Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stepmothers: Don't Be Too Nice

I was just reading an article over at Freelance Switch about something called The Emotional Scale. Mark Garison says,

"A boss I once had presented the staff at a sales meeting one day with a chart of emotions. At the bottom were the negative emotions, progressing up into neutral emotions and at the top were positive emotions . . . He told us that people cannot relate to someone who is not within two emotions on the scale (ie. a depressed person will not relate to cheerful behavior).”
It caught my attention because when people seem frustrated with me my gut reaction is to just try harder—to be nicer, to smile more, to do more. Luckily my stepdaughter was very young when we came into each other’s lives and she didn’t go through a phase of being frustrated with me. But most stepchildren go through a period of mourning the family structure that they have lost and a period of frustration with the changes that a new family dynamic brings to their lives.

If she had been older I suspect my instinct would have been to meet any angry comments with increasing levels of syrupy kindness.

This article suggests that the opposite is more effective—if someone is communicating negative feelings to you then the best response is to speak to her in a calm, reserved tone. Garison says, “without them realizing it, this will bring their emotions closer to yours.”

Now that I think about it this way it seems like common sense. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do Stepmothers Have Unrealistically High Expectations?

I know a lot of us stepmothers feel frustrated with our stepchildren on a fairly frequent basis. (If you’re one of those saintly stepmoms who never get mad at their stepkids, then please, leave me your secret in the comments!)

I was wondering today if we sometimes set unrealistically high expectations for our stepkids. Most kids act out and talk back from time to time. They break things and, in the case of my youngest brother, cover the shower head in several packs of gum hoping to make the world’s biggest bubble. They’re not mini-adults--they're kids! They can be moody and irrational and sassy, especially when dealing with the frustrations of a new family dynamic.

It’s a tender boundary, though. How much is too much back-talk? How much do you let them get away with? After all, I’m a big proponent of the fact that you shouldn’t compromise too much and that you should feel comfortable taking charge in your own home.

But we can’t expect our stepkids to be perfect, either. I think I can stand to remind myself of this more often, and I wonder if other stepmoms could, too.

When Older Stepchildren Act Out, Part II

“The best way of disciplining children," according to Suzie Hayman, "is often to set out to help, not punish them. After all, half the time if you punish a child for acting up in a separated family, what you are actually doing is punishing them for being sad at what has happened to them.”

I totally get this. And I completely support the idea of talking through disagreements, as I mentioned in my previous post.

But if there’s one common theme to my blog, I think it’s the idea that this whole step-parenting thing doesn’t always go according to plan and that not every member of the family may be willing to meet a stepmom halfway 100% of the time.

In these instances—where perhaps your stepchild is not willing to discuss how the two of you can resolve a situation and their biological parent is unavailable or unwilling to step in—I think implementing “logical consequences” is a great stepmom tactic.

“Logical consequences” simply means that a parent provides a child with a logically-related consequence to an action. For example, if a child won’t turn down her loud music, then rather than arguing or nagging the parent takes away her stereo for the rest of the afternoon. Or, if a child is fighting with a sibling over a video game, then the parent takes the video game away for a day.

Here's how it works: Start off by giving your stepchild a clear request. For example: “Would you please turn down your stereo? I’m putting the baby down for a nap.” If they refuse, then succinctly give them a warning as to what the consequences would be. “If you don’t turn down your stereo then I’ll have to take it away until after the baby is done with his nap.” Then, if they still won’t comply, you follow through without any further nagging, argument, or judgements; take the stereo away and say, “you can have this back in a couple of hours.”

I like the idea of logical consequences because I feel like it focuses on the action/behavior and not the child. Because when you’re upset about something that your stepchild has done, it’s important that you talk about it in a way that disapproves of the specific behavior without making sweeping judgments about the child as a person. You want to communicate that a behavior is unacceptable, but you don’t want the child himself to feel rejected. This approach is great for all kids, really, but it is especially important when dealing with stepchildren who may be feeling particularly sensitive about themselves and the new family structure.

The key to effectively implementing logical consequences is to not go overboard and end up being punitive. The purpose of enforcing logical consequences is to show the children that (obviously) there are consequences to their actions—and also that you mean what you say and that you will consistently follow through.

Generally, enforcing a punishment for an hour or a day rather than a week or a month is enough to demonstrate these lessons. Any more than that and the focus of the situation becomes less about them learning the consequences of their actions and more about them enduring what they see as your repression and mistreatment (i.e., you being an Evil Stepmother).

To be successful you must also be consistent and follow through. That means no nagging, no bargaining, and no caving in. With any luck it won’t take them long to learn that you mean what you say, and at the same time they won't be so angry that they feel like Cinderella before the ball.

Speaking of being angry, another important part of making this approach effective is to remain calm. Even if you’re furious, try to speak in a normal voice and avoid sounding upset or irritated. If you yell and get worked up then the situation shifts from being about their behavior to—yup, you guessed it—you being a Wicked Stepmother.

Hopefully as time goes by and you continue to involve your stepchild in discussions about any problems, the need for enforcing natural consequences will diminish. But in the meantime, I think this approach makes for a respectful and effective tactic for step-moms to use when older step-kids act out.