Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Older Step-Children Act Out

A lot of what I’ve previously written about stepmothers and how to handle bad behavior applies mostly to very young children. Younger kids often act out not because they are reacting to their parents’ divorce, but just because they are, well, kids. All young children go through a period where they learn to “use their words” rather than hitting, to “use their inside voices” rather than yelling in the house, and so forth.

Older kids, though, may act out because they’re struggling with the stepfamily situation. Going through their parents divorce may have left them feeling powerless and adrift. Besides having endured the painful process of their parents’ separation, stepchildren may have also been forced to move, to change schools, and to be pulled away from their friends and activities.

Suzie Hayman, author of Teach Yourself Successful Step-Parenting, says that,
“One thing children lose when families break up is control. It wasn’t their choice for their parents to separate nor their choice for a parent and step-parent to get together. What is happening around them can make them feel completely powerless. This can lead to their trying to gain control and exercise some choice in their lives, often with drastic and sometimes confusing effect.”

As I mentioned in my last post, step-kids often act out towards step-parents when they are angry at their bio-parents.. Step-kids may feel angry at their bio-parents but be afraid to express it to them; they may think that in doing so they might anger their parents to the point that they might lose contact (or further contact) with them.

On top of that, children often don’t know how to pin down what they’re feeling and express those emotions in words. They may act up and misbehave because that’s the only way they can manage to express what their feeling.

So how do stepmoms best deal with older kids acting out?

Just like with younger kids, you should always react to stepchildren’s feelings in a respectful way—and never with anger. No yelling, even if they yell, and no making labeling or judgmental statements.

When it comes to older kids, Hayman beleives the best approach is to diffuse the situation with a discussion about their feelings, your feelings, and how the situation can be resolved between the two of you.

Hayman suggests that stepparents use language like . . . “When . . . (describe the situation) . . . I feel . . . (describe your feeling” angry, sad, etc) . . . because . . . (why you feel that way; for example, you feel disrespected) . . . So what I would like is” (describe how you would prefer the situation to be). The author also advises step-parents to ask their step-children, “What are we going to do about this?” and encourage them to actively participate in coming up with a solution.

Another good way to approach misbehavior like yelling or arguing is to counter with a statement that summarizes their emotions and why they might be feeling that way. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re really upset about this and I’d like to understand. What I’m hearing is that you’re mad because of (describe the situation here). Is that right?”

The key is to make the child feel understood, involved, and like they have a say in the situation. The idea is that by acknowledging a step-child’s feelings and fulfilling his need to have some control over the situation, he will then be more willing to cooperate and less likely to act out.

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