Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Difficult Pick-ups

For the longest while we had a really tough time picking up my stepdaughter from her mother’s. She’d never be ready to go at the appointed time and it would take ages to get her out into the car. Often my then-boyfriend-now-husband would end up having to be the one to get her dressed. He made me come with him to pick her up, and I would watch from the entryway feeling frustrated and powerless.

My stepdaughter couldn’t stand to be told what to do and would throw huge temper tantrums when her mom asked her to get ready to go. To exert control over the situation, SD would then insist on changing her clothes and shoes several different times, insisting on having her mom search for yet another toy, and so on. Meanwhile, her mom wouldn’t discipline her, and the screaming tantrums went on night after night after night.

I just about lost it. I felt so anxious and angry but completely powerless to do anything about it. I—eventually—felt comfortable disciplining my stepdaughter in my own home, but I certainly couldn’t discipline her in her mother’s.

I tried telling my then-boyfriend that I didn’t want to come with him to pick her up any more. He was angry and took it as me rejecting her. It was a deal-breaker for him, he told me. I said ok, but things need to change.

He started calling her mother about ten minutes before our scheduled pick up time to remind her to have SD ready. It helped, but most of the time she still ended up letting SD change her shoes five more times, change her jacket, pick out "one more toy" to take with her, and so on.

One night when we arrived at the door, SD had decided to hide in her bedroom and was shrieking (SHRIEKING) at the top of her lungs, "DON'T COME IN! DON'T COME IN!" Her mom remained sitting on the couch. She smiled a little and said, "Oh, that's her new thing these days."

It was the last straw. Rather than instigate a half-hour-long bargaining session like he used to do, my boyfriend went in, wrestled open the door, picked her up, and walked out the front door with her screaming little body slung over his shoulder.

It went on like that for a long, long time. We still have some rough car rides, but it’s been about seven months since he’s had to pick her up and physically force her into the car. (Thank GOD). I still look back and wonder how I could have better handled the situation. Have you ever had to deal with this kind of thing? I’d love to hear how you coped with it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

the honeymoon's over

My stepdaughter hasn’t talked much about the wedding since the big day. At five years old I don’t think she understood much about what was going on, but we were still glad to have had her present for the ceremony. Life has continued seamlessly for the three of us since then. Having already lived together for the last several years, the only thing that’s changed around our household is my last name.

While my stepdaughter has taken things in stride, I was a little worried that her mother would not. Just before the wedding I started having flashbacks to when she realized the seriousness of the relationship between my husband and I. (She went through a phase a where she would cook dinners for my husband and then send them home with us when we picked up my stepdaughter. I remember one night when she handed me a casserole dish in the driveway and then turned to my husband and said, “here, I made you chili because I know you like spicy food.” Um, weird.)

Luckily the ex seems to have taken things pretty well, although it did take us about three weeks to get her to give us the flower girl dress back. (My stepdaughter went to her mom's after the ceremony since the reception was long after her bedtime). I think I'm pretty lucky if that's the worst thing I have to complain about.

In the meantime, I'm excited to get back to doing some real research again now that the wedding is behind us. I’ll be back here soon with some new findings to share.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gaining Affection from your Stepchildren

There’s no one-size-fits all set of instructions and advice for stepmothers. Everyone is different, and we all have to go with what feels right for us. For some women, that involves actively working on building a relationship with their stepchildren. For other women, it means disengaging from them.

Having said that, this week I’d like to share my advice on some simple things you can do today to start gaining affection from your stepchildren. These are little things to start out with, the kind that form a basic foundation to be built on.

Show Up
One of the easiest things you can do to make your stepkids like you is to just be in the same room with them as often as you can (or can handle). Studies about The Propinquity Effect show that the more often we are around a person the more likely she is to become our friend. This happens for no other reason than what is called, “mere exposure.” That is, “the more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more apt we are to like it.”(Also read more here)

Case in point: When we were going through a rough patch with my stepdaughter and she didn’t want to have anything to do with us, I made it a point to just hang out in the same room with her while she was visiting, even if it was just silently watching TV on the couch. After a time she started talking freely to me again and then even went back to cuddling up next to me.

Smile and your stepchildren will smile back. Studies about Facial Feedback have shown that facial movement can actually affect your emotional state. Meaning the physical act of smiling actually makes you feel happier. In addition to that, Emotional Contagion studies also show that emotions can literally be contagious, while other research has shown that people reflect each other’s facial expressions. So altogether, if you make a point to smile at your stepchildren they are likely to smile back and share in your good mood.

