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Ask the Parent Coach: The Challenges of Step-Parenting

Published on: March 20, 2012

Ask the Parent Coach: Jennifer Watanabe


The challenges of step-parentingQ: I am a relatively new stepmother to two teenagers. While I was not naive enough to think we'd be The Brady Bunch, things are not going very well despite hopeful intentions. Their mother left, but it feels like somehow I am cast as the bad guy! I don’t want to bring my husband/their father into the middle, but I find myself getting very frustrated with the kids and by what I see as ungrateful, and occasionally intentionally destructive, behavior. Sometimes I just feel like I've made a huge mistake — but I do love my husband and want to fight for our right to have "our" family, one that includes the kids. What would your experience suggest I do?

A: The teenagers in your home have experienced a significant loss — the loss of their mother in their daily lives. How has this loss been addressed? The relative ease of their adjustment to life without mom and your presence has much to do with the coping skills they and their father have used to deal with that loss.

As a stepchild myself, I understand the hurt feelings that happen when a biological parent remarries. Many times when a parent introduces a new partner into the family dynamic, the wounded feelings of the children are not adequately discussed or validated. These unaddressed feelings can manifest as the divisive or destructive behavior you're experiencing. When parents directly address the children's feelings, the acting-out behavior will tend to improve over time. Many blended families proceed without the benefit of therapy to help the children deal with their feelings, but therapy is oftentimes a much needed support for families who are dealing with the pain and grief of a divorce.

Please consider this: When children feel left out or abandoned by one parent, it will not help them to feel better if they also feel left out or abandoned by their other parent. This would be akin to a person with a serious physical wound (losing one’s parent or the foundation of the family) who then experiences another physical wound (losing the other parent’s time and attention) before the first wound has been treated or has healed. Without adequate care, this double-whammy makes recovery all the more difficult. One of the most important tasks will be to care for the children and their wounds. When children feel better and feel more secure, they will act better.

You mentioned that you don’t want to bring their father into the middle of this. In reality, he already is. I would encourage you both to concentrate your joint and individual efforts on reassuring the teens that they are loved and that they are important members of the family — your family.

I would suggest you read Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell to discover how best to send love messages to the teenagers — ones they will recognize and find authentic. People who need to be reassured need love messages that resonate. Chapman and Campbell describe the five love languages as:

1. Words of affirmation
2. Quality time
3. Physical touch
4. Receiving gifts
5. Acts of service

As the family works toward better feelings and interactions, disrespectful or hurtful actions should diminish. Set an expectation that everyone must be on “their best behavior” while the family works to heal emotional wounds.

You should be commended for taking on the task of re-creating a family; however, the people you are living with have bonds established long before you joined their family. These family bonds come with history, mixed emotions, and uncertainty. You have a love relationship with the father, not with his children. There is no way to create “instant love.” If you are viewed as someone who takes their father’s time and attention away from them, your ability to develop a positive relationship with his children will be even harder.

As you take small steps to develop a family, I encourage you to look at each relationship as an individual component:

1. Strengthen the foundational relationship between you and your husband. As you keep your commitment to each other strong, you maintain the power to make or break your marriage. With time this relationship can give the whole family security. It will become the bedrock everyone can depend on. Recognize that the extra strain you feel on your marital relationship is normal and is to be expected. Discover and then do what works to keep your marriage healthy. Marriage counseling to support your efforts can truly be beneficial. Don’t wait to seek outside support or guidance until your marriage is past the point of no return. 

2. Get to know each child just as you would any new person coming into your life. Parents of infants have to do this, too. With teenagers, take the time to discover each person’s likes and dislikes around school, food, clothing, activities, friends, movies, TV shows, digital media, and even the way they like to keep their room and manage their personal grooming. Just as biological parents discover their young children have emerging traits and attributes that are or are not easy to live with, you will need to make peace with the ease and difficulty of living with children who are almost grown and who have established habits and opinions.

3. Establish family-life “rules of the road.” Family agreements and family meetings can be extremely helpful parenting tools. Establish family agreements together around respectful conduct and communication. Use a family agreement as a way for the teens to learn and as a way to do better “next time.” What works will come through trial and error. A family meeting is not meant to be the complaint department. Jane Nelson in Positive Discipline recommends family meetings in which everyone in the family wants to participate: preparing an agenda, giving compliments, brainstorming solutions to a pressing issue, doing something fun together (dessert; movie and popcorn), and then planning a fun family activity for the future — in that order. Perhaps waiting to address the family issues for a few weeks in the family meeting setting will allow everyone time to enjoy each other’s company first. Remember: To increase cooperation, parents need to increase their children’s involvement in making and keeping the rules.

4. Determine what kind of parents you and your husband will be together. Will discipline be handled only by the biological parents? How can you support your husband’s parenting efforts? Will your involvement be helpful or hurtful? Many times in a blended family the stepparent’s comments, opinions, and actions are not well-received by the stepchildren. That is normal and to be expected. What will be helpful is for the children to know that you are their — and their father’s — ally. The teenagers will learn, with time and through shared experience, that you are on their side. According to a review of the book Stepfamilies by James H. Bray and John Kelly, “One major obstacle to the emerging stepfamily: stepparents who move too quickly to take over the parental role.” So, take your time and keep in mind that it is never too late to begin again (and again!) when it comes to parenting.

5. Find support for what you are doing: a friend who is going through the same thing; a counselor, therapist or coach who will guide you in creating more effective day-to-day interactions; a supportive community that will embrace your whole family (a youth sports team, a faith group, your neighborhood).

Best wishes to you all.

Resources for Stepfamilies:
Youth Eastside Services in Bellevue holds seven-week Positive Discipline classes to help parents learn effective parenting strategies, how to hold family meetings and how to create family agreements.

The Seattle/Eastside chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America meets every four to six weeks, and plans seminars and workshops.

National Stepfamily Resource Center

Step Family Washington

Great books for stepparents:
Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade by Dr. James H. Bray and John Kelly
Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today's Blended Family by Susan Wisdom and Jennifer Green
Get Out of My Life, But First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall? by Anthony E. Wolf
Blending Families by Elaine Fantle Shimberg
Remarried With Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family by Barbara LeBey
Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson
Taking the War Out of Our Words: The Art of Powerful Non-Defensive Communication by Sharon Ellison
Parent Talk by Chick Moorman
Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman and Ross Campbell

Jennifer WatanabeJennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.

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