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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On not being a Wicked Stepmother

At least two of my friends are suffering from a bad case of Wicked Stepmother syndrome at the moment.  Loving their partner means trying to welcome his children from a previous relationship, and despite their best efforts, the children are being spiky and difficult.

These new step-mums are trying, really they are.  But I think that of all the difficult parenting gigs that are out there, becoming a stepmother to children who are no longer babes in arms can be one of the most challenging.

New step-mums are up against so many obstacles, and they have such a lot of learning to do.  Here are some of the questions to which they have to seek answers, in the face of sometimes daunting hostility.

Who are these children?  What are they feeling, what are their hopes, what wounds are they hiding? Do they even like me?  Do I even like them? How will I cope? Will they destroy this relationship?

What sort of parent is my partner? Do I agree with that style? Can we co-parent without bloodshed?  What does his parenting style say about him? Do I like him as a parent as well as loving him as a partner?

What sort of parent is my partner's ex-partner?  What sort of parent is my partner's ex-partner's new partner?  What sort of hurdles will the differences create?  Is this going to become a war zone?  (And am I England, Germany or Switzerland?)

That's all pretty scary stuff.

Both my friends are committed enough to their new relationship to be seeking advice about how to create a positive, respectful relationship with step-children who resemble shape-shifters at best (fluffy kitten one minute, hedgehog the next) and nyarky little saboteurs at worst.

So here's my two-point plan. 
1. Form a respectful parenting relationship with your partner. 
2. Then form a respectful relationship with the shape-shifters. 
(And get the order of those steps right.)

I'm guessing a little more detail may be required...

1. Solidarity, comrade!

The first problem to come up is usually a discipline issue.

I've mentioned in previous posts the counsellor who told me that when children came in for counselling, the problem was invariably in the parenting relationship.  So before you complain about the step-kids, to your partner or anyone else, have a long hard look at the co-parenting you've set up.  You both need to be on the same page, and you both need to feel comfortable with the parenting template you set up.

Take a deep breath and take the time to observe what your partner and the kids do when they're together, without commenting if you can manage it (good luck). Remember that those kids are having to adjust to so many changes and overwhelming feelings- maybe huge disappointment that mum and dad haven't reconciled, maybe a new home environment, maybe sharing a parent they're used to having to themselves, maybe two households with completely different rules and expectations.

Put yourself in their shoes.  Their gig isn't easy, either.

And what about your partner? Try his shoes on, too.

He's probably terrified that you and the kids won't get on, and that can cause paralysis.  Or he might have entertained the fantasy that everything would run smoothly, and now that he's seen that it's not that easy he might be feeling very defensive about his kids... especially if you've let rip a few times.  He does love them, regardless of their faults. (And you might be ready to throttle them, but sit on it.)  Yes, the kids might be resenting you like hell and treating you like something that came in on their shoe- but take it for a while.  You need to deal with the co-parenting relationship before you can do anything at all with the children.

Had a good look? Okay, let's do the work.

Get a babysitter, take some extended time together (an hour is not 'extended'!) and talk through your parenting philosophies.  If you haven't a clue how to do this, why not start by reading my philosophy and talk about whether you agree or not? 

Talk about how your partner and his ex handled the kids when they were together, talk about what you've observed so far- what you liked, what you didn't like- then listen to the responses, and try to see things through your partner's eyes and through the kids' eyes. 

What are they used to? If they've always had TV dinners, and you want everyone to sit at the table and talk about their day, the time to address it is NOW with your partner- not the moment you serve up, which is a recipe for a blazing row.  Pick your battles.  Don't sweat the small stuff.

Respect the fact that your partner will have certain parenting strategies in place already, and you may need to make some challenging compromises.  Remember they're not your kids.  Maybe Sunday is TV dinner night, and Saturday is sit-at-the-table night.

Yes, bring up the things that have upset you, but use ' I ' statements.  Don't blame anyone.  State facts, state your feelings.  (Anger is only a disguise for another feeling- try to name the real feeling.  Eg if the kids played handball in the house and broke your favourite ornament, you might think you're angry, but the feeling underneath is probably more like 'abused' or 'disrespected'- or 'grief-stricken' if it had a lot of sentimental value.) 

