When you become part of a stepfamily you’ll quickly realise that children have minds of their own. The children may get along famously with their step relatives and happily relate to both their birth parents. Sooner or later virtually every stepparent will hear the words “You can’t tell me what to do, you’re not my Mum/Dad!” Children in stepfamilies can direct an enormous amount of anger at stepparents. They may also play one parent off against the other, refuse to see a non-resident parent or take out their anger on the parent with whom they mostly live. It is important to try and understand how they see the situation. Parents often assume their wishes and needs will be the same as their children. Stepparents often struggle if they came in to the relationship with expectations that are rapidly shattered. It is natural for stepfamilies to clash over issues like routines, boundaries, discipline and general behaviour.
Why do children and adults have a different view of the situation?
Adults and children in a stepfamily have a very different view of what is going on. For a start, it is the adults who make all the decisions. It is the adults who are in charge of leaving one family unit and forming a new one. Indeed, the original separation or the new stepfamily could have come about because of the decision of another adult. But however much adults may consider they are in control, this is nothing to how the children are likely to feel.
Children often feel like they have no say. They do, however, often feel they have responsibility. Children will feel guilt over a break up, convinced it happened because they did or didn’t do something, were too naughty, or not good enough. Once parents have separated, children can feel responsible for looking after one or both parents and perhaps see it as their job to bring them back together again. A new adult will be seen as a threat and a new family may be seen as proof of their failure, either to reconcile their parents or to be a good enough carer.
Why do children in stepfamilies show hostility?
This is why children in a stepfamily often hit out, verbally and even physically. Saying, or implying “You can’t tell me what to do…” may be a specific attack against the new adult and what their presence means. Children may feel that one way to keep the link with a missing parent or try to maintain the link between their two parents with them as a bridge, would be to refuse any emotional tie with the new adult. Even if they like the new partner as getting on with them feels like disloyalty and they may fear a breakdown in relationship between themselves and their other parent.
How to react when children say “You can’t tell me what to do”
“You can’t tell me what to do…” is usually a general complaint. It actually says “My family has broken up, a new situation is being forced upon me and I protest!” It isn’t personal and isn’t a reaction against the new circumstances which may indeed in many ways be better than the old one. It’s simply a way of registering pain and loss and needs to be accepted as such.
Firstly, acknowledge the pain and loss underneath the statement. You can say “It must be sad seeing your family break up. I can see it’s upsetting you.” Simply acknowledging the emotions underneath behaviour often makes a difference. Since bad behaviour is always a way of getting your needs and emotions recognised, knowing they have been heard can lessen or stop the behaviour.
Secondly, make it clear that when it comes to keeping rules or being polite or any other transaction in this family, it doesn't happen because it’s a parent/child relationship but because it’s a household relationship. In other words, an adult doesn’t have to be a parent to merit being listened to and being polite to. Nor, indeed, does a child have to be related to the adult for them to be caring and respectful of their needs and feelings. If you live together, you owe each other this courtesy, regardless of how you feel about the situation. Keeping to the ground rules to make the wheels go round at least gives you the space and time to attend to the reasons you may feel angry, let down or upset about the situation.
Why it’s important to have ground rules
If you haven't already, make time to sit down as a family and draw up and agree a set of ground rules. Ask everyone to contribute at least one rule each and agree the consequences too. Once you have done so, agree a contract between all of you, keep to it and review it as needed. The ground rules are family rules, not just for the children and explaining this to them might help them to buy into this more. If you want children to interact well, consider the statements below:
- Model what you want, it is not a case of “do as I say, not as I do” but “I’ll do to you what I’d like from you”.
- Recognise bad behaviour is about bad feelings.
- Listen, acknowledge and understand the reason behind their behaviour. That helps the behaviour go away far better than reacting to it, punishing it or complaining about it.
Why it’s important to help children be positive about the non-resident parent
It can be seen as reassuring by the adults looking after a child if s/he refuses to speak to or see the missing parent. They may feel this is a vote of confidence and an endorsement of the new stepfamily. Sometimes children enthusiastically support the new adult, to the extent of wanting to take on a new name or call the stepparent Mum or Dad. If there is still anger or conflict between exes, the child’s choosing of sides can be greeted with relief and seen as their approval. It may not, however, be as positive a move as you think.
Children may feel they have good reason not to see or speak to a missing parent. If they have been let down and left feeling unvalued by that parent, they may need to have their feelings about the way their parent has behaved towards them listened to and heard. They may need your support in putting their own point of view but it does have to be theirs not yours.
How not to draw children in to adult battles
Children really need the adults looking after them to be able to be grown up and fight their own battles. If you have an issue with another adult, say so yourself to them and sort it out between you. Don’t let children get drawn into the situation and do it for you. Children often will attack one parent because they want to please the other. It may feel very frightening to have had one parent leave. The unsettling experience of having a new adult arrive may make them feel they have to do anything to make sure the other doesn't go too. Children do need contact with both parents and do need to feel loved and accepted by them. Instead of feeling vindicated when they take against a parent, better to support them in making and keeping good relations. You may need to ask them to talk over why they don’t want to see the other person, and not to take some explanations on face value. They may be trying to cut off a parent who they see as withdrawing from them, in the belief that if they say no first the separation will hurt less. They may be doing it to get back at the parent, to give them a taste of their own medicine. Anger and pain are good reasons to talk, not good reasons to refuse to talk. Help the child examine and explore the situation. You may ask them to consider and express:
- Their feelings
- What they want
- How you might help them achieve it
How to set and keep to boundaries
Children benefit enormously from having adults looking after them who can say no and can restrict them. Having adults compete in allowing those boundaries to stretch can make them feel increasingly vulnerable and uncertain. Parents and stepparents may give in to the demands out of guilt and a desire to make it better for the child. Giving in to demands feels as if it makes up for the loss of their original family. Parents may also do it out of their own need to be loved best. Particularly when you have emerged from a relationship break up, the desire to be needed and approved can make it hard to be the grown up and put your own needs aside.
In the long run, nobody benefits from a popularity contest. If you win the children lose, and if the children lose so do you. What all of you need is for adults to be truly adult; to be able to stand back from the conflict, the confusion and pain and to act in the best interests of the child. This may mean recognising how much co-operation is necessary between parents and stepparents. It may mean recognising when and how your own wishes and needs differ from those of the children, and what efforts need to be made to compromise so everyone gets what they need. It may need asking for help so you can set aside your own arguments with other adults in the situation so you can agree on how to do the best for the children.
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