Sunday, June 20, 2010

10 Parenting Tips Every Stepmom Must Know

I wrote these 10 Parenting Tips Every Stepmom Must Know for The Huffington Post and want to share them with you.

Being a stepmother can be one of the most challenging roles in society, and one that often receives little support, understanding, and appreciation from others. In my book, The Happy Stepmother, I share 10 steps to thrive despite the frustrations that come with stepmotherhood, but here are 10 tips you can try right now to become a happier stepmother today:

1.Enjoy time with your stepchildren: Stepchildren should be assets, rather than liabilities, in your life. To have good relationships with them, you need to spend quality time with them and interact in meaningful, pleasurable ways. Since quality relationships are built from one-on-one interactions, spend private time with each of your stepchildren. Find common interests and activities, such as a hobby or a sport, to do with them. It's easier to develop a caring, loving, and friendly relationship with your stepchildren when you don’t have the burden of parental responsibilities and can simply enjoy your time together instead.

2.Allow your partner to actively take care of his children: If you want to have a good relationship with your stepchildren and your partner, don’t automatically become the primary housekeeper. Of course, you may do some tasks for your stepchildren, just as you would for other family members, but you'll become resentful if you feel you must fulfill all maternal duties for them -- especially if you don’t feel appreciated for what you do. You aren’t shirking stepmother duties if you don’t cook, clean, and do their laundry. Those are your partner’s jobs, even if you're staying home to care for your own biological children. In most cases, stepmothers should operate more as a babysitters or aunts than as parents. This will leave you more time for activities that provide you with the most meaning and pleasure.

3.Allow your partner to discipline his children: Remarried fathers need to step up to the plate when it comes to teaching their children appropriate behavior. Most mental health experts agree that it's your partner’s responsibility to discipline his children; if you discipline them, your stepchildren may resent you. Many stepmothers complain that their partners are too lax about providing structure and boundaries for their children after a divorce. When stepchildren misbehave, first focus your attention on your partner rather than the children. Let him know, gently and calmly, that you feel he needs to assert his authority in order to help his children grow and develop and feel secure and protected. If he isn’t capable of being a strong parent, then your life, his life, and your stepchildren’s lives will suffer.

4.Establish house rules: In order to ensure mutual respect in the stepfamily, it's essential for you and your partner to develop a set of rules that everyone in the family must abide by. If your stepchildren are old enough, they can even participate in setting up these rules. Often, parents are amused to find that their children establish stricter punishments for breaking a rule than the adults would've done! When everyone in the family knows the house rules, you and your partner can back each other up when a transgression occurs. Working together as a team is important for you as a couple and teaches children that they can't “divide and conquer.”

5.Have a weekly date night with your husband: To be content as a stepmother and survive the stresses of stepfamily life, your relationship with your partner must be the most important priority in your life and his (right after your own well-being, which should always come first). Having fun together strengthens your relationship and makes it easier to get over the crises when they occur.

6.Accept that your feelings for your stepchildren and the feelings that your stepchildren have for you are “good enough”: Oftentimes, stepmothers feel pressured that they must love their stepchildren and expect their stepchildren to reciprocate that love in return. Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If you love your stepchildren, that’s wonderful, but if you don’t, that’s also acceptable, as long as you provide kindness, compassion, and respect to them. No more and no less should be expected of you. When you remove expectations that you must love your stepchildren, it'll be easier just to be nice to them -- and in a genuine way. This can lead, eventually, to love.

7.Model good behavior: Our first challenge as stepmothers is to accept and welcome our stepchildren by being warm, kind, and respectful. The integration of a stepfamily begins with you and your partner. As mature, responsible adults, you have the job of laying the groundwork for the new family. You're the front-runner for modeling respect and compassion.

8.Don’t take it personally: Most of us as stepmothers try our hardest to be kind, considerate, and loving to our stepchildren. If our efforts are rebuffed, we naturally feel extremely hurt. Stepchildren may reject your attention and warmth for various reasons. Perhaps they feel that since they already have two parents, they don’t want a third one in their lives. They may be afraid their mothers will be hurt if they become close to you. They may not trust that your relationship with their father will last and don't want to experience loss again. Or they simply may not share your interests or temperament, and find it hard to relate to you. Any of these obstacles can take a long time to overcome, and the situation might not change at all despite your best efforts. Whatever the case, you need to accept things as they are for your own emotional welfare and not take stepchildren’s rejection of you as a personal attack.

9.Create your own holiday traditions: Holidays can be particularly painful for stepmothers who may be excluded from special occasions, such as weddings or Christmas, even after years of marriage to their partners. Other stepmothers can feel like outsiders at holiday gatherings. If you experience feelings of dread prior to certain family events, start your own traditions. Have an annual Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Easter gathering. You'll have more control when you host your own holiday celebrations.

