Being a Stepparent: What You Need to Know to Make It Work

Being a Stepparent: What you Need to Know To Make Them Work

I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags Madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).

Being a step-parent is up there with the hardest. My stepchildren are adults now and even though the fog has cleared, I still claim that it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

From the outset, there are things about a stepfamily that would likely hint at trouble if they happened in a biological family:

  • Another person (the other biological parent) has a hand in some of the big decisions that affect your family – the way the kids are raised (which will always have an impact on your home), weekends, holidays, family rituals, rules. Though you will have a say, there’s a third person who is invested and who will potentially want to be heard.
  • The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. In a biological family, both parents have an equal say and big decisions are made by the couple. In a stepfamily, matters to do with the child will often be between the biological parents, or the biological parent and child. Potentially, the step-parent will have less influence in decisions that impact the family and the individuals in it.
  • The step-parent is an outsider. There are years of shared history, memories, connection and experiences between members of the biological family that the step-parent will never be a part of. Of course, there is great potential for the stepfamily to grow into something new and wonderful, but first there will be a bit of compromise.

Being the second wife/husband/important person does have benefits, the main one of which is that your partner already has a realistic idea of the work that’s required to make a marriage work. There are no illusions the second time around in relation to the marriage, though there may be a few in relation to the family.

The good news is that there are things that can be done to smooth the bumps along the way, even if you can’t completely disappear them:

  1. Let go of the fantasy.

    It sounds simple enough (it’s not) but it could be the difference between your relationship working or not. That’s not overstating it. It really is that important.

    An abundance of research has confirmed that unhappiness is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. It’s not so much the situation that causes distress but that the situation is different to what’s expected.

    In a stepfamily, everyone comes with their own fantasy. It’s completely normal and inevitable – but if you hang on to the fantasy too tightly, it could very well fall you. Most couples come into a stepfamily thinking that the family will immediately gel, the relationships will be tight, everyone will feel the love and the family will be a happy one. But it really doesn’t work like that.

    In a biological family, there would be problems if there was no expectation that you will love your children, they’ll love you back and all will be close. In a stepfamily though, these fantasies set up the potential for profound disappointment. Why? Because all family members come with their own fantasy, some of which are completely incompatible.

    Patricia Papernow is a leader in the field of stepfamilies. Her book, Being a Stepfamily, is the best I’ve read. (Just in case you were wondering, this is not an affiliate link – I just love the book. It was a game-changer for me in my own experience as a step-parent.) She identified the following fantasies which are typical in a stepfamily:

    •  Step-parent: ‘We’ll be one big happy family. The kids will love me. I’ll love them back. My relationship will be solid. I can’t wait for us all to be a family.’

    •  Biological Parent: ‘My partner will love the kids as much as I do and the kids will love him/her back. The kids will be so grateful for everything he/she gives this family. I just can’t wait to show everyone how happy we can be as a family.’

    •  The kids: ‘It’s only a matter of time before mum and dad get back together. They actually love each other a lot and as soon as they realise that we can be a family again.’

    Letting go of the fantasy allows for greater acceptance of the reality, more respect for what ‘is’ and more of the flexibility that’s needed to get to wherever you’re going as a family. A stepfamily can be as happy and successful as any other, but it will be different. It’s important to let go of the fantasy gently though, because your imaginings of what things would be like would have been a big part of the reason you decided to do this. And don’t worry, let go of the fantasy and reality will see to it that eventually, something at least as good will take its place.

  2. See the rough patches for what they are – a progression not a fall.

    There are going to be rough patches and that’s okay. Accept them as a sign of progress towards a new kind of family – one with you in it. Your experience of the stepfamily might be different to what you expected but it doesn’t mean a happy ending isn’t coming.

    It’s likely that at some point you will feel like an outsider, as well as jealous, lonely, resentful, confused and inadequate. You’ll probably experience hostility, indifference or rejection from your stepkids and more than likely you’ll fight with your partner more than you expected. This is normal. Accept it, let it unfold and most importantly don’t take it personally, though I know that’s easier said than done.

