One Step-Couple's BIG WINS in Parenting as a Team
There are different scenarios in step-family dynamics that can cause kids to react and behave poorly - it often appears that they're trying to sabotage the adult's relationship or at the very least, stir up trouble.
Last week, I shared three simple choices that step-parents can make when their step-kids use manipulative tactics to wage war against them. Making those choices is just a start. It's also important to explore why kids act out in the first place and how to stay united in your partnership when tensions are high.
A step-couple we've coached — I'll call them Richard and Sandy (not their real names) struggled to understand why Richard's daughter Hannah was being so difficult as they attempted to 'blend' as a family.
Sandy complained that Hannah was combative with her and often tried to come between her and Richard. She described a rivalry between her and Hannah. Whether it was what to eat for dinner or where to go on the weekend, each of them would fight to be heard and attempt to influence the situation. It seemed they were always in opposition no matter how accommodating Sandy tried to be.
Richard, who was caught in the middle, didn't know what to do. He didn't want to spend his visitation time with his daughter arguing about petty things like why she adamantly rejected every movie suggestion Sandy made. He really wanted all of them to enjoy movie night together, but Hannah seemed to go out of her way to annoy her step-mom and create conflict.
Richard was confused by Hannah's behavior explaining that she was often rude and even mean to Sandy. He'd never seen her act this way toward another adult. He also expressed sadness around the conflict that he and Sandy experienced during and following Hannah's visits. He really wanted to be there for his daughter and his wife, but felt he was falling short and letting them both down.
This story is a pretty common scenario for many stepfamilies. We all need to understand that learning to share a parent with a new step-parent is one of the hardest things for children to navigate.
Understanding the Motives
Because children are immature and haven't developed self-awareness or the verbal skill they need to express emotion, they tend to resort to manipulation to get their needs met. There's often a rational reason why kids feel the need to act out.
We asked Richard to describe his relationship with Hannah before he met Sandy. He told us that he and Hannah had been close. They enjoyed snuggling on the couch, watching movies and that they used to spend lots of time together.
Then we asked Richard and Sandy to put themselves into Hannah shoes.
They both started to understand that Hannah's drive to oppose and compete with Sandy was most likely the result of feeling displaced in her father's life. They really wanted to meet Hannah's needs and they were ready to try something new.
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Two Strategies to Move Through the Tension
1. Help Kids Process their Emotions
The best thing a parent can do for their hurting child is to enter into their painful reality. Kids experience negative emotions like anger, fear and sadness. Accepting and working through these emotions can be a difficult process for both parent and child. But please don't avoid this struggle - If kids don't talk it out, they'll act it out (same goes for us adults)!
Richard was able to sit down and connect with Hannah - this helped him to understand more about what was going on with her emotionally. To do this he needed to be empathetic and realize that her experience living in step family dynamics was very different than his.
When a parent is able to empathize with a child and help them to identify their feelings, fears and concerns, they will gain valuable insight. Richard and Sandy used their new insight to create a strategy for their family moving forward.
2. Move Forward as a United Team
When Richard and Sandy were able to work together to explore what Hannah was experiencing and brainstorm how to best meet everyone's needs, they experienced some BIG WINS:
Big Win #1 Choosing to be united in their decisions reduced conflict and grew their partnership. Sandy no longer felt like an outsider whose life was being manipulated, instead she felt like a parenting partner with Richard as they agreed to implement some new strategies. They were a functioning team!
During Richard's heart-to-heart talk with Hannah he'd learned that she really missed snuggling on the couch and watching movies with him. She expressed that Sandy's presence sometimes felt "awkward" and made her miss the relationship they used to have. She seemed to be experiencing sadness over the loss of this cherished time with Dad — time that made her feel secure and loved.
Richard and Sandy brainstormed and decided to intentionally schedule some 'one-on-one time' for Hannah and Richard during each visit. Sandy agreed that she would use that time to visit with friends or indulge in some self-care. This was a united decision! They also scheduled some couple-time for them to enjoy and grow their romantic relationship - everyone's needs would be met!
Big Win #2 When Richard and Sandy picked Hannah up for her next visit, Sandy cheerfully announced that she'd be spending Saturday afternoon with some friends. She also expressed excitement about Hannah getting some special alone time with her dad while she was gone — she was genuinely happy for Hannah. This deescalated the tensions right away.
Hannah's behavior began to change. She no longer had to act out or manipulate to get what she needed because Dad and Sandy were taking care of her needs. She also recognized that the adults were united in their decisions and they were both on her side. This caused the rivalry between Sandy and Hannah to fade.
Richard and Sandy can use this process to address other issues where Hannah seems to be having a hard time and they can continue to rack up some big wins for everyone!
Explore, Evaluate, Experiment and Educate
We coached Richard and Sandy to continue to talk on a regular basis and explore ways to slowly integrate Sandy into select movie nights — when the timing felt right for everyone. Then they would evaluate how things went based on their observations of Hannah's behavior.
Richard kept communication with Hannah open and invite her into the process of experimenting with different family activities when Sandy was included.
The reality is that kids can struggle with these complex dynamics. But, you don't have to stay stuck in conflict. Just like Richard and Sandy, you can seek stepfamily education and learn how you can implement healthy strategies that meet everyone's needs and keep you moving forward as a united team.
QUESTION: What's one new thing you can do to work as a united team around parenting decisions? Leave a comment below…