myself), I also want to urge you to get the support from others and give the support to yourself that you need to deal with whatever comes up for you in these changes. Why? So you will not have to carry any unprocessed resentment, hostility or grief around in your heart or body. Do the self-care and self-awareness work so you feel more love, self-respect and honor yourself for deeply loving and significantly helping this little one who is truly in an emotional war without any choice, protection capabilities or tools. You are being her protector for all that is right and good.
In the next few weeks, I’ll be opening a FREE Book Club Discussion Forum on the site for everyone who bought a copy of my book. Please join us there for more conversation about this issue and know that you can reach out to me privately as well for more clarity and support. Wishing you lots of “Ah ha” moments.
Warm Regards to you,
Excerpt from book, “Stepmoms on a Mission” by Cathryn Bond Doyle.
The Loyalty Wars
When Stepkids Feel Stressed About Loving Their Stepmom
Almost every Stepmom I’ve met and worked with over the years started out wanting to have a great relationship with her new stepkids. It was all part of the happy family dream of a joyful new life with her partner. However, sometimes the friction between a Stepmom and her stepkids’ bio-mom creates a rift between an enthusiastic well-meaning Stepmom and her stepkids resulting in some stepchildren experiencing what I call the Loyalty Wars. This is a bit different from parental alienation, which is the result of one parent’s campaign against the other parent.
The Loyalty Wars arise when a bio-mom doesn’t want her children to have a positive, caring relationship with their Stepmom. The stepkids feel stress because they get the message from their bio-mom that she will be hurt or angry if they care about their Stepmom. From experience, they learn (and now fear) they will be punished if they express (or dare to feel) any affection for their Stepmom.
In addition, stepkids learn their bio-mom will give them more of the love and attention they crave from her when they openly talk about the details of—and their dislike for—their stepmother and any aspect of life at their father’s house. Directly or indirectly, these children are taught that enjoying time with their Stepmom would make them disloyal to their bio-mom. So when they have a kind, loving Stepmom who wants to connect with them when they’re at dad’s house, this creates a real dilemma for the kids. Even though it’s impossible to know exactly what goes on in the bio-mom’s house, the comments, actions and moods of your stepkids can indicate if they’re experiencing an internal Loyalty War. If your stepkids don’t feel free to have a positive relationship (or happy times) with you or openly express love for you, they may treat you badly at times because it’s the only way they know how to relieve their fear and anxiety.
In the movie Stepmom, the young boy tries to prove his loyalty to his mother over his stepmother by saying, “I’ll hate her if you want me to, Mom.” He is willing to hate his stepmother—someone he obviously likes and cares for—just to please his bio-mom, and he says so in a sincere effort to prove his love for his mother and to help her feel better.
This is a painful and emotionally cruel circumstance for any stepchild. To make things even worse, it is well beyond a child’s ability to process, prevent or resolve. Until an adult becomes conscious of the situation and chooses to help them, these stepkids are going to have to help themselves in the only ways their child-brains understand—by lashing out, tap dancing or shutting down. The emotional pressure will likely cause them to behave in angry and hurtful ways. Ironically, their negative behavior is usually directed toward the ones who are not perpetuating the conflict. Stepkids are put under tremendous stress by any hard-to-prove and impossible-to-escape manipulation from their bio-mom to push her children away from their stepmother. It can be difficult to recognize what’s happening. And it is absolutely infuriating, completely unfair, heartbreaking to witness and even more difficult to accept that as stepmothers, we can’t stop this situation. Why not? Because we have zero control over the behavior of our stepchildren’s bio-mom.
Not having the power to control a bio-mom’s behavior is a circumstance that stepmothers and their stepkids share. Recognizing this commonality with your stepkids and becoming conscious of the Loyalty Wars that impact all of you may help you have more compassion for them—and yourself. Thankfully, when you understand the loyalty power struggle a bio-mom may have established for her kids, you can do several things to reduce the negative impact on your stepkids. Understanding this situation can also free you from a lot of suffering and help you take your stepkids’ actions less personally.
I’m writing this from the perspective of a stepmother and with the assumption that you’re an ever-more-conscious and dedicated stepmother yourself. I can’t speak to situations where the bio-dad is perpetuating a battle against the stepdad—I’ve never come across that situation. What I do know is that when a bio-mom is unwilling to behave (or at least perform) in a responsible way, accepting and talking positively (or at least civilly) to her children about their stepmother and life at dad’s, an often-overlooked emotional Loyalty War can break out in the hearts and minds of the stepkids.
It doesn’t take two parties to create a disturbance of this magnitude. The Stepmom may be sincerely trying her best and have no idea about what’s going on. When the bio-mom denies her kids her blessing to have positive feelings and interactions with their Stepmom, this impedes their ability to enjoy a warm fulfilling stepchild-stepmother relationship. Sometimes the bio-mom reinforces this denial by threatening to withhold her love if she thinks her children care about their Stepmom. Kids may even sense this dynamic from their bio-mom without ever hearing a word spoken.
If your stepkids have a bio-mom who has been not-so-nice, openly uncooperative or outrightly adversarial toward you, you’re probably dealing with many issues at once, and this particular relationship dynamic may elude you—at least at first. The Loyalty Wars involve a complicated tangle of emotions and relationships so please cut yourself some slack and be very compassionate with yourself if you didn’t understand this before now.
The younger your stepkids are when you come into their lives, the more vulnerable they are to loyalty conflicts and guilty feelings because chances are good you’ve grown to know, like and even love each other over time. You may not be able to identify any loyalty-related internal conflicts in your stepkids until you know what to look for. The stress your stepkids feel is very difficult for them to understand and overcome because biological mothers have an almost unbreakable emotional connection with, and invisible—yet palpable—power over their children. This truth can be a hard thing to accept. Yet once you accept it, you can begin to make changes in your actions that reduce your stepkids’ stress and help them get off the emotional battlefield.
