Entries in stepparent (7)


The Need to Belong

The second need the Vishers found that is hard-wired in each of us is (2) the need to belong. This is a tough one when it comes to stepfamily living because someone is genetically removed from other family members.

But while there's no way around this fact of stepfamily life, there are things you can do to create an environment where a sense of belonging has a chance to develop. Remember the 3Rs; rules, roles and responsibilities … we discussed them a few months back. The 3Rs create structure and in doing so create safety and security in a stepfamily. Thus, lowering anxiety and giving stepfamily members a chance to feel as if they do belong.

Here's a recap of the 3Rs:

  1. Rules. Simply expectations for the household, establishing rules clearly communicates to all stepfamily members—including yourself—what's acceptable behavior and what's not.
  2. Roles. Acknowledge the role each family member plays. The stepparent is the stepparent, the parent is the parent, and the child is the child. Discuss how each will be defined in your stepfamily and proceed slowly. Stepfamily life takes time to evolve with leading stepfamily researcher Patricia Papernow, EdD indicating it can take an average of seven years for a stepfamily to integrate where members experience intimacy and authenticity in these relationships.
  3. Responsibilities. This is not a repeat of the rules above. Instead, this refers to each family member’s responsibility to both themselves and to each other. All stepfamily members have the responsibility to show respect to others. From here the responsibilities become more role specific. For example, the stepparent is responsible to model the behavior they would like in return, to their partner and to themselves. The degree of responsibility to the stepchild is not a given; rather it is determined by the couple. And finally the parent has responsibility to their partner to make their relationship a priority, to their child to create a loving and nurturing environment and to themselves. They also have a responsibility to their child's other biological parent to co-parent in a healthy manner. 


The Need to Feel Appreciated

Ever feel like your swimming upstream as a stepparent? The work of psychologist Emily Visher and psychiatrist John Visher offers an explanation for this phenomenon. Bringing four children each into their marriage, the Vishers discovered that the stepfamily structure itself conflicts with basic human needs. According to them we all have three hard-wired needs, the first being (1) the need to feel appreciated.

Sound familiar? Whether it's purposeful or a byproduct of stepfamily life, one of the chief complaints from my (stepfamily) clients is that they feel underappreciated in their homes. So what can you do about it?

Implement these 3 five things to start harvesting your own appreciation:

  1. Tell. In a non-accusatory way, let your partner know how you feel. Using "I" statements don't place blame, instead let them know it's nice to hear a 'thank you' now and then.
  2. Act. Implement 'little tokens of appreciation.' It's important to remember that these are not necessarily material things; rather they are gestures such as hello and goodbye that go a long way to acknowledge another's presence and sends the message that you're open to engaging with them.
  3. Reflect. Take responsibility for how you come across to your stepfamily members. Are your actions welcoming appreciation or do they discourage them? You must start with creating a demeanor that allows appreciation to occur whether derived by yourself or someone else. If you don’t show yourself appreciation how can you expect others to follow suit?  



Brave Enough to Be Authentic

Close your eyes for a moment and recall how you've spent the last 24 hours. What were your actions? Were they congruent, or in harmony, with your thoughts and feelings at the time?

In my experience with stepparents—particularly stepmoms—I've found a common phenomenon where the desire to protect the feelings of others or the uncertainty as to what to say or do are drivers for masking one's true self. As a result many individuals living in 'step' function in what could be called a false sense of being. While the reasons typically cited come from a place of caring it all too often results in resentment and a loss of self-identity.

How do you counter this? First, you acknowledge the fact that no one is a mind reader and although you may think your partner should know you well enough to be able to anticipate how something will make you think or feel, this is an unfair proposition that only sets you up for disappointment. Second, you give your thoughts and feelings a voice. They are far too important to leave to someone else to figure out.

If some topics are touchy or you're unsure how to broach something, follow these tips:

  1. Start small. Discuss one thing at a time despite if you have a laundry list of things to tackle. Unloading too much can backfire and have your partner instantly on the defensive.
  2. Use "I" statements. By doing so you take ownership of what you're communicating. The alternative is simply you passing the buck. How can you hold someone else accountable if you aren't able to do the same?
  3. Highlight the positive. If something's working be sure to point it out; being hyper-focused on only areas needing improvement will cause you to miss what's already working in your favor.
  4. Be transparent. If you’re unsure what to say or do share your uncertainty. You may find out the other person is just as unsure as you and they'll appreciate knowing they're not alone. 