10.Take charge of your own happiness: As a stepmother, it's of paramount importance for you to take care of your own emotional needs first, before everyone and everything else in your life. When you commit to making your emotional welfare the number one priority in your life, you'll be giving yourself the best shot at happiness. Attaining happiness requires hard work and a willingness to expend energy creating a meaningful life. We do this by focusing on what we want and then taking action to get it. Take charge!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

How Stepmothers Can Find a Good Therapist

At least three times a week, stepmothers email me requesting a recommendation for good therapist where they live. Usually, I don’t know anyone in their area but I give them a list of questions to ask therapists before they finally select one with whom to work. Finding a good therapist requires some detective work. You need to find out some basic information to make sure you and a therapist share similar philosophies and goals. This will ensure that your experience in therapy helps rather than harms you.

Particularly with regard to stepmothers, many mental health professionals hold outdated ideas about stepfamilies, the most prevalent one being that “blending” is the ideal goal. If a stepmother complains that she feel like an outsider in her family despite numerous attempts to bond with her stepchildren, too many therapists will suggest that she keep trying to establish a relationship with them. This can be an exercise in frustration and futility as “blending” does not occur for most stepfamilies, and is not a necessary requirement for their overall happiness.
Other therapists unconsciously accept as true the cultural stereotype that stepmothers are to blame for all the family’s problems. They lack an understanding of the real challenges faced by stepmothers, and their ignorance and insensitivity may influence how they work with you. More than likely, you will waste your time and money. A bad experience in therapy may taint you from trying another therapist, and prevent you from getting the help you need and deserve.

I have been appalled by the bad experiences some stepmothers have had with therapists. In one of the monthly support groups I run, one* of the stepmothers shared that she, her husband, and 21 year old stepdaughter went to a family therapist for help. They were struggling to get along in her small one bedroom apartment. The stepdaughter was thrown out of her dorm for physically assaulting her roommate and needed to move in with them while attending college, and was sleeping on the living room couch. She was asked to not play the TV or radio after 1AM to prevent awakening her father and stepmother. She refused to, or was unable to abide by this request and repeatedly disturbed her father and stepmother in the middle of the night. When they would politely ask her to turn off the TV or radio, she would have a tantrum (that would last for hours). When the family discussed this in therapy, the therapist felt that the stepmother was being unreasonable by asking for some peace and quiet, and should be more understanding of her stepdaughter who was still affected by her parent’s divorce, more than 15 years ago. This trauma, the therapist explained, prevented her from channeling her emotions maturely.

The belief that children are victims of divorce is both common and completely accurate. It is true that many children are traumatized by divorce, but this is an explanation rather than an excuse for their misbehavior. It is unacceptable for a 21 year old to have a temper tantrum when she doesn’t get her way. Adult temper tantrums are indicative of a bigger problem, one that was being ignored by both the therapist and her father. As long as his daughter was doing well in school and abstained from alcohol and drugs, he was satisfied with her behavior. He wasn’t concerned by the fact his daughter could not keep friends, got into physical altercations with them, and was fired from all of her jobs. His passivity regarding his daughter’s problems prevented him from acknowledging his wife’s frustrations and taking them seriously.

Not only was the stepmother disturbed by her husband’s stance, she was astonished that the therapist did not support her need to get a good night’s sleep since she was the only one in the family with a job. If she lost it, all of them would be homeless. The therapist did share with the family that she was a stepchild and never had a good relationship with her own stepmother. This factor probably contributed to her over identifying with the stepdaughter to the detriment of the stepmother. At her wit’s end, the stepmother was considering divorce; the only viable option in an otherwise untenable situation. This situation did not have to escalate to this crisis level if the family therapist was more sensitive to the stepmother’s needs.

To get the most out of therapy, you can screen for a stepmother savy therapist by asking a few key questions, such as:

•What kind of, and how much experience have you had working with stepfamilies?
•What training have you had that is specifically related to stepfamily issues?
•Are you a stepmother? If the therapist feels this question is too personal, explain that you are experiencing challenges as a stepmother, and prefer to work with someone who truly understands the dynamic.
•Have you been a stepchild? Do you have a stepmother? If so, what kind of relationship do you have with her? If the therapist shares that she has had a negative one, ask the therapist if she can separate her own experiences when working with you.
•Do you believe that it’s necessary and desirable for stepfamilies to “blend” over time? If a therapist upholds that “blending” is customary in stepfamilies and is the ideal objective, ask what he or she recommends if it doesn’t happen. If they recommend that you continue to try to achieve this goal, call someone else.
•Don’t forget to ask the basic questions: are you licensed, what is your fee, and if the therapist is covered by insurance.

Unfortunately, you are not guaranteed to find the right therapist by just asking these questions. Only a consultation will give you the information you need to determine if you feel comfortable collaborating with the therapist to help you achieve greater happiness and contentment.

There are many terrific therapists; it just takes a little work to find the right one for you.

*Some information has been altered to protect the confidentiality of this stepmother.