The Sane Step: Pitfalls to Avoid
By Kay Adkins
Most every stepparent will eventually realize what an insane proposition it was to enter stepfamily life. All to soon we get caught in the snares of the fine print we neglected to read: “I Stepparent Doe, willingly volunteer to take on the hurtful issues of three families—the two families of origin and my new stepfamily.” How crazy is that?
Yet when we understand that God is a Redeemer and a Re-builder, and he is involving us in his plan to restore wounded hearts, it doesn’t seem so crazy. So, what are some of the insanity traps of stepfamily life stepparents can work to avoid so we do not go insane in the process?
Trapdoor #1: Feeling Like a Failure
In my own experience, my role has evolved based upon the developmental needs and emotional states of my stepdaughters. I was usually slow on the uptake to realize when things were changing, so I often felt like a failure.
Since no one goes to stepparent school, we each go through on-the-job training. Stepfamily life by nature is unpredictable; we can’t always prepare for the changes ahead. To avoid that trap of feeling like a failure:
- As much as possible, openly agree with your spouse and your stepkids on the role you’ll play in their lives. Tweak that agreement as their needs change, and as they enter deeper levels of understanding about their family circumstances.
- Then, don’t fear the emotions. Frustration and grief will happen when changes happen. Experience the grief when a stepchild turns away from you. Be frustrated when your agreed upon rules are suddenly changed by the other parent.
Last, overcome the emotions instead of letting them overcome you.
- Accept with thankfulness the things that go well,
- Discuss, but don’t dwell on the things that don’t,
- And be content with whatever right you can do.
Trapdoor #2: Lack of Unity in Discipline Efforts
Mark 3:25 states, “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” If couples cannot stand firmly together on issues of discipline, they will be easily ensnared by emotional manipulations of their children who believe they control their parent’s heartstrings. Children also believe that their bad behaviors can create a wedge between parents and stepparents.
To avoid traps that destroy unity:
- Make clear rules
- Maintain that unified front by:
- Not being drawn into gossip or negative communications with children about your spouse
- Honoring and supporting each other’s decisions in front of the kids, then ironing out your disagreements behind closed doors
- On the occasions when things go wrong (and they will!) don’t lecture, lose control, or over-react. You’ll only prove your stepchild’s case: that you are a raving lunatic out to get them!
- Dispel their beliefs with consistent, gentle and loving communication that, as a couple, you are functioning as a team to manage the family.
The divisive behaviors of children may never completely disappear, but the more they subside, the greater the sanity of everyone.
Trapdoor #3: A Critical Spirit Toward Stepkids and Spouses
To avoid the critical spirit trap with stepkids:
- Offer them your friendship. Show kindness. Laugh together and have fun, but don’t use “fun” to escape helping them through hard issues. Be authentic.
- Handle their feelings with tact and dignity. Listen well and affirm their rights to their feelings.
- Model the things you hope they will learn.
- Offer to help them with problems, like homework and relationships.
- When they solicit your input, answer questions well and unemotionally.
- Don’t give up.
To avoid that trap with your spouse:
- Understand and empathize with your spouse’s emotional dilemmas. Stepfamily life is an emotional minefield, and your spouse will blow it from time to time. Keep encouraging him or her toward responsible parenting.
- In times of conflict, if there is no mutually agreeable compromise, let your spouse make the final call regarding his or her own children, then support that decision.
- Don’t be in a hurry to assume an authoritative role with your stepkids.
- Don’t give up.
Trapdoor #4: Anger
Anger is a normal part of the stepfamily experience. If you can’t manage anger well, you’ll add fuel to the fire. Some suggestions for anger management include:
Memorize some of the anger scriptures:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Prov. 15:1, NASB)
“But everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” (James 1:19, NASB)
“But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth.” (Col. 3:8, NASB)
“Be angry, and yet do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger. And do not give the devil an opportunity.” (Eph. 4:26-27, NASB)
- Recall the last time you reacted in anger to a stepchild. What tripped your angry reaction? What would have been a more constructive response?
- Pay attention when stepchildren begin to trip your triggers. Employ one of the constructive responses, rather than “doing what comes naturally.”
- Ask questions rather than commenting. A stepparent who encourages a child to talk, and tries to fully understand, will make much more progress than a stepparent who needs to prove his or her “rightness.”
- Don’t be sucked into power struggles.
- When you feel like exploding, retreat! Take time to be alone with your emotions, to review the problem, and to plan an honest response that will promote good will.
The Safe Path: A Sound Mind
Second Timothy 1:7 in the Amplified Bible states, “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity (of cowardice, of craven and cringing and fawning fear), but [He has given us a spirit] of power and of love and of calm and well-balanced mind and discipline and self-control.”
God’s plan, even for stepparents, is to give us a calm and well-balanced mind. Know that any time we fall into an insanity trap, he can rescue us. Taking our eyes off of our wounded pride and refocusing on God’s purpose to heal and restore each family member (including us stepparents!) is the way out.
So if you fall in, don’t forget to look up!