Kids: Manipulative or Misunderstood?

Kids: Manipulative or Misunderstood?

Oh, those hysterical sabotage scenes from The Parent Trap movies (both versions are packed with them)! 

Adorable twin girls, reunited with each other and with both biological parents after all these years…should bring about a season of reconnection and joy.  But, these sisters have a big problem that requires all their attention as they dole out mischievous ploys and malicious pranks.  The goal:  to break up their father and his fiancé! 

Yes, I laugh every time I watch those crafty twins as they pack rocks into her backpack and plop a lizard on her head and set her air mattress afloat in the lake…while she's sleeping!!!  And when it takes place on a movie screen straight from Hollywood it's funny, but when kids act this way in real life, in our lives…well, not so funny.  An outsider would naturally jump to the conclusion that kids behaving in this way are brats…they're selfish and being manipulative in an attempt to control their parent's lives! 

Well, the last time I watched the 1998 version of The Parent Trap, as a stepfamily educator, I wondered how differently things could've been for this family (and real life stepfamilies) if the adults really understood the perspectives of the kids.  What lies beneath that bad attitude, the acting out or isolating…what's REALLY going on?

Here are three common perspectives to consider when single parents recouple:

1.  Kids will most often view a parent's new relationship as another loss for them

Following their parent's divorce or the loss of a parent to death or abandonment, kids may feel powerless as they are overwhelmed by the changes taking place in their lives.  And, formation of a new stepfamily means even more change.  Like those lively twins, many kids hold onto hope that their parents will someday reunite and that dream is crushed when a parent remarries.  A recoupling may also trigger fear; How will this affect their relationship with Mom or Dad?  What other changes are ahead?   If you're a parent, don't underestimate the impact loss may have on your children.  

2.  Learning to share a parent with a new stepparent is one of the hardest things for children to navigate

Kids may feel that they've lost some control, stability or even love if they are now having to share their parent's time and attention with a new stepparent.  Some may try to protect their parental relationship by pushing away the outsiders & blocking their involvement in the family(sound familiar).   The tension in kids, created by a new love interest in their parent's life, may bring about a perceived disruption to their parental bond & produce insecurity.  They may appear to be manipulative as they compete for their parent's time and attention, but they're really hurting inside. 

3.  The perspective of the kids can be dramatically different from the adults

Often when a parent falls in love and begins a new relationship, they tend to assume their children will embrace the benefit of their partnership and be eager to move forward in forming a stepfamily.  But, often in our excitement, adults will want to move faster than kids can bear.

As you can see in this picture, Mike and I were filled with joy and excitement on our wedding day, but my daughter Annika…not so much. 

The night before the wedding she surprised me by telling me that I shouldn't marry Mike.   Her reasoning:  "He talked to softly on our answering machine".  At five years old she was unable to articulate her feelings.  And even though she really liked Mike & connected well with him, she was confused, conflicted and her perspective was definitely different than mine.

The adults in The Parent Trap, as well as real life parents and step-parents, could possibly avoid some of the misunderstandings, mischief and misery by looking at the situation through the eyes of their kids.   First, take the time to identify all the losses they've sustained to this point, this can be difficult for a parent to face, but yields valuable insight.  Next, consider possible emotions that kids may be experiencing as a result of loss (disappointment, anger, sadness, jealousy, worry, apathy, betrayal, fear)?  Then, look for behaviors - the most common are guardedness, isolation and angry outbursts.  Many adults believe that kids are emotionally sturdy & able to "bounce back" from loss & grief easily, but this simply isn't the case for most kids. Empathy and understanding can go a long way in helping kids to grieve their losses and cope with immerging emotions…and maybe even avoid those not-so-funny sabotage scenes!

QUESTION:  Where might you be misunderstanding one of your kids or step-kids?  Leave a comment below:

2 Reasons You Need Help - Even When Stepfamily Life is Great!

2 Reasons You Need Help - Even When Stepfamily Life is Great!