Being a parent is hard. Personally, it’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. But I think being a stepparent is even harder. Research shows that relationship challenges with stepchildren is one of the top two hardest and most common challenges for stepmoms. The dynamics of relationships with our stepkids are so complex and multilayered.
We automatically think that if we like kids in general, then having stepkids should be easy peasy lemon squeezy! BUT IT ISN’T!! Our relationship success is not a guarantee and it isn’t easy because the layers. I’ve heard many women talk about how hard it is to make a positive connection with their stepkids.
Attachment is second nature for most birth mothers. Its roots take hold before a child is born. That bond and attachment make it easier to forgive and forget the behaviours that children throw at you when you are at your wits end. It’s something that John Gottman calls the emotional bank account. As a bio parent, the emotional overdraft protection is pretty much a given. However, what about creating a connection to a child you haven’t given birth to? Stepparents have no automatic overdraft protection. The wits end maybe the end of our rope.
If we are able to make a connection with our stepkids it can be positive and rewarding and it can fill our maternal cup. But if the opposite is our experience, it can wreak havoc in our heads, our hearts, on our health and in our home!
I’ve spoken with women being sent to the sidelines and the fringes of the already established or premade family. Women have shared with me experiences of alienation and out right rejection by their skids in their own homes. Women’s self esteem and more importantly their self worth goes into a nose dive. Losing all sense of themselves, repeated failed attempts at being a caring authority figure or caring mother figure, are often the by products. They react by withdrawing emotionally and set up protective barriers around their hearts.
Then sometimes thoughts of “I hate my stepkid” or “I resent my stepkid” or “if that child were mine they would NEVER get away with that” start to ooze out of very desperate places. And then almost immediately panic, shame, and self judgement overwhelm them at the admission “I can’t hate my stepkids. I shouldn’t hate my stepkids…I am better than this. This isn’t me. Only cold, heartless people hate children. AND I am definitely not one of those”. It goes against the very grain of what we believe women are supposed to be and who we are- nurturers and care takers. However, we get stuck on an emotional field of landmines. You are told- and you believe- that you are supposed to love them like your own.
But what if you don’t love them like your own? What if you don’t even like them? What if their presence is barely tolerable? They drive you crazy. They are lazy, selfish, disrespectful. They are ruining your relationship with your spouse because of their behaviours.
Here’s one thing I know – that what you are feeling is common. It does happen -women do detest their stepkids. But know two things: DON’T tell your spouse you hate their child and DON’T tell the child you hate them. Doing that and saying that will cause irreparable damage with both your spouse and your stepchild.
Is it ok to have these feeling? It’s always ok to have any feelings as they are there for a reason -to give you information. There is more going on. Much more. So get it off your chest..confidentially. Then process those emotions. Once they are released then they won’t get buried and come out when you least expect them and when you least want them to. Denying they exist will cause MORE problems. Shame and self blame increase resentment. So stop, take a pause, and figure out, is it the child you hate or their behaviours? Likely it’s the behaviours. So you don’t really hate them but what it is that they are doing or not doing, and how that behaviour impacts your home.
Now, let’s look at those behaviors that you detest so much. If you understand what’s underneath those annoying behaviours I guarantee you’ll find compassion. If not for them then for yourself knowing not to take it personally. Here are some things that might help shift that perspective and help you separate the deed from the doer.
First, your stepkids have been influenced from birth by other people who’s values, morals, and opinions of how children should be raised may look very different from yours! Most parents raise their children in much the same way as how they were raised. If your parents were physical disciplinarians likely you will be too. Most people don’t consciously think about how they will parent their children. “It’s how I was raised and I turned out ok”. For first time families , this can take some negotiation if parenting styles are different. It’s compromise and conversation. But for stepmoms, those rules of engagement for handling minor infractions to major let downs were created by other people for personal reasons. Then these rules of engagement are often not shared or negotiated with the stepmom because they are “just the way things are done because they’ve always been done that way”. It feels like you have no say. And when it’s time to renegotiate the stepmom is not likely part of the negotiations. And it’s likely “worked” for them so why change that?
But they may not necessarily work for you. Because in the earlier stages of your new family you haven’t yet earned that right. It takes time to earn the right to discipline a child. Both from the parent’s perspective (sometimes especially the bio mom) AND the child. Keep in mind the previous parenting couple had their own family dynamics and parenting strategies- or none at all- long before you came into the picture. Perhaps, there was some unhealthy ones. So those really loathsome behaviours like whining, temper tantrums, back talk, and laziness are the result of kids achieving a goal as a result of their behaviour. And because those behaviours got them what they wanted they were positively reinforced. So, they keep doing them and often their parents continue to respond to the behaviours in the same way.
They seek attention by whining or some other annoying behaviour. They attempt to gain control and assert their power when they tell you either directly or indirectly that they don’t have to listen to you because you’re not their mom. They seek revenge when they make it clear when they say “ my mom does this better” and they display inadequacy when they say they aren’t capable of cleaning up after themselves. These are the Goals of Misbehaviour by Rudolf Dreikurs. (Check them out for more details).
Then you add on after the divorce or separation, the skids are being raised separately by newly single parents. There are no consistencies and routines and structure. It may be pure survival mode for both their bio mom and your spouse following that separation. And then there’s Daddy Guilt. Another blog I’ve posted about (http://www.aliwilks.com/supporting-our-man/it-really-isnt-about-you/). Disney Dad appears and it’s hard to put him away because Daddy gets some pleasure (or guilt relief) from indulging. Again he may believe if it’s not broke don’t fix it!
I’ve also posted about your stepkids experiencing grief and loss because of the divorce or separation of their parents. Experiencing loss and how they process grief can impact their behaviours significantly as well. Check out that blog for further details (http://www.aliwilks.com/parenting-preservation/grief-and-loss-in-his-kids/).
And another piece of the behaviour puzzle, loyalty binds. Loyalty binds are horrible situations where your skids are locked (either overtly or passively) in a battle between liking you and then betraying their mother in the process. This betrayal is a seed planted by their mom. So they are then put in a no win situation (for you AND the child) where mom makes them decide “her or me”. It may go so far as reporting back to their mom everything you do or say and in particular every mistake you make. You feel like your being spied on and cant feel safe in your own home. It’s best to set clear boundaries and expectations for your kid. Remember: your house your rules,
These are just a few clues as to the underlying unmet needs that are likely contributing to those behaviours you detest in your steokids. The truth is that kids are a product of their genes and their environment. Stepmoms have no influence on the first point and may have very little influence on the second. And until you have earned that position of authority over time and dad has given you the authority to parent his children, all a stepmom can do is take a step back to manage her health and wellbeing. If that is all you can do, do it well. Once you are well rested and your emotional tank is fuller, the behaviour is easier to tolerate and the fire of anger you were stoking can be put out. This way, it’s much easier to separate the deeds from the doer.
I hope this helps you soften the anger. Watch out for my coaching group to address these challenges today!