By Susan J. Hetrick
Almost half of American households are comprised of stepfamilies. And if anything can throw your life out of balance, it’s an unexpected storm in your stepfamily.
I live in Arizona, where a summer breeze is like a blast furnace. We may joke about the dry heat, but summers here are torrid. Desert-dwellers basically learn to deal with temperatures above 110 degrees. However, we also have a really interesting weather phenomenon called the monsoon. It is a seasonal wind shift that occurs during the latter part of the summer, bringing moisture and humidity up from the Gulf of Mexico into our scorching valley. During the monsoon we experience huge walls of dust that rapidly blow into the valley and create impossible visibility conditions, followed by crashing thunder, torrential rainfall ("But it's a dry rain!"), and spectacular lightening strikes. People who live here look forward to the monsoon, despite the risks and dangers it entails, because we need the rain. After weeks of temperatures in the 113 degree range, a rainstorm can be refreshing.
What does the monsoon have to do with living in a stepfamily? Stepfamilies experience emotional monsoon-like conditions more often than nuclear families. In a stepfamily, life may seem kind of quiet and calm for a period of time, when suddenly, out of nowhere comes a huge emotional storm that disrupts everyone's ability to see clearly, has family members running for cover from torrents of tears, thunderous anger, and venomous lightening strikes. It is an emotional wind-shift, so to speak. It may even be seasonal!
Winds of Change
Most emotional monsoons that occur in stepfamilies are caused by residual grief. To children, the birth of a stepfamily is a death-sentence to their fantasy that mom and dad will get back together someday. From everything we've learned about the effects of divorce on children, we know that this is a very real desire for almost all kids whose parents divorce. It doesn't matter how bad the first marriage was or how old the kids were when their parents split up. Children (even adult children) persistently cling to this fantasy. The reality of mom and dad never getting back together becomes horribly clear to a child when one of their parents marries someone else. This results in feelings of confusion, anger and grief in the child. Children are rarely able to verbalize these feelings, and in fact may not even be aware of them. Often these emotions are acted out with temper tantrums, academic failure, and anti-social or aggressive behavior, depending on the child's age.
These emotions can also erupt into the occasional storms that seem to have no rational connection to anything! Children often deal with strong emotions in bits and pieces over time. For example, when a child's parents divorce, the child may pretend that nothing has changed, and act as if the divorce doesn't bother them at all. They may not acknowledge their emotions for years. Or they may act out sporadically. When their parent remarries, the child's latent grief over the divorce may suddenly surface when combined with anger over the new marriage. All of these strong emotions may manifest themselves in behavioral problems which seem to have no rational connection to any precipitating event, becoming an emotional monsoon.
Tempest in a Teen
Some of the anger and grief that the children feel may also emerge on holidays or on the anniversaries of either the divorce or their parents’ remarriages. Essentially, any occasion that could bring up emotional memories is primetime for a stepfamily storm. A few years ago, we noticed this phenomenon with my daughter, Zoni, who was 13 at the time. She became moody and irritable in early November, around the anniversary of her father’s remarriage. Her mood continued for two weeks into the Thanksgiving holiday. When her father failed to call her on Thanksgiving Day she became openly hostile to everyone in our house; slamming doors, stomping around and yelling at all of us.
That weekend I bought her a new pair of jeans, and within the hour she had “customized” them with a Sharpie pen and a pair of scissors. Normally I wouldn’t object to her decorating her jeans, but she chose to write profanities all over them – using words I would never allow to be used in our home.
Zoni and I sat down and discussed her unacceptable behavior and attitude – or should I say; I discussed, she glared. I suggested to her that many children of divorce become angry at their absent parent but take it out on those around them. I asked her if this might be what she was going through. She came to the conclusion that maybe she was angry with her father – not our family. Once she realized this, it was as if the floodgates opened. She sobbed as she told me she was angry at her dad for getting remarried, for being absent from her life, and for not calling her on Thanksgiving. She was also afraid to let him know she was angry at him because deep down she was worried that he would disappear from her life forever. It was easier for her to take her anger out on our family because we were “safe”. She knew that we would never leave her or reject her, no matter how atrocious and unacceptable her behavior was.
So how do you deal with a stepfamily storm? The same way we deal with the Arizona monsoon. Preparation is the key. By understanding what to expect (emotional outbursts that appear out of nowhere) and why (a holiday or anniversary, phone call or visit with the other parent), you can be better prepared. Offer your child or stepchild a shelter from the storm, by saying "I can see that you are upset. Can we talk about why you are feeling this way?" Try to gain a clearer understanding of the underlying cause of the sudden storm.
Above all, speak kindly to each other and don’t take anything personally. Keep in mind that no one, including your child or your stepchild, does anything because of you. Most of their actions are motivated by their own internal thoughts or conflicts. You will be free to let things go and not take them personally, once you understand that very little of what people do or say is because of you. And remember – storms always blow over.
Susan J. Hetrick is the author of Advice from the Blender: what to know before you blend so nobody gets creamed (2007, Xulon Press). She continues to write and is a sought-after speaker on various stepfamily topics. More information on stepfamilies can be found on her website: www.advicefromtheblender.com.