Personally, this is a tactic that really works for me. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if I smile, then my stepdaughter smiles. If I smile when she talks, then she smiles and gets excited that I’m happy about what she’s saying. If she’s feeling uncertain about something and I smile and talk about it, then she relaxes. If I sit down on the couch and smile, then she’ll smile back and come give me a hug. I’m sure that the effect would be less dramatic for older kids, but research seems to suggest that the basic principles hold true for all age groups.

More to follow throughout the week.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stepmothers: Save your Sanity by Giving Time Outs

In the last few years I’ve heard a lot of stepmothers complain that they don’t know what to do when their young stepchildren kick, scream, fight, or throw tantrums. They’re frustrated by these behaviors but feel like they shouldn’t get involved. After all, most step-parenting advice says that discipline should be left to the bio parent.

Unfortunately, dads don’t always discipline their children consistently or appropriately—or in some cases, much at all. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty about divorcing their children’s mother; other times they don’t want to be seen as “the mean parent.” Whatever the reason, if neither you nor their father enforce rules and discipline then your stepchildren are likely to keep acting out.

(I’ve talked before about why I believe that stepmothers should be able to discipline their stepchildren—you can read about that here, here, and here.)

When it comes to disciplining bad behavior from a young stepchild, I recommend that stepmothers give time outs. Here’s how to make them work for both you and your stepchild:

Give a warning: “We don’t hit people. If you hit again then you’ll have a time out.”

If they continue misbehaving then place the child in a designated time out spot. If they will walk to the spot themselves, great. If not, then you will need to pick them up and place them in the spot.

Here’s where it can start feeling weird: they may try to keep you from picking them up by hitting and kicking. Be as gentle and careful as possible, of course, but don’t let their squirming prevent you from following through with the time out.

If they leave the spot, then pick them up and place them back in the spot as many times as necessary. Over and over and over again if need be. It’s tempting to cave in and give up, especially if they continue having a temper tantrum, but don’t do it. This is where they learn that you mean what you say, that you follow your words with actions, and that they must respect your adult authority.

Never hold them down in the spot. First of all, unless they’re trying to do something like stick their finger in an electrical socket, it’s not okay to impose force on a child. But more importantly, if you hold them down then it removes their ability to decide on whether or not to get up. You want them to decide to respect your authority and remain seated in the time out spot.

Set a timer: one minute for every year of their age. Reset the timer every time they get up from the time out spot. Don’t cave on this, either.

You must remain calm no matter what. Do not appear angry and never yell. It will be difficult, but maintain a neutral tone of voice. You want the situation to be about correcting their misbehavior. Once you start yelling the situation instead becomes about—at least in their mind—you being a wicked stepmother.

Don’t set them up to fail. Don’t taunt them and don’t ask them questions during the time out, because they’re likely to start arguing and getting even more upset. Talk as little as possible until the timer goes off.

Afterwards, ask them if they know why they had a time out. Sounds silly, but kids can get so worked up during a temper tantrum that they get distracted by those emotions. If they seem confused, then tell them why in a neutral tone. “You had a time out because you hit Daddy, and it’s not ok to hit people.”

End by asking them for an apology. “You can get up now but you need to tell Daddy that you’re sorry for hitting him.”

Consistency is everything. You must follow through with a time out for every warning you give, or your stepchild will know that you don’t really mean what you say.

Take a moment afterwards to calm down. I would be physically shaking after giving time outs to my temper-tantrum-throwing stepdaughter. If it helps, say to yourself, “that was hard, but that time out just got me one step closer to a better relationship with my stepchild. I acted calmly and respectfully. I’m teaching my stepchild how to get along with the rest of the family.”

Hug if you can. Your stepchild may need reassurance of your affection after a time out. Once you’ve both calmed down, give you stepchild a hug if they’re willing to receive one. (My stepdaughter would usually still look upset but then run over and hug me.)

It may take months, but time outs will pay off over time if implemented consistently. Your stepchildren will eventually learn what behaviors they are not allowed to get away with in your home. If your partner will give the time outs—great. But if not, take charge and start implementing them yourself. For more tips, check out my post about how to discipline without looking like an evil stepmother.