How to cope with stepchildren?
January 31, 2007 4:24 PM   Subscribe

My stepchildren are driving me crazy. Please help me figure out how to cope.

My wife and I have been married for 4 years. Both of us have kids from previous marriages (ages 8 to 16). All the kids live with us. They are all decent kids but nonetheless my wife's children cause me a tremendous amount of tension.

I am probably best described as a type A personality. I am very loving with my children but have always expected them to listen, behave and treat others with respect. For the most part, they do this and feel bad if I get upset with them.

My wife is also very loving with her children. Her love is much more, for lack of a better term, unconditional than mine. She is not good at disciplining, and when she gets angry with her kids (or when I get angry), they totally act like they could care less. Her children are very negative, mean and disrespectful to each other. I think much of this was picked up from their father who is that way to them and others (they still have quite a bit of contact with him).

It is very hard for me to be around them when they act this way (and even when I'm not around them I stress about there attitude rubbing off on my children). I have spoken to my wife about this and, while in the beginning she was very defensive, she is now very receptive and tries very hard to combat this. But it is very difficult for her because she is just not much of a disciplinarian. And I find it very difficult to remind her that something needs to be done (it just feels like tattling). She is perfectly fine with me disciplining them, but I have a lot of difficulty saying anything until I have reached a boiling point. It just seems like I feel incapable of bringing myself to discipline them. I feel very much like an ass when I do, and since they act like they could care less it makes me feel even worst toward them. Because of this I feel somewhat bitter toward them and the smallest things cause me great anguish. Typical kid things (such as not picking up after themselves) make me very stressed. I almost feel personally attacked when I see there stuff laying around. I can tolerate my kids doing the same thing much better (and realizing this makes me feel very bad).

Any suggestions on what to do? I have resorted to a lot of alone time just to try to minimize the opportunities for stress but I think this just makes them dislike me more and I think it makes my wife feel bad - but she does understand. I do not think that they like me very much (and probably rightly so).

I wish things were different but right now I just want to know what to do to more effectively cope with all the anger, tension, frustration and bitterness I feel when I'm around them. I try to remind myself that they are just kids doing normal kid things but it doesn't seem to work.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
you say that their father is a bit of an asshole -- try to keep that in mind whenever you think they suck (they probably do, I'm not saying they don't). try to be a better role model than their father is -- try leading by example. in the long run, it'll do them a lot of good. because frankly, they didn't choose their father, but you certainly chose their mother -- and she already had them, right?

good luck
posted by matteo at 4:39 PM on January 31, 2007

IANAParent, but you both need to equally discipline the kids. All of the kids, be they yours or your stepchildren. Your child breaks something by being stupid? Grounded for three days. Stepchild breaks something by being stupid? Same thing.

Typical kid things (such as not picking up after themselves) make me very stressed. I almost feel personally attacked when I see there stuff laying around. I can tolerate my kids doing the same thing much better (and realizing this makes me feel very bad).
Your stepchildren probably can sense in their own little way that stuff your biological children do bothers you less than stuff that they do. It offends them, and rightfully so. You need to get out of the "these aren't MY kids" habit, and start thinking of them as yours, genes notwithstanding. Treating all the kids equally doesn't make you love your biological children any less.

In re: mean and disrespectful to each other, neither of my parents are assholes, but my younger brother was still a jerk to me a lot. He used to chase me with frying pans or baseball bats until I locked myself in my room and was scared to come out. My mom never disciplined him, and dad was never home early enough to do so, so he kept doing it. They need to be disciplined when they're little jerks to each other.

Bottom line is that you and your wife need to come up with a discipline compromise and stick to it, regardless of the kid. Sounds like you and your wife could use a good few counseling sessions, too.
posted by Verdandi at 4:40 PM on January 31, 2007

It sounds like you need counseling/psychological treatment. Typical kid things should not stress you so much, and furthermore, the fact that such things don't stress you when it's your OWN kids doing them signals a big problem. Type-A or not, your personality is irrelevant. Just because you're think of yourself as type-A doesn't mean everybody else should be expected to live up to a higher standard.
posted by jayder at 4:41 PM on January 31, 2007

How many kids are there, and what are the ages of those giving you problems?

Is the father actively trying to sabotage the relationship?

Her children are very negative, mean and disrespectful to each other.

Take a step back and ask yourself if this true. They may have been raised differently from you and they may be coming off a certain way. Just a suggestion.

As for their stuff lying around, tell them if they keep doing it, you're going to start throwing it away. If they keep it up, start doing what you said. There are certain standards you expect and it's up to you to articulate what they are, what the consequences for not following them are and then doing what you said you'd do.

In the midst of all this, it's important to also talk and try to interact with them. Ask them how their day was and then shut up and listen. When they do something good, let them know.

You simply need to start parenting.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:25 PM on January 31, 2007

They are all decent kids--

Glad to hear that.

[My kids] feel bad if I get upset with them. ... when [my wife] gets angry with her kids (or when I get angry), they totally act like they could care less.

Okay, so getting angry with your wife's kids isn't giving you any leverage with them. I don't know that you need to change that. Your objective isn't to make them more responsive to your anger, it's to get them to follow the rules set by you and your wife. The question is how.

