Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Family Counseling a Bad Idea?

Most step-parenting books I’ve read suggest seeing a counselor to work out any blended family issues. I’m not sure if that’s such great advice.

I’ve been to counseling myself for anxiety so I’m not saying that it’s without value. But the problem with family counseling is that you put your happiness in the hands of other people. You rely on your partner and his children to attend sessions, and you rely on them to participate and change their behavior accordingly.

The problem with this, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do if they refuse to go. You can nag, you can whine, but in the end you can’t force them to participate if they don’t want to. I’ve mentioned before that feeling helpless leads to depression. And ladies, feeling helpless and depressed will make you one miserable stepmother.

Instead of depending on others to help fix your problems, my suggestion is to be more proactive. Rather than asking a counselor to convince your stepchildren to treat you better, you need to simply start requiring them to treat you respectfully.

I say simply, but I know it’s not easy. This is where I would suggest going to counseling on your own. As Penelope Trunk mentioned this week on her blog Brazen Careerist, therapy is a great tool for self-discovery and personal development. A counselor can empower you with communication tools and provide support during stressful times. Not only that, a counselor can help you sort out any reasons why you may be having difficulty standing up for yourself. She can help you realize that, yes, you do deserve respect.

If family counseling works for you, great. But for the rest of us, I’d say try it once if your family will go but don’t stress too much if they won’t. What do you think?

Making your Needs a Priority

Making your needs a priority is critical to being a happy stepmom.

Sounds kind of obvious, right? I mean, everybody wants to be happy. All stepmothers want to have the best stepparenting experience possible.

The trouble is that once we become a stepmother our priorities often shift—slowly, and quietly, and sometimes even without our realizing it—from being happy to being a good stepmom.

Where we used to foucs on our work, interests, and friends, we're now spending our time trying to make everyone else in our new family happy. We're picking up groceries during our lunch break, canceling movie night with the girls, and leaving work early to be home in time to make dinner. We make meals we can’t stand because our stepkids are picky eaters. We give up our weekend yoga classes because our husband hates going to his kids’ soccer games by himself. We constantly fret over whether or not we should be disciplining our stepchildren, and we spend a lot of time telling our friends about how badly they treat us. We dwell on the annoying things their mother does and space off in meetings wondering if she does them on purpose.

Certainly putting the needs of our family members before our own is healthy in moderation. Compromise makes for a healthy family.

But when our mind is always ruminating about our stepchildren or their troublesome mother and when we’re constantly devoting our time and brain space to them instead of to ourselves we end up feeling exhausted, frustrated, and burned out.

Instead, we need to retain a strong focus on our needs after we form our new family. Clearly we can (and should) work on our relationships with our stepchildren, but we need to do so in a way that asks “how can we get along together?” instead of “how can I make them happy?”

Part of this process involves managing our partner’s and stepchildren’s expectations of us. A second, equally important part involves managing our expectations of ourselves and our attitudes about the situation. More later this week.