When the Going Gets Tough, Click Reboot
Ron L. Deal
After twelve years as a loving stepfather, Grant started hearing something from his stepdaughter, Cassandra, that he had never heard before, “You’re not my dad. I don’t have to do what you say.” The words cut deep, as did her cold distance and angry tirades. Despite a seemingly cordial steprelationship for years Grant now questioned whether he and Cassandra had really ever been close. Why would she do something like this? He also questioned himself and his role in the family.
I spent some time with Cassandra to explore the issues. As I suspected something had changed in her relationship with her biological father (sometimes changes in relationships with the other home can surge a child’s loyalty conflicts). Her dad had been involved in her life since the divorce, but inconsistently so. Most recently, however, he moved in with a woman, became highly involved with her children, and became “M.I.A.” for Cassandra. Again, she felt left behind, unimportant, and traded away for his girlfriends kids.
Why So Tough?
Even in the best of circumstances children in stepfamilies have been through a lot. I often say that no one in stepfamilies has experience more loss than kids. They’ve lost a parent to death or a family to divorce and in the process lose psychological security, a sense of control in life, contact with family members, and sometimes trust in God. These compounding losses result in a great deal of sadness that often reveals itself as anger, a lack of cooperation, depression, or as in Cassandra’s case, an oppositional attitude. Her father’s emotional absence brought even more pain and fueled a loyalty bind: if she continued to obey her stepdad and let him into her heart, would there be even less room for her father if he returned? It’s a tough spot to be in—and when kids are in a tough spot, they tend to get tough with their stepparent. To respond, parents and stepparents need to partner up and reboot their parenting.
- Step back, step up. For whatever reason, when a stepparent and stepchild are at odds it’s wise for the biological parent to step up to the primary authority position with the child (“first violin”) while the stepparent steps back (“second violin”). That is, when behavioral management of a child is at issue, the biological parent, who by nature has a stronger voice of authority with their child, should take over the heavy lifting of enforcing discipline or handing down punishment. The stepparent should step back from these tasks. This gives the stepparent and stepchild a chance to heal. This only works, however, if the biological parent is not paralyzed by guilt or fear (in which case the stepparent will remain at odds with the child) and is willing to engage the job of discipline.
- Approach with humility and compassion. A callous or victim attitude by the stepparent only perpetuates the child’s defenses and toughens their outer shell. Try not to take things so personally and instead approach the child with compassion. Listen around their words or anger to the hurt that lies beneath. Give permission to appropriate expressions of grief (as opposed to angry, defiant ones) and show them you can tolerate their sadness. Finally, if you have anything to apologize for as the stepparent, humbly do so. Humility tends to soften the hearts of those against us.
- As a parenting team, balance your response and stand strong together. For example, Chelsea might articulate the following to her daughter, Cassandra. [Showing compassion] “We regret how much your dad has disappointed and hurt you. You certainly don’t deserve being pushed aside this way; we think you’re great. And yet [shifting to behavioral management] you may not disrespect Grant or take your anger out on him. You need to follow the rules like your brothers. He’s not trying to take your dad’s place, but he is an authority in your life and I expect you to listen to him. You don’t have to like or love him, but you do have to be respectful. If not, you’ll have to deal with me. Now, let’s talk about how you might reconnect with your dad.”
- Let the child set the pace. Wise stepparents follow the child’s pace in sharing affection and establishing authority. This is especially important when trying to heal and reconnect with a tough stepchild. Look for little opportunities to laugh together or share an activity, but don’t push yourself on them. If they want to be cordial but distant, grant it. If they offer a smile, reflect it. Never stop pursuing their heart and grow from where you are.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.