Remember that you're probably feeling particularly sensitive too. At all costs, avoid comparisons between how much your partner loves his kids and how much he loves you!  If that question even comes into your mind, YOU are the one who needs counselling, because you're feeling insecure about your own worth.

Talk about acceptable boundaries for the kids until you both agree on them, and write them down.  (If you can't agree even on this, now is the time for relationship counselling.) Talk about what you'll do when the kids challenge the boundaries, till you've agreed on a discipline plan. Write it down.  And agree then and there to support each other.  Decide on a time when you'll talk to the kids, together, about reasonable guidelines for respectful behaviour.

Talk about how you might manage to provide quality time for the kids, for all the family relationships and for your partner relationship.  That means that you nurture the kids' special relationship with their real parent by sometimes encouraging them to do things together, without you, without feeling resentful.  It's really hard for a parent to interact authentically with his kids when he's worrying about how his beloved is reacting to every single thing he does and says- give them all some space.

It also means you agree to put up a no-go zone regularly, where you and your partner spend time together without you having to compete for attention with his kids.  You MUST nurture your own relationship.  You will need to present this to the kids too, and you'll need to do it quite firmly, but it's not so hard if you trade it off against the special dad-and-kids time.  Be completely honest about how hard this is for everyone.  Kids can smell sincerity and they can smell fakes.

In the initial stages of any changes to the discipline routine, the real parent needs to be the one who takes the hard line and the step-parent is the one who needs to stay in the background; resist the temptation to take stands on difficult issues until you have some positive street cred with those kids.  Remember to ask the kids for their opinions, and really listen to what they say; that's the best thing you can do right now.  Treat them as small human beings.  Defend yourself when it matters.  Remember you're the adult.

2. Reaching out across the trenches

Like I just said, kids can sense when you're being honest and when you're not.  They can sense when you're interested in them and when you're not.  They can sense when they're welcome, and when they're not.

Imagine if you had to visit a place where you didn't feel welcome every weekend, for as far into the future as you can imagine.  How would that affect your mood?

What can you do to make these kids feel welcome in this house? Do they have their own space, their own stuff, and power over that stuff? Have they had input into how their space looks?

When they arrive, is there some sort of special thing to look forward to- and I don't mean a weekly party, but is it maybe the time to have a regular pizza night, or some other small and stress-busting method of demonstrating that they're welcome?

Have you got a routine? Kids do respond well to routines.  The worst thing about parents breaking up is that it's so damn unpredictable.  Give them some regular structure in their time with you, and be a bit careful about messing with it.  Ask them how they want to spend their time with the two of you; contribute what you and your partner want as well, and sort out a very loose timetable- when you'll all hit the chores, when you promise to leave the kids alone to play games on the internet or whatever, when you'll go on a family outing of some sort.  Warn them if the routine's about to come unstuck because of something unavoidable.  Kids need time to adjust.

When you talk to them, do you do it in your normal adult voice? Make sure you don't have a special 'nice talking to the kiddies' voice. Tell them the truth, and look them in the eye.  That means telling them the truth about your emotions, too- be authentic with them. 

Remember that teenagers, in particular, have emotional and hormonal issues that have nothing to do with whatever you just said to them, and don't take what they say too personally.  Most of all, don't take rejection by them too seriously- they're at a stage of rejecting everything from adults.

Try to take a genuine interest in what they're doing, if you can.  Try to share some activities that you both enjoy- with boys anything to do with sport or the internet seems to be a winner, with girls it's pampering stuff like manicures and facials (and SHOPPING).  If you can ask them to help you do something special to please your partner, you're putting yourselves on the same side of the trench.  Can you shop together for his birthday present, or make him a beautiful meal together?

You can't undo damage that has been done to a child by a break-up overnight- and sometimes not at all.  But you can cut them some slack.  You can put some order in at least part of their world. You can be consistent and honest.  You can voice their feelings for them if they're having trouble doing so, phrasing it as a question. You can avoid telling them how they ought to feel about things or encroaching on their personal space.  You can show them honestly where your boundaries are and explain why. You can listen.  You can avoid judging.  You can try to put yourself in their shoes.

You may or may not win them over, but I'll say it again- unless you and your partner are on the same page, you have no hope.  So find that window of opportunity to talk your philosophy through with Mr Right, and until then- take a chill-pill!

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