It’s well known that the biological and energetic connection between mother and child is so strong that words aren’t even needed for a not-so-cooperative bio-mom to declare a Loyalty War on her children’s stepmother. This places the children in an emotional tug-of-war with painful consequences, no matter what the kids may do or say. This is such a tragic and unfair situation. A bio-mom who requires her children to prove their love for her by not loving someone else is being unkind and selfish, with serious negative impact. This is noteworthy. Whether an uncooperative bio-mom uses words or not, she has ways to make her point very clear, even to very young kids. Children learn quickly that they pay a painful price for defying their bio-mom in any way. Stepchildren caught in the Loyalty Wars can’t take a stand for their rights to love anyone they want to, in this case their Stepmom, until they believe they’re strong enough to endure the feared or experienced wrath and potential shunning of their own mother—if they ever reach that point. In the meantime, children will often do whatever it takes to prove to their mother that they don’t care for their stepmother, both to get their mother’s loving attention and to avoid her punishments. If this issue extends to the bio-mom pressuring the children to push their father away too, then parental alienation issues and damages are now also in the works. Again, the Loyalty War I’m going to focus on here is initiated by a bio-mom unwilling for her kids to have a loving connection with their Stepmom.
On the positive side, the bio-moms who process their feelings about divorce and their children’s stepmothers in healthy ways are honored and appreciated by Stepmoms on a Mission. Stepmothers whose stepchildren have civil or kind bio-moms are fortunate in immeasurable ways. There are plenty of thoughtful and responsible bio-moms out there. Many Stepmoms on a Mission are also divorced bio-moms whose own children have a stepmother. These bio-moms are committed to working through (and taking responsibility for) their feelings privately because they want their bio-kids to have as many loving adults in their lives as possible. All the kids with kind and civil bio-moms are very lucky indeed, and have won the parental lottery. It’s all chance since there’s very little, if anything, that both children and stepmothers can do about the attitude and actions of the bio-moms in their lives.
The Attitude of Bio-Moms
The ugly side of competition between women who “share” relationships with the same man or children is certainly a common dynamic that transcends stepfamily issues. However, you can save yourself a lot of hassles if you notice and accept the behaviors of your partner’s ex-wife early on, resisting the urge to believe you can change her. If she is angry about the divorce, feels she has been wronged or acts determined to get revenge, then she has a full plate of stresses that may not make her an ideal candidate for being a parenting ally. This may be further compounded if she is worried about her financial security or about being a single parent.
Some bio-moms are OK with their kids having a terrific relationship with their dad and their Stepmom. Others are not, and they may do things to destroy their kids’ connection with their dad and/or Stepmom. Some bio-moms have an acceptable working relationship with their ex-husband (your partner) until another woman comes into the picture, and then things change for the worse—a little or a lot. Sometimes a bio-mom is truly focused on the well-being of her children, doing everything she can to shield them from her upsetting emotions about you or the divorce because she wants to help them through their pain and the adjustments in their lives. However, sometimes a bio-mom, for whatever reasons, stops being cooperative and begins to act in hostile and not-so-cooperative ways when her ex-husband (your partner) starts a new relationship with you. Although this may not be entirely shocking, it can be disappointing and noteworthy when it happens to you.
I’m bringing this up because I want you to recall the attitude of your stepkids’ bio-mom when you first arrived on the scene as the new Stepmom—married or not. How did she react to your presence? Did her interactions with your partner change in any way? Did she make any statements or demands about your role in her kids’ lives? Was she willing to get along with you or not? How did she treat you?
To Do—or Not To Do?
A common, understandable mistake many newbie stepmothers make (in their enthusiasm for a happy stepfamily) is thinking that any negative behaviors from a bio-mom will lessen over time or that the bio-mom can become kinder or more civil once she sees the Stepmom’s acts of kindness and respect. A bio-mom may indeed change her behavior over time, positively or negatively, but it’s not likely to be because of anything you do. There are exceptions, happily, but if there’s a Loyalty War going on for your stepkids, chances are that your efforts to get along will only cause the bio-mom to be more uncooperative. I know this isn’t what you want to hear. So, what can you do to improve your situation?
Be willing to listen to and believe your partner when he tells you about his ex-wife. Ask your partner to help you clearly recognize and fully understand the current attitude/behaviors of your stepkids’ bio-mom. Process your feelings about the reality you’ve inherited. Then turn your attention to something you can control. Work with your partner and start planning your life, making your choices and accepting the bio-mom’s behavior as an unchangeable fact of your stepfamily situation. From a conscious, awake state of mind as a talented, savvy, adult woman, you can work with the facts to contain any negative impact from the bio-mom and maintain your well-being, helping your stepkids in the process. Embracing your reality as early as possible will save you unfathomable stress and immeasurable energy, pain and anger. You can make all the respectful gestures you’d like and treat the bio-mom with kindness and compassion for her situation (and you should do this because it’s who you are) but this will not likely impact the actions of a bio-mom who is determined to not get along with you. See Chapter 33.
To take back your power and positively influence any Loyalty-War situation you identify (and which you’ve inherited, not caused), you first have to recognize what’s happening. Once you do, you’ll probably feel a new wave of compassion for your stepkids—no matter how badly they may have behaved toward you. You may also find that your heart opens up (even more) to your stepkids, especially if you’ve already grown to care for them.