    It feels like a shakeup, and it is, but it’s all part of the adjustment the family has to go through to get to something better.  The family is recalibrating and changing shape to make way for you. That sort of adjustment was never going to be easy. Sometimes things have to fall apart a little so they can come back together in a different way. See the rough patches for what they are – a remaking, a realignment, a progression towards something new, rather than a threat.

  3. Understand and respond to the loyalty bind.

    It’s normal for children to worry that their acceptance of a step-parent might betray their biological parent. They might worry that if they like you, accept you or love you, their biological parent will be hurt or angry. This may increase their need to show loyalty to the biological parent by rejecting you or being hostile to you to ‘prove’ their love and loyalty to their parent.

    If you suspect a loyalty bind might be at play, see it for what it is and don’t take it personally. Let your stepchild know that you aren’t trying to replace his or her biological parent and that you know nobody could ever do that. Let them know it’s okay to feel as they do and that you will work through it together.

    Next, gently put the idea out there that they can care about you and love their other parent at the same time. Acknowledge that you know that their relationship with their biological parent will always be special and different to anything else. Let them know you would like to try to have a relationship that is good for both you and the child, and that you’ll follow their lead as to what that looks like.

  4. When your stepchild is ready, work on creating a new relationship.

    Don’t try to replicate the relationship your child has with their biological parent. This runs the risk of inflaming the loyalty bind but it also takes away the opportunity for you to create something new. You have qualities, wisdom and experience that will be different to those of the other adults in the child’s life. It may take a while for your stepchild to appreciate that, but be patient. Find new things to share that are different to what the child has with his or her biological parent.

  5. Decide on what’s important. And let the rest go.

    There will be plenty to argue about. The fact that a stepfamily is in the making means that nobody’s story has ended the way they thought it would. Nobody goes into marriage anticipating divorce and children don’t look forward to the day their parents live in separate houses. There’s a lot going on – broken hearts, endings and angry people. People won’t always be on their best behaviour.

    Decide on the things that are important to you and let the rest go. Push gently for the change that needs to happen but at the same time, respect the rest of the family’s need for stability.

    The balance will get precarious at times but it’s an important part of getting to where you need to be. You won’t be able to function as a new family until differences are worked through and people have enough of what they need to not feel compromised. Without a doubt, your new family can be phenomenal but it will take time.

  6. Appreciate the small stuff.

    Understand that it may be difficult for your stepchild to accept you or show affection for so many reasons, none of which will have anything to do with how they feel about you. The upheaval, their own grief, and loyalty binds all make for shaky ground. Appreciate the small moments of contact. It’s easy to overlook them but when they happen, know that it’s big.

  7. Respect that it will take time.

    In her extensive work, Papernow has found that stepfamilies take about 7-12 years to adjust and to exist as a healthy, well-functioning system. Quicker families might do it in four but some families never really get there. I wonder how much of the time frame has to do with the stepchildren reaching independence and establishing a relationship with their step-parents as adults, rather than children.

  8. Be open to letting go.

    Be open to the possibility that you may never be close to all or any of your stepchildren. One may have less need for another adult in their lives or may feel the conflict of a loyalty bind more than the others. You might also just be too different from each other to make it work. The most important thing is that when they are younger, you are committed to making it work, but that doesn’t mean it will work out as planned. There is enormous grace and courage in being able to let go, which is different to giving up.

All stepfamilies are different but they share common vulnerabilities. They can be as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family is smooth sailing all the time but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges at the start that are unique. Within that is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.

