Stress-Free Summer: 5 Ways to Manage Disrespectful Stepchildren

Getting Real With Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

During summer break, it seems like kids get the “green light” to misbehave. For blended families with teenagers, it’s often twice the challenge to parent stepkids along with your own children. Stepchildren often don’t want to listen to their stepmom or stepdad, causing friction in the household. Sibling rivalry and conflict is also common when two families become one.

As a stepparent your role is a bit different from the parent.   Here are a few tips when it comes to disciplining stepkids and having a calm home during the summer break:

 1.       Establish rules. Present rules with the other parent so both your own children and your stepchildren know that they are expected to follow these rules. Say “no” when necessary–take a firm stand if it is in the child’s best interest. Before deciding a rule or how to discipline, discuss with the other parent first.

2.       Pause, breathe, and wait. Don’t immediately respond just because you’re in the heat of the moment. Take the time you need to gather your thoughts, ground yourself, and think about how you’ll handle the situation. Finding the space between your child’s action and your reaction allows you to calm down. Know when to step back and breathe, breathe, breathe at those times.

3.       Question instead of judge. When you are ready to talk (not scream), ask yourself, “What’s going on? How can I communicate in a calm way?” If your stepchild is still upset, say to him, “We’re not going to talk until you calm down. I’m going to give you time to think and we’ll talk later.” This way, both you and your child will have time to cool off and be proactive instead of reactive.

4.       Commit to getting calm. As the parent, it’s your responsibility to lead by example. If you’re calm, all your kids—biological and step—are more likely to calm down. Take charge and promise yourself you’ll no longer let yourself be emotionally pulled into arguments, even when your child is pushing your buttons. You’ll find that having that emotional distance allows you to be more objective and rational.

5.       Create structure. Kids often fight when they are bored and want to get a reaction, because getting that reaction (even if it’s negative) is a way of staying connected to you. Make it a goal to plan time when they are away from each other. Older teens can get a summer job and younger kids can enroll in a sport or camp. If they still argue (and they probably will from time to time), let them work their problems out alone. Simply say, “If you guys are going to fight, you need to do it in another room. I don’t want to hear the noise.” Keep in mind that for older teenagers, both parent and stepparent may need to be more consultants than managers with them.

Be there for your stepkids as a support and for guidance. Be a friend and that will help your stepkids eventually trust you and be willing to be influenced by you. Remember that good relationships take time to develop, so try not to expect instant love. Do, however, expect respect.

It is possible to reduce the stress in your household over the summer. Remember: The only person you have control of is yourself. So, take charge and commit to staying calm. It seems simple, but you will be surprised how kids will react. Calm is contagious, and if parents are calm, kids will soon learn how to better manage their emotions, too.

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of The Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

In the Eyes of a Child – My Journey to Becoming a StepMom

We’re thrilled to welcome our newest Getting Real With, Elizabeth Sanchez.

Eddy with little sister Meike

The cliché goes that “eyes are windows to the soul” and the state in Mexico that my husband is from is known for just that: the people have amazing eyes. My husband’s eyes definitely mesmerized me, and we started dating a month after we met.

About a week later, my then-boyfriend told me he had something very serious to talk about. He said there was a girl who just had a baby and she claimed it was his child. He didn’t believe her, but had never seen the baby because the mother said she wouldn’t do a paternity test out of spite for him not believing it was his child.

Well, it turns out that in Illinois, if you want state-aid, you need to give information for the father of your child, he must be served with papers and go to court to determine (and then accept) paternity so he can pay child support. When my then-boyfriend was served, he freaked out, but he also became curious.

Around that time, the mother lived three houses down from my husband and his aunt and uncle, whom he was living with at the time. The rumor mill was churning non-stop and they had heard that the baby was the spitting image of my husband. His uncle was friends with the mother and one day they ran into each other when he was coming home. He came in that day saying he had another nephew because there was no doubt that kid was a Sanchez.

Still freaked out but now equally curious, my husband decided he couldn’t wait two more months to go to court. He wanted to see the baby. Since he and the mother weren’t on speaking terms, his uncle went over to ask her if the baby could come to his house. My husband invited me for moral support, and probably also to see my reaction.

Everyone that was there, his aunt, two cousins, himself and me, were almost exploding with anticipation. When his uncle walked in, we set the car seat down in the middle of the room and stared at it, with no one really daring to take off the big blanket that kept the cold December wind off the face of this innocent child we all had. Finally, someone did. And as the blanket slid off the car seat, it was as if someone took a time-machine gun, turned it back to age 3 months and shot it right at my husband.

Those eyes.

They were the same size and shape, with the same dark, long eyelashes that framed the almond-shaped brown eyes that I turned to look at in awe. No one could move. We stood there transfixed, staring back and forth between my husband and this mini-me he was meeting for the first time.