You may surprise yourself by feeling a newfound compassion for the bio-mom when you stop to realize that the divorce is costing her time with her kids. If you have your own kids, this may be even easier to understand. If you’re a mother-by-marriage (a Stepmom without bio-kids of your own) you may want to choose to suspend any judgments and take a moment to imagine how you might feel if she had partial custody of your beloved pets. Oh my! This analogy usually helps Stepmoms without their own bio-kids have a bit more compassion for the feelings of an uncooperative bio-mom.
Still, if you’re being ignored or treated unkindly, you will feel additional waves of anger at the unfairness of the situation and the negative impact on your life—even if you’re trying hard to be compassionate with her and with yourself. This is all completely understandable. Sometimes emotions aren’t singular or stand-alone. You can have compassion and resentment. You can be empathetic and furious. Do your best to make room for whatever emotions show themselves. For your own well-being and sanity, these intense feelings need to be honored and processed in healthy ways. Please help yourself by first doing this work in the emotional realm so you don’t have to get physically sick. For right now let’s focus on your stepkids and how you can help free them from this painful, emotional, unwinnable power struggle.
Observe Your Stepkids
Behavior #1: Your stepkids may feel the need to compare anything you do or that happens at dad’s by commenting on how the same issue is handled by bio-mom or is experienced at their bio-mom’s. The stepchildren’s comparisons almost always make the bio-mom’s choices and possessions as good as—or better than—yours and dad’s so the kids can feel they’re being loyal to their bio-mom. See Chapter 37, Tip #21 for ideas.
Behavior #2: Your stepchildren may suddenly express the need to call or text their bio-mom and connect with her “right now” in the middle of a happy family moment at dad’s or with you. They may feel guilty when having so much fun and then suddenly realize they’re not thinking about their bio-mom in their moments of joy. The only thing they may know to do to reduce their guilt, anxiety or fear of getting in trouble is to stop the fun, contact their bio-mom immediately and report to her what’s happening. Maybe she’ll be happy about it and let them continue—and maybe not. The young ones naturally desire their bio-mom’s approval for having fun. The tweens and teens may discover they can start lying to their bio-mom to save them from punishment and to allow them to enjoy their Stepmom and time at dad’s. But until they understand this survival tactic, they may reach out in the midst of a happy time to try to calm their anxiety.
When they interrupt a joyful time with you or at their dad’s, they may feel they’re saving themselves some future punishment from their bio-mom. Maybe they believe they’ll score some points and get extra attention or rewards from their bio-mom for trying to ruin—or at least stall—the happy moments with you and at dad’s. Sometimes the urge to call their bio-mom relieves the stress of being grilled for details when they go back to her house. As annoying as it is, not allowing the call or text can generate genuine fear and anxiety, especially in young, pre-teen stepkids.
Suggested response to their actions: Let them make the call or send the text. Do your best to be relaxed and casual about it. View it like they are calling an official time-out or as if they were excusing themselves to go to the bathroom—no big deal. When they return, chances are good they’ll be a bit subdued so you’re going to have to be wise, caring and creative about how to proceed to prevent bio-mom’s impact from ruining your good times. Making your stepkids wrong or taking your frustrations out on them when they’re unconsciously just trying to ease their internal pressure only creates more emotional shrapnel. As the adult, you will ideally process your feelings privately and in healthy ways out of your stepkids’ sight. You can interrupt the cycle and reduce the stress for you and your stepkids with your new awareness of (and response to) what’s happening.
Behavior #3: Your stepchildren may suddenly feel reluctant to be openly happy or to joyfully participate in fun activities they’ve previously enjoyed. Your stepkids may express some version of “My mom might not like it,” or “My mom said she wanted to be the first one to do this with me,” or “My mom told me doing this was stupid or wrong.” One stepchild, age 10, told her Stepmom she couldn’t participate in any future Christmas rituals with her dad and stepmother because it upset her mom too much to think of her child doing those things without her. This is so sad for the child and her dad and Stepmom.
FYI: This behavior is actually an early form of martyrdom-in-training. It’s martyr-like for stepkids to deny themselves pleasure and fun while they are with their dad, just to prove their love and loyalty to the bio-mom. However, remembering that your stepkids are likely just trying to avoid being punished can make it easier to be compassionate and patient with them. When your stepchildren are dealing with an uncooperative bio-mom, they can feel powerless and may use whatever they know to gain favor with her so they can minimize their emotional stress. It can be a huge relief to your stepkids when you recognize this behavior. By your actions, you can help them see they’re not trapped between being happy with you and dad (making bio-mom angry with them) and being angry and unhappy with you (making bio-mom happy with them). This is an act of true lovingkindness on your part.
You can help your stepkids find new options—even if they never understand how you’re helping them. Their little baby/child-brains aren’t capable of forming alternatives. Whatever they are doing is the best they can conjure. Even as teens, children rarely find a healthy pathway through this problem without outside help. Offering your help is one tremendously unselfish life-impacting gift a Stepmom on a Mission can give her stepkids.
Behavior #4: Your stepchildren may pick fights and cause arguments right before returning to their bio-mom’s to make it easier to leave you and their dad. It also gives them “material” to genuinely complain about to bio-mom in exchange for her attention. This tactic is often a result of an uncooperative bio-mom showing her kids that they’ll get her love and approval for as long as they have anything negative to say about you or their dad. The bio-mom may have also shown the kids (perhaps never having said a word) that they can expect a negative, neutral or shunning reaction from her when they share a happy Stepmom or dad story.
If you notice disruptive behavior occurring among your stepkids right before they leave your house, you can resist taking the bait and instead be as patient and empathetic as possible. The best and easier way to avoid (or at least temper) this issue and minimize the stress for all of you is to create exchanges with an interim place (and time) in between being at either parent’s home. For example, use the school day, a playdate, a team sporting event or other activity to avoid the direct bio-mom/dad exchange.