204 Comments

Honey

I’m 21 years old turning 22 years old this year and my partner is 75 years old and he has two kids one the daughter is 35 years and the son is 16 years old the daughter has a partner to she is not married has two kids and she has a problem with me I recently changed my Facebook surname and she told me I should not change it ,it is fraud I should remove it and that hurt me a lot I guess she has not yet accepted me the son is very kind he doesn’t really care what can I do

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Wilhem S

It’s also very much luck of the draw, just like with a biological child. They argue and fight in different ways, saying you are not their “real” parent, they probably have some psychological problems because of the separation of their parents, and the other parent can also “put you in your place” because they perceive you can’t parent like they can.
Being a step-parent is probably the hardest parent type to be, since you weren’t there in the beginning, and everyone in some manner is somewhat against in at times. The truth is you either need to go all in and love unconditionally, expect little to no gratitude, tell yourself you are helping bring a responsible adult into the world, or you should always just make yourself the second string player and let the bio parent make all the rules and run the show, no matter how good or bad they are at it, because at the end of the day you will get little to no satisfaction or joy from them. It is a very unrecognized role, no matter which gender.
I wish every step parent good luck and the ability to be strong because it will be adversarial in most cases for most of the childhood left.
Personally, I felt I gave it my all and they turned out ok, but in retrospect I would never have gone down that path, I should have stayed in the corner and just let them be because the scars will never heal and there is nowhere to go for the anger and annoyance and bitterness they created.

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Alyssa C

I am currently in a relationship and my partner has two children. One 6 yrs old and one 3 yrs old. We have been together almost a year but the father is in the picture very much so they spend 5 days with her and 5 days with him. As of recently things have shifted and she’s had the kids more full time. I don’t have any children and it’s been an adjustment doing what I can and being supportive and spending time w the kids when I can. I do however feel drained after about 3 days spending w them and I feel guilty about it. Now that things are shifting and she’s more full time it scares me knowing that this could be permanent. I feel selfish thinking that I will be pushed aside in the relationship, not appreciated for what I do/ or will have to do in the future to hold up my end. I never really wanted kids, but I do love her and the children and want to do my best to make this work. But it also feels like I’m selling myself short and just trying to make it work bc i feel like it’s the right thing to do. I’m so confused and hurting myself in the process w guilt and self criticism. I don’t want to walk away and feel the same or feel like I should of tried harder. They are young but I feel like they have established ways of doing things already. Not to mention the father isn’t the greatest person. Any advice?

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Second Fiddle

I am 50 and I’ve been with my wife now for almost seven years. I love her dearly and first and foremost, which is what I always read a marriage should be: you & your spouse come first, your love for each other comes first, you make time for each other (including intimacy) and then some. I understand that when you are the “step-parent”–which I am–you enter a different situation: your spouse (the biological parent) is focused primarily on the kids’ well-being. This makes perfect sense to me and I totally get that the kids should be a priority. However, I am deeply concerned that once the kids are both graduated from high school in five years, the promise that she made to me when I verbalized what I wanted at the beginning of our relationship will be broken because she grips so tightly to the kids. While I’m not faulting her for wanting closeness with them, I just feel like our marriage will never be the priority. I don’t want to be in a relationship where the kids even as adults are an everyday part of our lives. I want time for us, intimacy for us, and for the kids to have their own lives apart from us. It doesn’t mean I don’t want the kids to ever be important or a part of our concerns or lives. But it does mean I want us to pursue our joys and interests together as a couple at some point. I just feel like I’m here sometimes to carry the financial burden and tend to the kids and that’s really it. I hate to say it, but I would never have gotten involved in the relationship if I felt this would be the direction that, more and more, it seems to be heading.

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Todd

Loved reading this! Unfortunately I have to curb my angst at the thought of passing it on to my Son’s Mum and new Partner as something that could potentially solve the majority of issues. The one thing that is present in the first passage is a clear, ‘it is what is best for the child/children’. I believe that if all parties involved do this; what is best for the child/children, the probability of success is almost certain. I needed this for reassurance that my Fatherly instincts are genuine and true and to keep moving forward against no matter the vengeful resistance. Parents and Step Parents please enlighten yourselves. See the child and listen to them. Do your best for the kids.

