Blending families comes with many challenges for which there is no blueprint. One of the most stressful aspects is navigating the relationships between stepparents and stepkids. Because every stepparent and biological parent wants this to go well, this endeavor can be wrought with anxiety and fear. When tensions run high, there’s little space left in the environment for healthy relationships to thrive.
Nick and Sarah were at a dead end when they came to see me. Sarah had been trying to bond with Nick’s two kids over the course of their two-year marriage. The kids, 8 and 10, often disrespected her, and they rarely had positive interactions. The rejection left her feeling defeated. Where Sarah once tried to be involved and present in their lives, her frustrations soon caused her to retreat into her own world of interests to distract herself from the stress her stepkids brought her. When they were home, she avoided interacting with them by staying busy or leaving the house.
Nick felt Sarah had no interest in his kids, leaving him disappointed and questioning their decision to be married.
Managing emotions as a stepparent
Every human has big feelings, but not every one of us is able to manage or express them well. Children especially have extreme feelings, because their brains are not yet equipped to fully process their inner world. Yet children are often required to show more emotional control than most adults are even capable of. Children must be taught about emotions and shown healthy ways of expressing them, and the best models are the adults in their lives.
Here are a few ways that both step and biological parents can model self-regulation and find peace within.
1. Stop and think.
To be balanced and anxiety-free means to be steady and calm not ruled by emotions. Human nature is to go into fight-or-flight mode when under stress. The part of our brain that gets activated here produces cortisol, which heightens anxiety. Because fight/flight is automatic and devoid of clear thinking, the antidote to anxiety is thoughtfulness. In order to get out of our instinctively emotionally reactive state, the thinking part of the brain must be engaged.
When entering into a blended family, it’s important for all parents to do a lot of thinking. A question I often tell my clients to ask themselves is: “What’s that about?” Meaning, if someone is acting angry or hurtful toward you and it’s making you angry in return, think about what is really going on. Explore why you are feeling so reactive and what buttons just got pushed. Think about what the other person might be reacting to. This helps us to get out of a reactive state of mind.
2. Challenge negative thoughts.
What usually causes our reactions is not the other person, but our perception of the situation. Negative thoughts or beliefs are usually automatic, meaning we are often unaware of what we are thinking when triggered. What is apparent is how we feel in that moment, and we usually go by those strong feelings when reacting to others. When we identify a negative thought behind our feelings, we can ask: “Is it rational? Realistic? Reasonable?” If not, then take a moment to challenge that thought and replace it with a true statement.
Scripture guides us in Philippians 4:8 (NLT), “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” Our thoughts are powerful and will conduct our emotions, and our emotions will influence our actions. Identify negative thoughts, and challenge them with true, rational statements. If we replace our irrational thoughts with what is true and right, then we will naturally feel less negative, our bodies will be less tense, and our response will be more sound.
3. Talk to yourself.
Stepparents can self-regulate by taking some time to mentally ask themselves meaningful questions.
- What kind of stepparent do I want to be?
- What might my stepkids be fearful of or excited about?
- What might be expected of me?
- How does all of that make me feel?
- Why do I feel that way?
- Why might they feel the way they do?
In the same way, biological parents can ask themselves questions like:
- What is my fear, and what’s that about?
- If I am discouraged by my spouse and kids, what might their experience be?
- What is in my control and what isn’t?
Thinking through questions like these can greatly impact the way you respond to your spouse and kids.
Asking yourself these questions in the heat of the moment can be difficult, so it’s helpful to do so when you’re in a good state of mind. Journaling your thoughts about these questions can be a useful tool in training your emotions to take a back seat. As you practice this self-talk over time, you will be less directed by your emotions when confronted with a stressful exchange. Rather than reacting out of fight/flight, you can more easily stay calm and steady and respond to others in a more thoughtful and balanced way.
4. Consider others’ experiences.
If parents and stepparents can step back from their own reactivity and think about their child’s experience, it can help them calm down to address the situation more effectively. There is a lot going on in a kid’s mind and emotions when he or she has been through a divorce and remarriage. Most of those thoughts and feelings cannot be fully comprehended and can make them feel helpless. This can cause defenses to come up for their own protection and survival. A stepparent is the perfect target at which to aim those defenses. They are a reminder of what has been lost; an intruder that signifies the end of their former family.
Stepkids may also feel pressured by their loyalty to their biological parent in the other home to avoid bonding with their stepparent. As you can imagine, fear and anxiety about all of this would cause many kids to act out with bad behavior or attitudes, especially toward a stepparent.
It’s important for parents and stepparents to understand that if they themselves have certain feelings, their children are likely feeling a magnified portion of those same emotions. Kids’ brains are less equipped to process, understand, and express feelings in healthy ways, so big emotions can feel overwhelming to a child. If a parent is feeling hurt or rejected by their child, how much more hurt and rejection might the child feel? The same goes for many other emotions, like anger, sadness, and even excitement.
Taking into consideration the experiences of kids can help parents and stepparents to take things less personally. This does not give children a hall pass for bad behavior. Rather, this deeper understanding can guide parents in their responses to that behavior so they can discipline their children in a thoughtful and intentional way, rather than out of reactivity.
From triggered to managed
When Sarah felt triggered by her stepkids, she began identifying her thoughts and disputing them with true statements. She asked herself helpful questions, which required her to regulate her own emotions and use her good thinking skills. I invited her to define what kind of relationship she hoped to have with her stepkids. I then challenged her to be the stepparent she would be in that ideal relationship.
I also encouraged Nick to support Sarah in her role by seeking to understand her experience, as well as that of his kids, rather than get caught up in his own reactivity. As he addressed his own fears, his resentment for Sarah diminished. He was then able to more effectively step into his role as a father and thoughtfully discipline his kids’ lack of respect.
As Nick and Sarah put these tools into practice, they noticed they felt more peaceful, no matter what each other or the kids were doing. The once-tense environment became more peaceful and Sarah was able to be more present when the kids were home. Nick was able to empower Sarah once he acknowledged his own fear was causing his discouragement. He felt more optimistic once he began understanding the experiences of his wife and kids in the blending process. This allowed him to connect emotionally with Sarah and help bridge the relational gap between her and his kids. With his support, Sarah felt validated and encouraged, and the kids witnessed them become a more united front.
The children also noticed a difference in their stepmom’s responses to them, which were now empathic, calm, and assertive, and over time, they began to soften toward her. She and Nick were able to feel more cohesion in their blended family, which brought more happiness and peace for everyone.
Copyright © 2022 by Jessica Patterson. All rights reserved.
Jessica Patterson is a Licensed Professional Counselor at New Life Counseling Center in Round Rock, TX. With 13 years of experience in private practice, she specializes with marriage and blended families.
Jessica has experienced a divorce and was a single mother to her daughter for three years. She remarried in March of 2018 to her husband, Jonathan, and also gained a precious stepdaughter. Their two little girls are now 8 and 9 years old, and they enjoy being stepsisters. Their happily blended family also includes two “ours” boys, ages 6 months and 3.