Behavior #5: Your stepchildren may seem annoyed or hesitant to answer your questions about his/her time away from your home. Your stepkids may even ask you to stop asking them about their time at their bio-mom’s because it feels like too much pressure to remember all the details. This is not them trying to be mean to you. If their bio-mom has told them not to share certain things, or anything, about their life with her, your questions may put the stepkids under a lot of stress (between a rock and a hard place) as they struggle to anticipate what you will ask, to try to keep secrets to avoid getting in trouble or feeling disloyal to their bio-mom.
If you sense this may be an issue, even if your stepkids have not said anything about it to you, ask them if they’d prefer you not ask them about their lives with their bio-mom. Experience with this has been pretty consistent—“yes please stop asking us.” If possible, release them from having to keep secrets about life at your home. By offering this freedom and asking them what they want, you demonstrate respect for their feelings. You can continue to show them you care and switch your question to, “How are you?” whenever they return from time with their bio-mom. In this way, you show them you’re interested and you give them control over what they share without causing them to feel any pressure to be a double agent. It’s certainly tempting to want to know what’s going on when your stepkids are with their bio-mom, but as an adult, it’s merciful, respectful and kind to help your stepkids feel they can relax and be themselves when they’re with you.
Age Impacts Their Vulnerability
The Loyalty Wars seem to be particularly impactful and effective (for the bio-mom) with children around the ages 4-13. At some point, a stepchild will figure out what’s going on but not usually during these important years. When they’re older, their frustration, anger and reactions to the situation may become more correctly and effectively focused (toward their bio-mom) even if they don’t know how to change things once they understand what’s happening—if they ever do. In the meantime, they learn ways to survive, express their anger and numb the pain. At some point they may enter the game as an active player. They may choose to manage their mother by learning they’re now free to have a great time with dad and Stepmom and then make up tales of woe when talking with their bio-mom in order to get her attention, approval and maybe permission from her to do things or get things from her. If your stepkids have an uncooperative bio-mom who behaves in ways that lead you to believe she might be suffering from narcissism, borderline personality disorder, bi-polar disorder or other mental-health or personality disorders, you can teach your stepkids emotional and behavioral survival tactics, for their own well-being, when the timing and their maturity is right. See Chapters 35 and 36 for more about dealing with continually uncooperative bio-moms.
Some stepkids will remain trapped indefinitely by the Loyalty Wars and won’t figure out how to have relationships with both their bio-mom and Stepmom. When they choose to avoid the pain of bio-mom’s rejection by rejecting their Stepmom, they may never be able to understand or admit what they’ve missed out on by not being free to connect with their Stepmom. This is tragic and much too common in stepfamilies that are under stress from uncooperative bio-moms. Parental alienation can grow out of this dynamic, sadly often resulting in stepkids looking at their dad as just a source of money. Unless or until the stepkids see what their bio-mom is doing, they’re at the mercy of her treatment. This Loyalty War rarely ends until children grow strong enough to call out their mother on any of her hurtful behavior, realizing that they can indeed survive her anger or rejection and want to feel free to love both parents and their Stepmom (and Stepdad). In the meantime, a Stepmom has an opportunity to play an important role in her stepkids’ lives. There are things you can do to help your stepkids if they’re experiencing this difficult circumstance.
What You Can Do?
Suggestion #1: You can recognize and accept the conflict for what it is and respond to it as a wise, loving adult. Trying to get someone to get along, play fair or do the right thing—particularly when they’ve shown repeatedly that they’re not interested in doing so—is a losing battle and a huge energy drain on you and your relationships. Knowing what you now know, you can make the conscious choice to direct all your efforts and energy toward what you can do to help the stepkids. For the sake of your sanity and your stepkids’ well-being, make the choice to accept that the bio-mom is who she is. See Chapters 18, 19 and Sections Four and Five for more support with this often difficult yet always empowering decision.
Suggestion #2: You can choose to take nothing personally. Once you realize that your stepkids are being asked, expected, manipulated or threatened to pick their bio-mom over you, compassion for your stepkids will likely flow freely. Whether your partner keeps trying to get the bio-mom to behave or you both choose to let go of trying to change the bio-mom’s actions and instead focus on helping the stepkids, you can help the children feel more freedom and relief when they’re at their dad’s and with you. Initially, this can be a difficult and painful choice for you because it probably means not doing as many things as you would genuinely like to do with your stepkids. It’s also difficult to be treated badly by children so desperate for their bio-mom’s love. This is not your fault. You may have to make the choice “to do or not to do” from one moment to the next. That’s OK. Thankfully you can choose where you put your attention over and over again as needed. You can also find many other ways to love and care for your stepkids that do not trigger an emotional tug of war between you and their bio-mom—with the kids feeling pulled apart in the middle. It’s just about being conscious of what’s happening and then being willing to look for responsible and creative options.
Suggestion #3: Take the high road and step away from the invisible power struggle with bio-mom. You can choose to take the more self-protective and honorable path. You have the power to resist the understandable urge to counter-attack any actions she may make. This urge is not a bad thing, it’s human nature. It may make it easier to stop reacting to the bio-mom when you realize that getting “hooked” by her actions and reacting outwardly to her behaviors only make things worse. Sad and true. When you react to sticky issues or even increase your involvement and activities with your stepkids, you can make the stepkids feel like they’re caught in an emotional ping pong game where they feel batted around, out of control and hurt—in spite of your good intentions. The reality is they’re right about this situation. They are trapped—powerless and therefore furious about it at varying levels of consciousness. You have the ability to end this war for them, you really do! As an adult woman (meaning you are consciously staying out of old survival or defensive strategies) you have healthy ways to process your rage and grief about your unchangeable reality. I encourage you to honor all your feelings, get lots of support for what you’re going through and help your stepkids. They may never know what you’re doing. They may never thank you for your help. However, they will feel an immediate, very tangible emotional relief—the proverbial breath of new, “it’s OK-to-relax,” fresh air. Ahhhh! See Chapter 16 for an approach for dealing with unchangeable stepfamily realities.
