How to Handle it When Your Kids Say Something That Hurts
"I just want to be at my dad's…I don't want to live here anymore!"
These are devastating words that we heard from our daughter (Annika) when she was heading into her teen years. And it seemed to come out of nowhere…
…Kim and her Ex had been co-parenting relatively peacefully for 10 years. The majority of that decade Annika was 50/50 between the two homes. She had never known any other way of life — she had been moving back and forth since she was 2 years old.
Kim was blindsided, hurt and confused. I was hurt and confused as well.
We're Not Alone
This challenging piece of our story is one that we hear repeated over and over from other step-couples too…it's certainly not unique to us.
As kids grow and mature, it's typical for them to want to try different things. You've probably seen them change everything from the friends they hang out with to their hairstyle over the years.
For kids living in dual families, it's common for them to want to make changes in this area of life too. Moving back and forth between homes is tough. They want to make things "easier" for themselves, especially as they're headed toward their teen years…
…but they usually lack the maturity and forethought to consider all the ramifications of a major change like this. Plus, many kids don't really care what the parenting plan says or what agreements you've made as parents. They're more focused on what they want - in the moment.
If you're experiencing this with one of your kids…you're not alone!
3 Steps Forward
So, what can you do about all this? We've found that to move forward effectively it's best to start with these three steps:
Step 1: Regulate Your Own Emotions
When a child requests more time in the other home, it can be emotional for parents and step-parents. Usually we feel rejected, hurt, fearful, angry, jealous or all of the above!
Most of those emotions are rooted in some sort of fear or insecurity. It might be a fear that their request is an indicator that your bond is weakening. Maybe it's a fear that the Ex is coaxing them away from you on purpose. Or it could be an insecurity in you that makes you feel like you're not good enough.
Whatever your emotion is…it's most likely focused on you and not the child.
If you want to navigate this challenge with clarity, then you've got to regulate your own emotions. You'll need to separate the emotions that are focused on your fears from the actions you take to best support your child.
This isn't always easy and you may need to seek some help. Talk through it with your spouse or partner, a trusted friend who can be wise in situations like this…or maybe a skilled coach or counselor. And when you reach out for help, make sure it's someone who understands the complexities of stepfamily life.
Once you've got your emotions in check…
Step 2: Listen to Understand
According to Dr. Stephen Covey, the 5th habit of highly effective people are those who "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."
If we're really honest with ourselves — when it comes to our kids — most of us focus on getting them to understand us rather than the other way around.
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When you're in the middle of a challenging conversation with one of your kids, focusing first on listening and fully understanding their perspective should be your priority. When you do, you'll accomplish two things:
You'll be validating their feelings which will help them to feel heard and make them more open to your input.
You'll begin to uncover what is at the root of their desire for the change their requesting which will help you
You might be wondering exactly how to listen well in these difficult conversations…
…one powerful skill you can put to use is good question asking. Not leading questions or pointed questions. But questions based on genuine curiosity about what's happening in your child's heart.
The best questions in these situations usually start with "What…" or "Tell me more about…" - here's a few examples:
What would be better for you if you spent more time at your dad's?
Tell me more about how a change like this would impact our time together.
What's been happening here that is frustrating you?
Tell me more about what else could help you right now.
These kinds of questions spoken in a calm and curious manner can often draw out the emotions kids tend to keep bottled up inside. They also allow you to have a meaningful conversation that helps them feel heard without you making any promises of change.
That leads us to step 3…
Step 3: Co-Create One New Action Step
Kids in stepfamilies often feel like their whole life is out of their control. Many times an attempt to change things like their visitation plan is really an attempt to gain a little control over their own circumstances.
You can help them gain a sense of control without giving into their request if you help them come up with just one action step that they can really own.
As you learn more about what's happening inside them by asking the questions from Step 2, you can then move the conversation toward action by saying something like, "Thank you for sharing this with me. I can see you're having a hard time with all of it. I hear that you want to make a change and am grateful that you trust me enough to tell me about it. I'm wondering what one thing you might be able to do that would improve your situation…"
As a Life Coach, I've learned that the most effect action steps are the ones my clients have developed themselves. You might wonder…"well then what do they need you for, Mike?" Haha…I sometimes wonder that myself! :-)
Just like me coaching a client, you're going to challenge your child to articulate just one thing they can do to make their situation better. This method can work with just about any challenge they may be having…including their argument to change their visitation.
And if they push back by claiming that the change they want is the only way forward, you can simply respond with something like, "I can't commit to changing the plan right now, and want you to know that I hear you. With that being said, what else might do to move forward?"
Hang in there even if they get frustrated with you. Co-creating their action steps isn't about you giving them your ideas for changes…it's about your persistence in asking them what changes they might make.
As you navigate these conversations, consider 2 important words. One to avoid and one to use…
Avoid "But" — it can be tempting to say things like, "I hear that you're frustrated, but…" That little three letter word hits the brain and essentially erases whatever you said before it. Replace "but" with "and"…like this, "I hear that you want to make a change right now, but and it's not something I can commit to at this point. I'm wondering what else you might do…"
Use the word "Might" — we often ask others what they "can", "could" or "should" do. These words have a tendency to put us into flight or fight mode. But "might" means possibilities. It's less of a commitment to come up with something you "might" do.
These may seem like minor details…just give them a try. Do a little Googling to check out the research behind these words. You might be surprised!
Hang in There…
Kids living in dual stepfamilies often push the boundaries and make requests that are emotionally difficult for parents and step-parents alike. You have what it takes to hold your ground AND be supportive as you lead them through these difficult conversations.
Think about how you'll approach your next challenging conversation using these 3 steps…and hang in there!
QUESTION: What's the most challenging part about regulating your own emotions when your child says something hurtful? Leave a comment below…