A Stepmom’s Nightmare: Tough Medicine for a Tough Situation
Reimagined from the article by Gary Direnfeld, MSW


You are on your last nerve!  You are the stepmom of kids who not only don't listen, but threaten to go back to the other parent at the mere mention of expectations.  When you complain to your partner - their father, he shrugs it off, not wanting to upset the apple-cart and risk losing precious time with his little angels.  No one is in counseling but opinions and "solutions" as divergent, as contradictory as anything you've experienced.  Makes you even crazier!

These situations often involve separated parents who have poor to limited or no ability to communicate between themselves.  It is likely that their relationship as a couple was a disaster and that the court or the threat of court figured prominently in their settlement.

Dad is either limited in his parenting abilities or is afraid that his kids won't see him if he doesn't give way to their demands.  Either way, dad tries to either be an ostrich and put his head in the sand to avoid the situation or tries to be their "friend'", or thinks that the kids will like "Uncle Dad" better and thus behave better.

Kids in these situations have long since learned to exploit the parental conflict to get what they want. Instead of parental expectations, limits and boundaries they have things - toys and gadgets.  They may also have no meaningful curfews or consequences to hold them accountable.

In taking on the role of “surrogate mom” the stepmom is at risk of being set up as the wicked witch for ratting out the kids, spoiling everyone's' fun and being a pain in the butt to her partner.  Truth is, she may be the most distressed and very often enough, the only one to see the situation for what it is - a bigger train wreck waiting to happen.

Kids who are out of control and who can pit their parents against each other are at risk of school failure, early onset sexual behavior, pregnancy, drug alcohol abuse and trouble with the law.  As they disrespect both stepparent, as well as biological, and get away with murder at home, they then try out their misguided skills and beliefs outside the home at school, workplace and community.

This is actually a pretty common scenario and if there is a call for counseling, it is usually by the stepmom who is fed up with the situation and feeling unsupported by their partner with spoiled kids running roughshod over them both, especially her.  Trouble is, without both biological parents on board, the likelihood of turning things around well are limited.

In order to make a good difference in these situations and the lives of these children, both biological parents must learn to cooperate and support each other as parents lest the kids continue to divide and conquer.  Trouble is, as the stepmom takes on the task of calling people out and seeking to improve matters, all eyes are on her as an agitator.  She becomes the source of conflict and she feels like she is steering a sinking ship. 

Harriet Learner writes about so called “blended family” situations in, Marriage Rules: A manual for the Married and the Coupled Up, which is totally worth the read (you'll find it in my Suggested Readings section)! Chapter 9 talks extensively about guidelines for stepparents and particularly “Rule #91: Stepmothers: Don’t try to be any kind of mother”!  Is that surprising to you?  I definitely recommend getting a hold of the book!  Many have successfully, gratefully used it as their “family bible”!  The hard truth of the matter is, these are not her kids and this is not her responsibility even though she becomes a victim of the family dysfunction.

Stepmom, you have three options: continue what you're doing and expect a different result, leave the relationship altogether, or step back and let the chips fall where they may. 

Assuming you choose the third option and step back, the real trick is to redirect any issues or expectations with regards to your partner's children, to your partner, where they belong.  Do not take responsibility for his children because in so doing, he gets to avoid it.  We know this of course as “enabling”.  In words, making it easy for the ‘other’ to keep doing what they’re doing, no matter how inappropriate, dysfunctional or destructive. 

When he finally gets overwhelmed and asks for your advice, don't get sucked into rescuing him!  This is enabling too!

The real trick to facilitating change here is to empathically leave him wrestling with these problems of his own creation.  Unless he truly feels that this issue is inescapable and the he must "step up", he will not be motivated to deal with it directly.  You rescue, he is relieved or his responsibility, nothing changes. The cycle continues -- enabling, see?  Eventually he has to come to realize that counseling is a must for at least himself and (best case scenario) for his former partner and that together they must resolve the situation.

You as stepmom, continuing your involvement in their dynamic only serves to keep the heat off them and keep it upon yourself.

To my mind, proper communication about the disengagement is imperative.  Here, a particular attitude and approach, if embraced, may increase the likelihood of the stepmom appearing supportive, while simultaneously disengaged.  With a bit of coaching in her own therapy, she may learn the skill in being Calm and Compassionate, Disciplined and Firm in expressing her boundaries and personal limit setting. As I have seen, this skill can be highly effective in the reuniting, in the reclaiming of a stepmom’s solid sense of Sel’ which she may well have lost within the dysfunction of the blended family.  Sadly, this loss is all too typical in parental situations and especially blended ones. 

Want to feel better?  You need to activily engage in self-soothing practices: leave the scene, take a bath, read a book, go for a walk, get a manicure, and others.  Do anything that is soothing instead of taking on your partner's responsibility.  Not easy at first.  As you disengage from the turmoil, you encourage your partner to empower himself by engaging the issue while empowering yourself in becoming self-directed again.

If you don't have the stomach for this, when others have considered leaving as an option that too has triggered crisis enough to raise your partner's profile in terms of taking the situation seriously and finally, into his own, rightful hands.  There is a way to offer your insight and support for sure, and your therapist can help you understand that way.  Bottom line is though:  the problem with his kids is his to solve.

Tough solution for tough a situation.

Questions? Comments?  Feel free to call or email me:

Peter Roseman Psy.S.
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