Brace yourself for this next suggestion—
Suggestion #4: Give your stepkids the attention they want even when they’re referring to their bio-mom. By focusing on their natural need for attention and your inner peace instead of the subject matter at hand, you too can find relief, even when they’re talking about, comparing you to or blatantly appeasing someone who is causing you pain. You can give your stepkids a true gift of your loving attention by choosing to ignore any annoyance and instead to help build their sense of self-worth.
Your Stepkids Might Say:
“My mom puts bacon in my grilled cheese.”
“My mom got a big promotion at work.”
“My mom is younger than you.”
“My mom says chiropractors are wackos.”
“My mom puts apples in her dressing, not sausage like you.”
Sometimes, these comments can be deeply upsetting in ways that are difficult to describe until you understand your stepkids’ underlying motives for sharing with you. Usually they’re not trying to make you angry—unless their bio-mom feeds them lines to say to you. In this case ignoring them is a “win” for you because you didn’t give the jabs any attention. They’re usually just trying to get your attention and your approval. Really—hear me out on this one! If they get attention from their bio-mom by talking about you, they may see that as the only way to get your attention—talking about her. Children need attention. They need mirrors to help them learn about themselves and they will choose negative attention over zero attention. Knowing this and assuming you want to help your stepkids develop a healthy sense of self, you can look at anything they say about their bio-mom and life with her as requests to be seen. They’re just children needing loving attention without always knowing how to go about it.
Going forward, rather than gritting your teeth when your stepkids mention their bio-mom, or resentfully explaining to a child your choice of car or your family recipes or any other of the many comparisons they may bring up, try this—say, “How about that.” It works! It also saves you a lot of stress and the anxiety of anticipating their comments because now you have a pithy, almost fun, healthy and kind response. While you can’t control what the kids say (and they know that), you can control your responses and what you say.
Stepkids are unconsciously looking for their own emotional antidote for their internal stress. When they can say something good about their bio-mom and get attention from you (positive or negative), they feel they don’t have to feel badly about it. They feel they’re not going to get in trouble with bio-mom if a sibling overhears and tattles on them. As a matter of fact, some stepkids will even get kudos from their bio-mom by reporting that they said something positive about her to their Stepmom. Can you see how your stepkids may just be trying to survive the uncontrollable conditions of life with their uncooperative bio-mom?
As you can give your stepkids positive, cheerful support for their observations, be they about their bio-mom’s world, school or anything else, the stepkids will feel acknowledged, respected, valued and happy. They will relax more and you’ll probably see their delight as well. This might seem fake at first but an enthusiastic (not sarcastic) “how about that” in response to whatever they say really does seem to satisfy their need to be seen and, if necessary, to make their bio-mom bigger than you in their loyalty-war-conscious minds. Feeling seen, they’re usually OK to move on to other things, especially if you’re willing to give them your positive attention. Your response, “how about that,” can also free them from feeling guilty that they’re having a good time with you. You’re giving them the loving attention they’re looking for without exacting a conditional, uncomfortable price from them. The long-term emotional benefit of this strategy is that it models a new way of loving and being loved. It shows stepkids another way of being mothered and being a mother. There’s really no way to measure the value of this gift to your stepkids—and to their future children. See Chapter 37, Tip #21 for more about the benefits and uses of the “how about that” response.
Suggestion #5: You can protect your relationship with your stepkids by recognizing what’s happening and backing off whenever you observe that your participation is causing them emotional stress. I realize that this suggestion is going to bump up against genuine feelings of “that’s not fair” or “I love my stepkids. I want to go the recital, etc.,” and very strong understandable beliefs like “I have a right to be involved.” I get it and you’re right in my way of seeing things. However, as adults we have more resources and sophisticated options than your stepkids, so this is me urging you to do what you can to help your stepchildren (because they can’t help themselves), then get the help you need to process whatever you’re feeling.
The conscious choice to remove yourself from some stepkid activities helps you disengage from any energetic competition with your stepkids’ bio-mom. With your withdrawal from the loyalty-war dynamic, you give your stepkids a dose of lovingkindness. Your stepkids are very likely going to feel and be visibly relieved when they perceive you withdrawing from any unspoken, emotional power struggles with their bio-mom. They’ll feel better even if they don’t understand exactly why. We’re often told by experts to “put the kids first.” Well, this is a priceless and positive opportunity for putting your feelings aside for the moment and helping your stepkids feel as comfortable and unstressed as possible. Again, because you’re an adult, you can later find healthy ways to take care of your own, equally important and valid feelings.
If being at the same events with their bio-mom causes your stepkids stress, this is another place where stepping back is an act of truly unselfish love. If the bio-mom makes her own children feel badly about acknowledging or hanging out with you in public, it will ease their pressure when you stop interacting with them in public or maybe even stop attending public events altogether. Yes, you’re right. This is another hard-to-hear (or read) suggestion. One SMOM taught her stepkids how to wink at her after they told her they’d gotten in trouble when their bio-mom saw them waving at her at a basketball game. Sadly the winking only lasted a couple of months until the bio-mom saw one of them winking and figured out it was a signal to the Stepmom. The stepkids got in trouble when they admitted they did this to their bio-mom—and never did it again.