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Samantha D

I’ve been with my partner for nearly five years now. He has four children, his youngest is 12 and stays with us on weekends and holidays. Her parents are both in their late forties. It feels like they’ve given up on her. She’s constantly on her phone from morning to night, in her room. It breaks my heart as she is a very bright sweet girl but she has no manners, eats with her fingers still, just has to moan if she doesn’t want to do anything and she doesn’t have to do it. I try to talk to my partner but all I get is “she’s a child”. Yes, a child that needs guidance and boundaries and general life skills. It makes everything so difficult, we don’t go out or do anything when she is here, once in a blue moon maybe. I really don’t know how to approach this matter anymore in fear of feeling like an ogre stepmum. Some advice would be amazing. I think she is very depressed too. Thanks in advance.

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Drew

After 2 years my partner and I have been seeing each other predominantly when we haven’t got our own children with us. We both have 2 children, mine being older {9 and 11) whereas hers are are 6 and 8. Her eldest is hard work and as I contemplate combining families, as this what my partner wants after 2 years of seeing each other, I’m am really worried about the impact on my 2 much quieter and calm children.
I wish I can talk through the issues I’m having to face, with someone who has done this. I miss her so much (start started having a break while I have a ‘think’ about what to do) but my kids wishes after I explain to them what I’d like to do (to give the moving in thing a trial go) , must take priority I think. I don’t even know if I’ll get anywhere on here, but reading the comments above it seems there are people in similar dilemas. Please reply if u can help me..

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Niki

Well I’m that mom who was a teen mom, married her childhood boyfriend stayed married for 12 years, had 2 children with him, one out of wed who ended up divorced and now married to a woman! Where do you go now when you feel that you and your wife have tried everything to build a relationship with my 15 yr old son? Any advice?

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Jackie J

So I need some insight. I am in a relationship with a man. We have talked about getting married and long term etc. I have a toddler and she goes to her father’s every other weekend and 2 nights a week. My daughter is very comfortable around him, even calls him daddy. She asked her grandparents (her father’s dad and stepmom) if she could. She never asked me. They relayed this to me that let her know as long as she wants to basically go head. Now the father has an issue with it and drills it into her head not to call him dad. Sometimes my daughter comes into bed and cuddles, she doesn’t sleep with us unless we have to (on a trip that has one bed, happened twice). He loves her like his own and takes care of her as such and my daughter’s father knows I am happy and my daughter is too. It just seems like he’s trying to find something to make an issue.

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Em

I think the hardest thing is loving them and having such an amazing relationship with the child. But not really getting to talk to them much when they aren’t with us. It makes me very sad but my boyfriend I don’t think can understand that or the feelings.

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Rachel I

I’ve been with my wife now for 4 years and she has a child who is 6. He lives with us full time and we have the added pressure of it being a new gay relationship but honestly, I have always kind of followed her lead and tried to do what she wants. She feels like I’m too harsh sometimes but I’m just doing what I was taught. When I back off she gets upset that I’m not helping and I feel so stuck. We try to talk all the time and just get upset with each other. I’m so scared I’m going to lose them both and I love my boy like he is mine. It’s horrible

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Anon

I wish parents who re-marry with children/child could appreciate how difficult it is for the childless partner. Coming into a relationship there are so many feelings, obviously lots of talking about the ex, and just the stress of wanting to do good and running myself out trying… I wish he’d see all I’ve put in. I don’t think he ever will, because how can you imagine yourself in another person’s shoes who doesn’t have a child when you do? I’m exhausted.

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jennifer

I totally understand you. I feel the same way. It’s actually more complicated for us in my opinion. Sometimes I want to let it all out but I just hold on to everything I’m feeling.