Eddy just started back at us. He won us over with an innocent grin that is still his trademark, six years later. Since no one could move, I went over and picked him up, earning the honor of being the first one of the family to hold the baby that would one day become my stepson.

After that, the paternity test was a formality, mainly for the judicial system. There was no doubt that this was his child. He was worth fighting with the mother for visitation rights and going to mediation to learn how to get along. He was worth turning his back on all the rumors started by people who didn’t understand how much he loved his son. He is worth being patient, painfully patient, when  his mother succumbs to the voices in her ear telling her she shouldn’t get along with us.

If I refer to him as “my stepson” and “my husband’s son,” it’s only out of respect for the woman who gave birth to him and who takes on the world to make sure he has everything he needs. I am so grateful that she allows me to be a part of her son’s life, but I also know that she does so because she knows that in my heart, he’s no different from the two children I gave birth to. When he doesn’t come home for a weekend, it throws off our balance. Our entire family beings to wander around like we’re missing a piece of ourselves. The piece that makes us whole.

And if anyone needs any proof that the children are siblings, not half-siblings or step-siblings, just look at their eyes.

25 Rules for Being a GOOD StepMom

by Shadra Bruce

I am very lucky to have been involved in the raising of five wonderful children, two of whom are my birth children (an 11-year old son and an 8-year old daughter) and three that I inherited by marrying their father, who retained custody of the children after divorcing their mother. I’ve learned some things on this journey that seem important to share with anyone who is a step mom or is planning to marry into a stepmother role:

1. In the children’s eyes, you are the final and most obvious symbol of their dashed hopes that their parents might someday work things out, so don’t be surprised if it takes a while for them to warm up to you.

2. There cannot be two sets of rules – daddy rules and wicked stepmother rules – you and your spouse should communicate regularly and have a united set of family rules that everyone lives by.

3. Do not try to compete with them-your husband loves you, but he loves them too. Don’t put your spouse in the middle of every tangle.

4. If you cannot open your heart to his children, do not marry him.

5. They are kids, you are the adult – they are supposed to make things difficult, and you are supposed to rise above it.

6. Children need consistency to build trust. Provide it with an open heart and mind.

7. The kids do not go away just because you said I do. They were there before you started dating, and they will always be a part of your life and his.

8. It is ok to demand time for just you and your husband-no kids, whether they are his, hers, or yours.

9. It is normal to feel a little insecure at times about where you stand-sometimes you are the outsider and they’ve had special memories without you, but it’s a sign of a healthy relationship when you can communicate those insecurities to your spouse and he understands and can help make you feel more a part of things (Dave shared old family videos with me so that I knew that the kids were like when they were little).

10. You have the right to be treated with respect, and your spouse should demand it of his children (he can’t make them love you, call you mom, or forge a friendship, but he can demand that they behave properly).

11. Be nice to the ex-wife. Period.

12. Never, ever, ever say anything disparaging about the children’s mother if there is even a remote possibility they will hear it-from you or anyone else.

13. If you and the new spouse have children, don’t forget that no matter how you feel about your step kids, your children will love them because they are siblings and will not want them treated poorly or differently.

14. Grin and bear shared holidays and birthdays-all the kids deserve to be with their families.

15. They don’t have to call you “mom” to have a parent-child relationship with you. It’s not the word that is important!

16. Be flexible. Realize that your husband has to balance many roles, and he needs your support and love, not criticism and manipulation.

17. Never, ever discuss child support, custody issues, or legal issues in front of the kids.

18. Give the kids time to get to know you BEFORE you get married-and give yourself time to get to know them.

19. Don’t berate your spouse in front his children. (This actually applies to your biological children equally as well).

20. Be prepared for tumultuous times-the children may try to test you, push you, find your boundaries. Be firm, pick your battles wisely, and remember that they ARE kids who are trying to find they’re way through an awkward situation they never asked for.

21. Biology does not make her a better mother than you, but children will only learn that over time, and only if you let them.

22. Children only want to please. If you just care and love and pay attention, they will respond and fill your heart.

23. If something does go wrong, don’t bury it-talk about it, with your spouse, with the kids. You’re a family, regardless of biology, so act like one.

24. Divorce is a life-altering moment for most children, and there will be issues of insecurity and fear that arise. Be there if they want to talk, reassure them that ALL of their parents love them, and help them work through their feelings.

25. Biology is only one way to be a mom. Tucking a kid into bed every night, being there for every success and failure along the way, holding their hair out of the way when they throw up-those things count, too whether or not you gave birth.

I have been raising my stepchildren for over half their lives now, and other than making the distinction for the sake of this article, I do not ever refer to them as “steps.” They’re just my kids, just as much as my birth children, and I’m grateful to have them in my life.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.