I know that even pondering the idea of not doing as much with your stepkids in public may activate deep issues of unfairness. You may feel rejected and left out. You may feel angry. Still, based on the experiences of many stepmothers, withdrawing can be a truly loving gift to your stepkids, even as hard as it is for you. At some point your stepkids understand you have the ability to help them. They realize your presence is causing them pain and that they don’t have the capability to help themselves in this situation. Sometimes your stepkids are at the mercy of your choices—or said in another way, sometimes you have the power to relieve your stepkids of stress they have no other way to stop.
If this is your situation, it’s time to get creative and tend to your well-being. Consider looking for other ways to be involved even if you’re not physically present. You or your partner could videotape things or use technology like Skype or FaceTime when it makes sense. It’s much easier nowadays to find ways to witness events if not physically present. Thank goodness! You may want to explain to your stepchildren that you’re staying away because their bio-mom isn’t comfortable with your presence at the event—this way they know it’s not that you don’t want to be there. This can be a bit tricky depending on the personality of your stepkids’ bio-mom, so check with your partner about how to explain the reason for your absence. I believe kids can sense the truth. I like the word “uncomfortable” because it’s not judgmental or blaming, just descriptive and true.
Depending on your stepkids’ ages, you can explain to them that since your desire, as their Stepmom, is to make things less stressful for them, you’re going to step back for now. You can ask them to share all the details when they return to your home—if they want to. This gives them a chance to remember and re-live fun times with a devoted audience—or not—but either way you’re giving them the power of choice. Stepmothers faced with uncooperative bio-moms can find themselves having to miss out on some important stepkids’ events, and that really hurts! On the other hand, you are doing something that takes courage for the good of children you care about, and that feels empowering. Sometimes you may even have to defend yourself and stand up for your rights to participate with your stepkids and partner—or worse, deal with outright lies. If this is the case for you, taking care of your own feelings in healthy ways is a loving thing for you to do for your family and can keep you from feeling resentful toward your stepkids or your partner.
Suggestion #6: You can take the pressure off your marriage and stop expecting your partner to do something to mitigate his children’s loyalty pressures if he isn’t already inclined to do so. Unfortunately it’s not against the law to do what many uncooperative bio-moms do. And remember, bio-moms—both friendly and uncooperative—have been controlling their kids verbally and non-verbally forever. We need to choose to look for healthy ways to contain and manage any negative impact that uncooperative bio-mom behaviors may have. It’s also impossible to prove destructive loyalty pressure and sometimes even parental alienation without getting the stepkids in the middle. Just keep in mind that if you back away and begin to support your stepkids in new, non-competing ways, as difficult as you may find this to be, they feel the positive difference immediately. You’ll see the change in them even if they can’t express it.
When Doing Less Helps More
Imagine a Stepmom has been joyfully and generously engaging with her stepkids, eager for a mutually happy relationship. As a result of this Stepmom’s effort to connect, her stepkids find themselves growing to care about her and soaking up her lovingkindness, particularly in areas and ways that their own bio-mom is not giving them love and attention. Things are going well between this Stepmom and her stepkids. They are connected and happy. The next day or the next visit—POW! Out of the blue, the stepkids act angry and cold to their stepmother and treat her as if she’s the enemy. Or maybe they demonstrate a more passive and annoyed lack of interest in their Stepmom. This surprising evidence of a festering Loyalty War can manifest in several ways.
Loyalty War Symptoms
- After a period of family fun with your stepkids, they become angry in a sudden, almost Jeckyl/Hyde kind of way and refuse to interact with you, implying you’ve done something to upset them. They can’t explain their anger or behavior because they don’t really understand it either.
- Shortly after doing something loving or thoughtful or after you’ve gone out of your way to help your stepkids by filling a mothering role you know they’ve not had (or can’t get) from their own mother, the stepkids wake up the next day or return from time with bio-mom acting cold or overtly angry toward you without being able to give you a reason why.
- After a calm, happy visit or two where you felt particularly close to your stepkids through giving them lots of undivided attention, time and effort on a specific project (perhaps you created a happy memory with them), one or more of your stepkids gets really angry at you for no apparent reason, breaking your loving connection without explanation or any interest in reconnecting with you.
Emotional Dilemma—My Theory
The painful disconnect between a Stepmom and any of her stepkids can be heartbreaking, frustrating and confusing. Below is my take on what’s happening. Full disclosure: I have no formal study or clinical trial to corroborate my theory. That said, I’ve had dozens, maybe hundreds of Stepmoms over the years confirm this same experience and the success of the tactics I’m about to suggest.
When a Stepmom treats her stepkids with authentic, unconditional, loving attention and does things for them that her stepkids might wish their own mother would do, it seems to set off an inner, impossible-to-process alarm of hurt (anger and sadness) in the stepkids. This may not affect all stepkids in the same way or even at all. It may happen at different times or ages. I believe the children get angry because they suddenly have new thoughts that upset and confuse them. “How can a woman not related to me possibly treat me more kindly than my own mother?” “How come she’s doing this with me (or for me) when my own mother won’t?” As a result of these unwelcome inner queries, they may feel confused, angry or even furious—a lot of intense emotions stirred up.
Sometimes, when stepkids realize how much they love their Stepmom, their warm feelings are followed by a deep anxiety-producing wave of guilt. This is especially true if they believe their bio-mom isn’t going to approve and will somehow find out about their disloyalty and punish them. While their anger may actually be at their bio-mom, children often can’t admit this and don’t know how to process their anger, or they don’t feel safe getting angry at their own bio-mom, fearing her rejection. So instead, they lash out at their Stepmom, finding it much easier to believe she’s the one causing their internal distress. In a way, they’re correct.
