All families have conflicts. In stepfamilies, arguments and disagreements can take on a new tone and significance. Stepparents worry about children being rude, defiant and disobedient. Parents worry about what happens when they leave their children with their partners and whether they will be aggressive or uncooperative. Stepparents often say their stepchildren only seem to show that side of themselves when their parent isn’t there.
What is bad behaviour really about?
Children often find it hard to understand or explain their feelings. So, they tend to ‘act them out’. Children need to have their own response to the new family acknowledged. If children ‘defy’ you, it’s better to dive under the behaviour to understand what’s going on than get into a head to head fight. All behaviour is a way of getting what you need. Bad behaviour is actually a way of trying to show bad feelings.
Why children fight to get control
When families break up and reform, children can feel utterly powerless. This can lead to their trying to gain some control and exercise some choice in their lives, often with drastic and sometimes confusing effect. The original meaning of the word ‘discipline’ is ‘to teach’. Discipline is something we do to help children learn. And the best way to get children to behave in ways that please us is to help them understand what they actually want and need, and to see how they can get those needs met in ways that don’t upset other people. Respond to the underlying need rather than the ‘bad behaviour’ and the child’s reason for behaving that way melts away.
Getting our own needs met
The best way of ‘disciplining’ children is often to set out to help, not punish them. It may not seem like it sometimes, but children want to please their parents and win their approval. When they feel we have understood what they need, and can understand us in turn, they have the incentive to change. If you can tell them clearly what you want and why, and respect and listen to them, you’ll get a better result than simply coming down hard on them. Whenever you find yourself feeling fraught the best strategy is to say to the other person
- “When …(describe the situation)
- I feel…(describe your emotions)
- Because…(explain why the situation makes you feel this way)
- What I would like is…(give a clear and direct description of what you’d prefer)
How to put a name to feelings
All of us have feelings. At times, we feel happy, sad, angry, rejected, confused and much more. However, many of us have picked up from parents and other influences the idea that some feelings are ‘bad’. Feeling angry is often seen to be unacceptable; so is being jealous. When we have these feelings we feel guilty or blame others. In reality, all feelings are natural and having them is normal. Feelings are just feelings – we can’t help them and there’s no shame in having them. What we can help is what we do about them.
Often, we can’t deal with the emotion we are feeling because we don’t know what it really is. Children particularly can find it hard to put into words what they are actually experiencing. Using this technique can help you and anyone else isolate, understand and put a name to the feelings.
Get some slips of paper and write out all the ‘feeling’ words you can think of, like ‘angry’ ‘cheerful’, ‘abandoned’, ‘scared’, ‘secure’, or whatever you can come up with. Spread them out and talk them through to pinpoint the word that best describes what you are feeling. You or the other person may be angry. Or, you might be feeling abandoned or worried or embarrassed. Once you know what it is you can discuss why the feelings are there and what you might do about it. Simply acknowledging the real emotion and realising you don't have to feel guilty for having it can help and often makes the feeling diminish or lose its power.
Sometimes this is enough. Other times, we may need to help our children sort out what they are going to do once the first flush of emotions has died down.
Dealing with anger
Anger can have an important function. Just as pain tells you not to lean on a hot stove, so anger tells you that what is happening is not acceptable and that something needs to change. There are other feelings underneath anger – fear, sadness, worry, frustration – and working out what these are will help us to identify what is really upsetting us and what we’d like to be different.
Both adults and children in a stepfamily situation may often find themselves feeling angry, and find it difficult to deal with the strong emotions. Expressing anger can help us regain a sense of control and deal with any underlying resentments. Ultimately, it can be a first step towards strengthening our relationships.
Understanding what is underneath the behaviour
It’s not discipline in the form of punishment or control that children need when they behave badly in a stepfamily situation. What is underneath their behaviour is often a need for attention, acceptance, appreciation, and some independence. They are often fighting to get these when they act up. We can help them by;
- talking openly about the change or loss that has lead to their being in a stepfamily
- helping them show their feelings
- sharing our own feelings with them
- telling them it’s OK to feel bad, even if other people in the family are happy about the change
- telling them what’s going to happen and asking their opinions
- making sure some things don’t change
- helping them keep in touch with people, places, things that matter to them
- cutting them some slack and accepting they will act up
Making our own choices and helping children make theirs
When it comes to a stepfamily, it’s the adults who choose to be there, not the children. Choose to act in ways that make that choice work- that may mean having to let go some elements to give your children some choice and more control of their own.
Kids are far more likely to co-operate if they feel trusted and part of a team, and asked what they want rather than told what you don’t. Giving them responsibility and choices neatly sidesteps disagreements. Instead of scratching your head about how to punish them, use another form of discipline – positive learning. Build a close relationship with them so they trust you to give them attention and understanding. Notice and acknowledge their strengths and achievements. Let them make decisions wherever possible. You’ll soon notice they don’t need to be disciplined in the form of punishment at all.
We are here for you
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at email@example.com or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.