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Leigh

I went through the same. Simple (not easy) answer: Stop trying so hard. Seriously. It’s ok. They may think you don’t care, so feel free to explain that you do care, deeply, but you can’t fix what someone else broke… they have to fix that. If you have an opinion that you can state with a neutral tone and then leave it, state your opinion… then leave it. If it helps, make your own money. It may give you more of a feeling on control. Use his $ on the kids, and your on whatever you think most important (savings, self-care, a housekeeper, trips with your family or closest friends). But let everyone (esp teen SC) see that you have healthy boundaries and tons of self-respect. That you are not a babysitter or a maid. That what you do, you do because it works as much for you as it does for them. Don’t be the go-between or the peacemaker… but don’t stir the pot, either. Be caring, but neutral. And take very good care of yourself. Take a night class or form a walking group on your neighborhood. Make it clear to your husband what YOU want your roll to be and let HIM figure out the rest. This is hard and he may think it unfair, but be clear that you did not marry him to take over the duties of a housekeeper/nanny… which is what you feel
like.

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Shanna

I’m in the same situation now. I’m just got married into a relationship with two adult children on her side and I’m childless. I’m trying to figure out my place and am struggling. It’s always ‘my kids’, but our family. How does this even work out?! 😩

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Jessi-Jae

This is exactly how I feel after 7 years of trying my utmost to give the two boys a happy stable and loving home. All we ask is that at ages 16 & 15 they follow the rules, respect us and be honest.
I take them to their district sports and attend as many of their school events as possible as their mother lives 2.5hrs away and is often unable to attend.
I cop the brunt of their anger, tantrums & screaming etc and for the most part I remain calm but it still seems that it is never good enough.
My realtionship with their father is great, he is a very kind man, helpful honest & fair.
Totally at a loss as to what we can do to help the kids adjust, it seems everything we so is wrong and it is very stressful

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Dal

I hear you 100%. I am a step dad of 2 SD’s (From 2 different BD’s…)…. Blew up like a nuclear bomb. Zero respect. Zero appreciation. 100% abuse and extraction of resources

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anonnnn

So true!! we are definitely underrated and under appreciated. i wish i could transfer all the pain and anguish i have felt to my now fiancé. he has no idea how hard it is to deal with him and his relationship with his baby mom. its not even the child.

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sonja p

I married my husband 4 years ago and he has been the sole carer of his talented 17-year-old since his son was 2 .. The boy won a scholarship to a prestigious private school because of his music skills and my husband moved to the South west of the UK to support him. I though someone who does that for his child can’t be all bad 🙂
Since joining the family I introduced family sit-down meals, Sunday brunches, do the washing and most of the housework and generally help put. My stepson has been very respectful and courteous towards me but he seems to want more and more from me. He always talks directly to me at mealtimes, not to his father, tells me a million things a day and is always interrupting us. We are now in lockdown and although this has been slightly eased, he never goes anywhere, never sees friends outside, never goes to the shops or for a walk. It’s driving me crazy. We live in a small house and I have to leave when he is practising or having online music lessons as it is too loud. I have two grown-up daughters and I never saw as much of them since they were about 14. They were always out and about. He doesn’t even talk to his friends on Skype. Unfortunately his mother, who lived in London, passed away 6 months ago but he only ever went on exotic holidays with her. My husband is super-protective of any criticism I have of him and also worries endlessly if he as much as goes on a bike ride (once in 12 weeks of lockdown). This closeness may be many stepparents’ dream but I’m freaking out. I can’t get away from him and his music. I have suggested my husband take him out for an afternoon at the weekend so I can be by myself but to no avail. We have no time alone together. I am a writer. Am I a bitch or an evil stepmother?I haven’t felt this way since my daughters were tiny. I need space but I also don’t want to be continually on the run from my own home. Does anyone else have the problem of their stepchildren wanting too much from them?

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Jeff a

I am step parent of three kids from two different dads from no fault of my wife’s other than trying to make a good life for herself and create a family which she has found with me. You are not a bad person. Being a bad step parent for feeling how you feel. We feel this often. Whether you’re a step parent or not, having space to yourself is rare. Although, you son perminantly losing his mom is significant. Just realize you’re in a season in your life than will eventually blow over and your step son needs you. Whether you see than or not. My step kids have emotional challenges that they themselves don’t even realize. You’ll get through it through love and understanding.