They may be thinking that if their Stepmom would just stop doing things that made them feel close to her (which triggers their guilt), they’d feel better—well, actually just less guilty. Problem seemingly solved. In the stepkids’ minds, the Stepmom’s lovingkindness for them, their love for her and now any newly realized anger at their bio-mom causes the stepkids uncomfortable feelings on varying levels of awareness, depending on their emotional maturity.
To endure their stress, the stepkids may believe the answer is to stay angrier than they are sad—in a situation where part of them knows they’re powerless. They can’t allow themselves to admit (or feel) the full impact of anxiety and fear they endure so they lash out at their Stepmom instead of their bio-mom. The choice to get angry (instead of feeling sad) makes them feel a bit more in control of their lives, even if just for a few moments. They will also usually minimize or deny their pain over losing connection with their Stepmom and rationalize their anger to stay numb to pain they don’t know how to handle any other way. This tangle of feelings can be caused by:
- Their instinctive longing/need to be loved by their own mother.
- The desire to be seen and mothered in a loving way.
- The guilt, shame or self-blame they feel at enjoying love from their stepmother.
- Their rage at feeling forced to choose between bio-mom and Stepmom instead of having the freedom to love (and be loved by) both of them.
The intensity and complexity of all these strong emotions is just too much for most children to process so they do the best they can to survive. The only thing their baby/child brains can think of to stop their internal anxiety and pressure is to direct their emotional energy toward being angry at their Stepmom—the disposable parent. Ouch! By getting angry at you, they feel the relief of moving the too-big-for-me-to-handle energy of fear and anger, eliminating their guilt and telling themselves (hoping really) they’ll get some appreciation and more love from their bio-mom. Poor dears! That’s a lot of feelings to deal with as a child.
It may help you feel less hurt about your stepkids’ decisions to lash out at you if you remember that children usually lash out at the “parent” whose love they believe can withstand their antics. If you see this outburst of anger happening after a period of happiness and affection between you and your stepkids, it will now make more sense to you. Hopefully, by understanding their dilemma, having compassion for their stress and reminding yourself that they’re just children trapped in a complex and painful situation, you won’t take their actions to heart or get upset with them.
Heartbreaking True Story
A SMOM working through this issue in one of my workshops shared the story of what brought her nine-year-old stepson’s Loyalty War issue to her attention. She realized he was feeling the pain and conflict of loving both his bio-mom and his Stepmom. This is her story, paraphrased from my notes and used with her permission.
One morning, after a fun week with his dad and Stepmom and while preparing to return to his bio-mom, he must have recognized his painful dilemma. While his Stepmom was chatting away helping load his backpack, her stepson became suddenly still. With alligator tears flowing, he looked his Stepmom in the eyes and said quietly, “My life would be so much easier if you weren’t in it.” In a moment of profound, shared understanding, she hugged tightly the child she loved, then suggested to her husband that he be the one to take his son back to the bio-mom’s house. It was a transformational moment for this Stepmom and thankfully she realized what was happening.
This child wasn’t trying to be mean, just stating a sad truth for both of them. Upon hearing his words, the Stepmom knew she had to back away from the child she’d grown to love because she had the power to help in a significant way. From that point forward, she stayed away from most public events and looked for ways to connect with her stepson that didn’t trigger disloyalty or guilt. While the stepchild may never know the price she lovingly paid to ease his pain and stress, she knows she did the kind thing—the right thing for the child’s well-being. It took her a while to process her own grief and rage about this situation. She did her work to help herself and to avoid resenting her stepson so they could maintain as loving a connection as possible.
Helping Your Stepkids
As an awake, adult woman, you have the opportunity to make an unselfish choice for the well-being of your stepkids—as a loving Stepmom, rather than as a victim of circumstances—even when it hurts your feelings. You have the power to make this choice because you are aware of what’s happening and know how to help yourself. It’s a bit like the King Solomon story in the Bible, only in this circumstance, it’s the stepmother who makes the more loving choice to prevent her stepkids from feeling emotionally cut in two.
You can reduce your stepkids’ pain and suffering by first understanding the situation, recognizing through observation that they may be experiencing stress. Then, you can do less for and with them. Ouch, again! Wherever their bio-mom might see and feel competition with you, you can resist the natural urge to display your happiness, pride and other parental feelings when it comes to your stepkids. This may mean not posting as many pictures (or any) on social media, not sharing the happy family stories in the annual holiday cards, not talking about the details of the fun you and the stepkids had with their dad, or avoiding situations where others may unintentionally say things to the stepkids (or worse to the bio-mom) that make them feel guilty (and perhaps be punished) for loving you.
In essence, you’re downplaying the outward and public expression of your connection with your own stepchildren to help them feel less anxious about being punished by their bio-mom and less guilty about how they feel. It’s a bit like keeping your relationship with your stepkids a secret. Isn’t it odd to realize that you can actually make it easier for your stepkids to get along with you by doing fewer nice things for and with them? It’s a real head-scratcher at first, that’s why it’s hard to figure out and even harder to know what to do about it. Now that you see this from an expanded viewpoint with new context, you may reflect on your stepkids’ past actions in new ways that are much less hurtful than believing they’re rejecting you.
Just think—you can help your stepkids manage their complex emotions and reduce the stress of their life circumstances by changing your actions. That’s a Stepmom superpower! When you reduce the overtness of your expressions of love for them, it assuages and maybe even eliminates their anxiety, fear of punishment and guilt. By reducing opportunities for them to compare the actions of you and their bio-mom, you and your stepkids can share more calm, pleasant times together because their emotions are less jubilant and therefore less likely to trigger a sense of disloyalty.
