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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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