What Am I Grateful For? Ah-Ha Moments … 

What Am I Grateful For? I'm grateful for ah-ha moments. Simply explained as those moments when I realized the "why" behind either my own actions or someone else's in my stepfamily. Even if the other person does not specifically tell me the reason behind their behavior, I benefit from personal derived insight that helps me in my own perspective on the given situation.

For example, when I first came into the picture my mother-in-law had an uncanny knack of sharing with me how my partner's ex-wife would do things. Although she didn't present this information in a way that put down me, I found it extremely hurtful. After awhile the mentions of the ex-wife subsided and I came to realize that she did this because it was her only point of reference. Her son's divorce was the first one she had ever experienced so in her own way she was figuring out what it meant to have an ex-daughter-in-law and a new daughter-in-law simultaneously.

The realization I made was an eye-opening ah-ha moment for me. And even though it didn't change the fact of how I felt about the disclosures, it allowed me to see them for what they were—my mother-in-law's way of making sense of the new stepfamily dynamic and in her own way relating to me. Bottom line, it wasn't a personal attack on me.

Take a moment and reflect on any insights you've made in your "step" role. Be sure not to take them for granted as they provide useful information that will help you in the ever-fluctuating experiences stepfamily life brings. 


What Am I Grateful For? My Own Missteps … Read on to find out why ...

What Am I Grateful For? This goes along with the acting out behaviors I wrote about in my earlier post. In addition to these (which can seem like irritating and purposeful behaviors), I am also grateful for missteps … particularly, MY missteps.

The reason is because they almost force my hand in broaching certain topics with both my partner and stepdaughter. It's important to acknowledge the influence I have on my stepfamily and hold myself accountability for these influences. Nothing does this better than when I –for lack of a better way to describe it—mess up.

Please don’t confuse this with me liking or even welcoming my own mistakes. But since I'm unable to turn back time and undo them, I choose to honor my missteps and go about making them 'right' in my subsequent actions.

For those times when you make the non-wisest of choices in your stepparent role, I offer the below (5) suggestions you can take to turn your missteps into purposefully directed actions that can actually benefit you.

  1. Fine-turn your awareness of how your behaviors –verbal and nonverbal—impact those around you. The words you use and the actions you choose deliver messages, and are most often driven from your current state of mind both emotionally and cognitively.
  2. With heightened awareness you'll start to realize more and more when you say something out of anger—which is only a smoke screen for more deeply seeded feelings such as fear and sadness. Upon this realization, acknowledge it to both yourself and to the person you spoke it to.  Do this in the moment if you’re able to from a non-emotional place or wait until later when your communication will be productive as opposed to destructive.
  3. Accept responsibility with the words you speak. Use "I" statements to communicate how something made you feel and that your resulting behavior was not a good choice. Also, share how you would have preferred to have responded and if you're unsure, ask for the other person's thoughts.  
  4. Listen to the response you get … listen with the mission to "see" the experience from their perspective rather than merely waiting for them to stop talking so you can rebuttal. Repeat back what you've heard them say in order to ensure you understand correctly. If you don't, ask for clarity.
  5. Empathize with the other person. Remember that empathy does not mean you need to agree with their perspective—just acknowledge their right to have an opinion that differs from yours. Implementing the intervention described in #4 above—listening to understand—will help you develop the skill of empathy.

What have I gained from my own missteps? In my relationship with my stepdaughter I've been able to send the message that I'm figuring this "step" dynamic out too … she and I are in this together, each of us stepping lighting (and at times mis-stepping) as we create what our stepmom-stepdaughter relationship will look like both today and in the future.

It has been my journey through my missteps that has led me to great personal insights and the opportunity to learn what drives my own behaviors; and hence, the ability to address those drivers so they start to work to my benefit. Following the steps outlined above, you too can experience a shift in your own missteps from a place of wrong doing to that of a place of growth.