How to Guide Your Kids Through Unexpected Change
Change is hard…
…that seems like an understatement for blended families. Unexpected changes tend to blindside us around every corner.
Rapid change is challenging for step-couples to navigate - it's even more difficult for kids.
Three Snapshots of Unexpected Change
I remember as a kid being excited about my dad's upcoming wedding. I have no memory of my birth mom. So, for me, Dad's marriage meant I was finally going to have a "mom" like all the other kids! But, it wasn't long after the wedding that I discovered just how harsh and unforgiving my new step-mom was. It was an abrupt and unexpected change that I didn't know how to deal with. And Dad didn't know how to help me through it.
Years later, it was my wedding day - I was about to become a step-dad to Annika. What I didn't know was that the night before, Kim was muddling through a tough conversation with Annika who was 5 at the time. She expressed to Kim that she didn't want us to get married. She was never able to identify a reason, but I'm betting it was because she was fearful of all the changes that our marriage would bring for her.
Fast forward to Annika turning 12 and everything was about to change again. After a decade of peaceful co-parenting between Kim and her Ex, everything fell apart. Unexpected and unexplainable changes hit and we found ourselves thrust into family court for a battle that lasted 3 years. And the one that struggled most was an adolescent child that didn't ask to be trampled on the battlefield.
These quick snapshots are all common challenges most kids face in stepfamilies. They're caught off guard when a step-parent or step-sibling doesn't respond the way they expected. They're often fearful of the unknown or rapid change. And they struggle being caught in the crossfire when tensions rise between their two homes.
Parents often assume that kids are easily adaptable simply because they're young. The truth is that kids lack the maturity and coping skills that you and I have developed as adults. We see our kids acting out or isolating and we focus on their behavior - so we look for a behavioral solution by doling out consequences.
However, the keenest parents and step-parents recognize that their kids' behavior is rooted in something deeper. These parents back up to see a bigger picture. They recognize that the rapid or unexpected changes their kids are experiencing is often at the root of negative behavior. So, they work to help their kids move through fear and anger in very simple ways.
Every parent/step-parent can help their kids reduce fear and anger by simply showing up in 3 distinct ways:
How often do you listen…really listen? When your child is expressing anger or frustration, are you listening to resolve the problem? Or, are you listening simply to understand?
We all want to be listened to and to feel heard. Our kids want that same thing.
But, this isn't easy for us. It can bring up feelings of sadness or guilt when we're reminded of the pain our kids are experiencing. So, we deflect their complaints, try to "fix it" or sometimes just ignore it altogether. We've been there - Kim and I get it.
It takes courage to really listen to our kids. To ask questions about how they're truly feeling and to help them feel heard. If you're still reading this, I know you've got the desire to help your kids feel heard. So, I'll offer one thing you can do to make that happen.
The next time your child begins to open up about their fears or frustrations with stepfamily life, have the courage to ONLY ask questions. Avoid the temptation to try and fix their problem or change their mind. Just ask questions that help them know you really care.
Here's a few to get you started:
- Can you share a little more about how you're feeling about that?
- What is it that makes this so challenging for you?
- What do you wish could be different?
- What do you see that's going pretty well right now?
Open ended questions like these can help you better understand your child and help them to know you really want to listen.
Affirm Their Emotions
After we've listened to understand, we need to find ways to affirm their emotions.
It's tough to affirm our kids negative emotions - especially when we don't see stepfamily life the way they do. We see the upside for us and the kids when we re-couple. And we expect the kids to get on board.
When they complain or lash out, we respond by trying to change their mind and get them to "see it our way". Then we're frustrated and exhausted when they dig their heels in and sink even deeper into their own perspective.
If you want to hijack that crazy cycle, try avoiding the argument by affirming them.
Here's a few statements that can help affirm emotions:
- It sounds like you're sad about this, I can understand why you feel that way.
- It seems like you're feeling angry right now. I'd probably be angry too if I were you.
- I can see you're feeling afraid of more changes and I get this is all a bit scary.
After you've affirmed their emotions, be ok with silence. Some kids will respond and keep sharing, others may just need to be held while they cry and others may just need to sit quietly for a while.
You might be amazed at how these simple affirmations can deescalate some of those difficult conversations and help your kids release some of the negative emotions they've been feeling stuck with.
Help Kid's Gain Some Control
We've all experienced times in our life when changes make us feel like we have no control. Maybe you experienced that at work, in school or in your family of origin. We don't cope very well when we feel like we have absolutely no control.
Most kids in stepfamilies feel they have no control over their lives. It's true that a multitude of things are out of their control. But if we want them to cope well with change, they need to discover some things they can control.
You can help them get there just by asking them what they can do next.
- What do you think you should do now?
- What's one thing you can do that would help you feel better about this situation?
- What is one way you can help yourself be better prepared next time something like this happens?
- What's one thing you've learned in all of this that will help you in the future?
Helping kids gain the feeling that they have some control of their own destiny can help them find a little more stability in their changing world.
And if they respond by telling you to change the impossible (like the parenting plan or getting rid of their step-parent), gently remind them those things can't change at this point and circle back to the question of what they can do.
If there's one thing stepfamilies can be sure of, it's change! Change comes in all different forms as a stepfamily develops. Most kids need some help and support to move forward. The great news is you don't have to be a child psychologist or family therapist to support them!
You've got what it takes to help your kid's feel heard, affirm their feelings and help them gain a little control over their own future. They'll be more equipped to cope with the changes that will inevitably come and you'll be their guide through the process.
QUESTION: How have you supported your child when they've struggled with lots of change? Leave a comment below…