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Nat

Wow very well said, this is happening to me as well… my step-son is very close to his father and didn’t really have a bonding relationship with his mom, even though he lives with her half the time… I think he wants my attention 100% of the time because he doesn’t have the connection with his mom or another female figure

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Kiran C

I have been married for a little over a year to my husband. We both have 2 children from previous relationships and just recently had a child of our own; so 5 children total. Combining our blended family has been a constant struggle for us mainly because our children have been very “annoyed” “intolerant” and have a habit seeing how the others do things differently as a bad or “wrong” way to be. This turns into feelings of resentment, anger and unacceptance from his children towards mine or vice versa. Most recently, his 17 year old daughter and I had butted heads over how I approach her about things I see as disrespectful. She says I always approach her in an “aggressive” and “snotty” manner. I agreed that I need to approach her in a less aggressive way and told her I would do so next time something comes up. However, I feel she is looking for ways to come in between my husband and I and is very unaccepting of me. My husband wants me to have a heart to heart talk with her today in order to try setting aside some differences or misunderstandings. One thing I’m going to approach her on is why she is suspicious I am cheating on her father. I have never cheated on him before and I am not now. However, I left my phone at home one day and left for work; I receive spam phone calls almost daily however when she saw what looked like a local number calling my phone, she took a picture of it and sent it to her father and asked if he recognized who’s number this was and that maybe I was doing something behind his back. I feel she was completely out of line and want to understand what possessed her to even look at the phone to see who was calling in the first place. Keep in mind, I have been quite stressed out lately and it has shown in how I act around my house. The kids see me unhappy, their father unhappy and I when my own children are not in our home (I have 50/50 custody), I tend to hideaway in my room with our newborn baby lately just to avoid annoying my step children and allowing them to feel comfortable in our (and their) home. We have a lot of things to discuss however, how do I approach her about her actions and accusations regarding my faithfulness to her father?

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De la Rose

I honestly can not imagine your pain. It’s not right to feel so uncomfortable in your own home. Teenage daughter’s are a very slippery slope ( girls in general will always be daddy’s girl’s)
However she is teenager and let’s face it majority of teenagers are A-holes
That being said it’s ok to feel uncomfortable by what this child did invading your privacy when you are the wife to her father and the the mother to her new sibling.
I would simply tell her respect is earned. I have nothing to hide from your father and I have earned his respect. I would never violate your belongs as you have done to me. You are a young woman and you behaved as a child.
I’m not trying to replace your mom and in-spite of what you might think I care about you and want us all to live peacefully I know it’s not easy believe me it’s a difficult thing for all of us. Let’s try taking baby steps and figure out our relationship.
Sounds corney but letting her vent to say her piece might help her it might also be an incredibly hard thing to hear but it will be a turning point in your relationship with each other. I wish you luck I’m sending you prayers and good thoughts. It will be ok because it always is… good luck!

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Kable

I have an 11 year old son from a previous relationship and my partner of 4 years has a 20 year old son of her own. We were married in February of this year as her father is terminally ill. We have been living apart for the last 12 months as she has been his full time carer for the past 12 months. My partner and I have always clashed because of my parenting style. I’m a little too casual for her and she believes I treat my son more like a mate and allow him to control the house and me. This is true to some extent and has possibly evolved primarily from the little time I spend with him and that when I tried to get more access my ex manipulated him to the point that he didn’t want to come see me. My partner is a strict disciplinarian who demands boundaries and punishment for my child when he does wrong. Anyway, in the last few weekends we have been able to spend some time together and the weekend just gone my son was with me. She made several mentions over the weekend of certain aspects of my parenting within earshot and at some points in the company of my son. At dinner my son was creating a scene because he was apparently full however, as I always do, I made him finish. My partner then accuses me of making her out to be the bitch because I only did it to appease her. I feel like I’m in a no win situation. This issue has driven such a wedge that I can’t see a way for our relationship to work

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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