It’s about looking for new ways to love, do for and be with them that aren’t overtly about mothering. This can take a bit of creativity since mothering is often a Stepmom’s default role and responsibility. It’s about consciously choosing to give more meaning to the benefits your stepchildren reap from your mindful attention and lovingkindness, and assigning less significance to the stuff and activities you may be sharing with them now. Reflecting on your history with your stepchildren will give you all the evidence you need to understand their possible Loyalty War triggers. Each child will have different triggers because they have different needs due to their respective ages, personalities and relationships with their bio-mom. Evidence of a Loyalty War is usually easy to spot once you understand what to look for in each situation.
This next recommendation can be challenging and eventually fun once you work through your own grief—at every opportunity find ways to give credit to anything or anyone other than you for any shared joyful experiences. This can enable and extend your happy times by helping your stepkids not see a given event as a bio-mom vs. Stepmom thing—therefore avoiding triggering their guilt, anger, fear of being punished or need to be angry at you. For example, you can say great things about (and bring their attention to) some aspect of the movie you just saw, the pool you swam in, the coolness of their new shirt, the fun your parents create for everyone when they visit, the exciting results of sports activities they played in, attended or just watched, or the neighborhood block party you all attended, recognizing all these events as the cause for the joy your stepkids are feeling at any particular time. You know what you did, even if you’re quiet about claiming any credit. Hopefully, your partner will adore you even more for your significant contribution to his kids’ emotional well-being. By using this diversionary tactic, you make it possible for your stepkids to be with you during all these fun times because they can attribute their happiness to other things. And these may very well be things that their bio-mom has not made them feel guilty for enjoying. Can you see this loophole in the loyalty-war power struggle?
If you handle things the way I suggest, these tactics may initially seem harsh, outrageous, unfair and maybe even mean or wrong—even in spite of all the benefits they can have for your stepkids. These proposed approaches present you with both a tremendous emotional challenge and a significant healing, learning and growth opportunity. I understand that the very idea of choosing to help your stepkids by reducing the public, loving, happy activities you share with them may initially make you angry, sad or resentful. This is especially true in a situation where your rights, authority and roles may already be adversely affected by an uncooperative bio-mom. As you are helping your stepkids (or even pondering the possibility) you may experience an almost overwhelming sense of raging feelings. It makes complete sense. Hopefully, after you’ve thought about these recommendations for a bit and vigorously processed your feelings from a new elevated perspective, this all makes sense and may even explain a lot of previous stepkids’ behaviors.
Your new choices are certainly going to stir up some feelings and more than likely some unhealed emotional wounds from your past that you may (or may not) be aware you’re carrying. I can also tell you that if you’re facing this or any other stressful situation in your stepfamily life, you can use every single feeling that you have to become more self-aware, stronger, more healed and more empowered—if you’re willing to do this emotion-processing work. It will be easier to handle your feelings, making these loving choices (and their impact) much more doable. You’ll see you how your new choices can generate new levels of self-esteem and self-respect if you have support. Implementing these actions for the good of your stepkids, while helping yourself work through your own feelings, is not only responsible but also admirable, with potentially life-changing benefits for you, your partner and stepkids.
Delightful, Potential Benefits
Following these suggestions can also lead you, your partner and your stepkids to have a lot more fun together, even if you don’t talk about it as much. Ever been in a severe storm where plans are ruined, everyone has to help prepare and maybe the power goes out? Have you discovered that in these situations, when you work together it turns out to be a fun, memorable adventure shared by all? Your new interactions with your stepkids can have the same kind of surprisingly happy result. You can achieve this result for yourself with a positive attitude, an open heart, some creativity, the desire to take care of your stepkids and a healthy dose of self-care.
As you shift your attention away from trying to get an uncooperative bio-mom to behave as a mature, civil, cordial adult to end any Loyalty Wars, and instead devote your attention to helping your stepkids feel less guilty, fearful, anxious and angry, a new peacefulness can blossom in your home. It’s a gift to show your stepkids that when they’re at dad’s house it’s OK with you that they love their bio-mom and dad and Stepmom and Stepdad and anyone else. You can model generous lovingkindness without saying a word or doing a thing. Kids feel this genuine kind of love. You want to be able to look back on your actions and choices as a stepmother and feel proud of yourself, right? This is one of those Stepmom choices you can feel good about immediately. Recognizing a Loyalty War in your stepkids’ lives and adopting this approach to help them can also unearth any difficult and bruised feelings you may have that need to be healed and released—bringing you more short and long-term benefits.
Grown-up stepkids have told me that when Stepmoms do as I suggest, many stepkids notice, feel and appreciate it more than they’re aware of, or can even express, until years or decades later. You’re more likely to receive gratitude when your own stepkids become adults. While receiving gratitude is terrific when it happens, it isn’t the ultimate goal. Embracing the strategies I’ve outlined in this chapter is a kind, compassionate and responsible way to help your stepkids deal with emotional stress and anxiety—whether or not your efforts are noticed or appreciated.
It’s also important (necessary really) to honor the impact this same stress has on your own body and emotional realm by making sure you compensate yourself with extreme self-care, healthy emotion-processing rituals, creative problem-solving sessions and lots and lots of support. You can’t end the Loyalty Wars. You can, however, make loving and wise choices that can substantially reduce the negative impact on stepchildren caught in the emotional crossfire between an uncooperative bio-mom and loving, conscious Stepmom.
CopyRight 2018, Cathryn Bond Doyle. All Rights Reserved.