Besides getting angry, what do you do to punish them? Send them to their room for 15 minutes? Take away privileges?

Our kids are much younger (5 and 3). We've found the approach recommended in 1-2-3 Magic, by Thomas Phelan, to be helpful: give them two warnings ("that's one," "that's two") before punishment (a timeout, in our case). Again, the objective isn't to punish them, it's to get them to follow the rules without having to punish them.

I'd suggest having a few simple rules and enforcing them consistently, instead of having a lot of rules that you don't enforce. For our kids, the two key rules are bedtime and obedience--that is, if we tell them to do something, or stop doing something, they have to do it. But other than that, we don't have a set of rules that we expect them to memorize and follow.

If I recall correctly, Phelan recommends not getting angry when disciplining. For children, who don't have much power, being able to make your parents angry is a form of power. Just enforce the rules consistently. You're the parent, it's up to you to set and enforce the rules, you don't need to be angry to do it.

Some suggested reading:

How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

The Seven Worst Things Parents Do, by John and Linda Friel. Despite the melodramatic title, I thought this book actually gives pretty good advice.

You and your wife might also want to look into parenting workshops.

Good luck!
posted by russilwvong at 5:26 PM on January 31, 2007

Not all stepfamilies become happy, successful new families, unfortunately, but you don't want to be stumbling around in a fog of resentment for the next ten years. From the point of view of someone who was a kid in a similar situation:

-Your stepchildren may react badly if you punish them [particularly if their mother does not punish them or rarely punishes them for doing the same thing.] Your wife may be fine with you doing the disciplining, but there's a good chance that her kids feel like you're [still] a stranger who's come in and rewritten all the rules. In my family, it worked better when each parent dealt with the discipline for their own kids. Even jointly presented punishments went over better than those presented primarily by the stepparent.

-Your stepchildren may also be reacting badly if they've had to change their lives more than your kids have. These things aren't always equal, unfortunately, and the resentments caused by such differences can fester for years. Be very careful that you're treating both sets of kids equally, in discipline and in everything else [family traditions, chores, etc.] Make sure that the rules are the same [even if the discipline is meted out by biological parents]. If there are areas where one set of kids has had to adjust more, recognize that and act appropriately: work towards a goal of equality, but recognize that trying to make the kids change overnight won't work.

-Be very, very careful about both your general resentment towards your wife's kids and also about your opinions regarding their father. Kids notice a lot. Furthermore, you need to remember that you don't necessarily have a wholly accurate viewpoint of their dad: you've heard the negative from your wife, but you've probably seen less of the positive side. And no matter what, he's still the kids' dad. Throughout my childhood, few things sucked worse than my step-parent [on one side of the family] or my close relatives [on the other side] thinking they could trash the other parent and we'd agree with them. More subtle contempt/dislike isn't OK either.

-Counselling. Seriously. You, your wife, the kids... Divorces are hard, stepfamilies are even harder. It's no panacea, but it's a way to try to figure out what the biggest issues are, and then try to figure out how to address them. It certainly sounds like it'd help you - it's not good if you're feeling as if their messiness is a personal attack. But it might also help the kids: if they feel unwelcome or out of place at your house, or are just resentful of the whole divorce/stepfamily thing, they may be more ill-tempered and ill-behaved than normal. That was very definitely the case in my family.
posted by ubersturm at 5:57 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I notice that you are referring to your children as "hers" and "mine".

They are ALL your children, BOTH of yours, and you'd probably do well to start thinking along those lines (as hard or unnatural as that may at first be). I think that once you start really feeling deep down that they are your kids, just LIVING that without thinking about it, it will be easier for you to be a parent to them (and that is exactly what disciplining them and being clear and understanding and loving towards them is.) Brandon Blatcher gives good advice above.
posted by tristeza at 6:09 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm not a parent, but, weirdly, I was also going to suggest Don't Shoot the Dog. It's mostly about animal behavior and positive reinforcement, but is a book that, no kidding, changed my outlook on life.

The author, at one point, talks about a kid in her house leaving his wet swimsuit all over the place. Her response, as an animal behaviorist, was to not do what most of us would do (nag, nag, nag, explode, punish) but instead to calmly request the behavior she wants, and then REWARD:

"Please pick up your bathing suit." (no response.)

"Please pick up your bathing suit." (no response.)

Standing directly in front of the child, same calm voice: "Please pick up your bathing suit."

Child picks up bathing suit, grumbling.

Big smile, no sarcasm: "Thank you!"

I don't mean to diminish all the other dynamics in your family, but you and your stepkids are training each other to be jerks. You're not doing it on purpose. But by failing to reinforce behavior you want, and instead repeatedly focusing on and reacting to behavior you hate, you're accidentally creating a relationship full of irritation. I think it's natural that you and your stepkids find each other tough to deal with, in a dynamic like that.

I know, even without knowing you, that there are things about your stepkids you like a lot. Obviously, it's really easy for me to make suggestions, not being in your shoes, but I would try to focus - to the point of making lists, even - on what you do like about them. Comment favorably on these behaviors: "Jason, I love it when you take your toys to your room when you're done with them. Jennifer, I really like that you put your plate in the sink-- thank you!"

(Yes, this will probably make you feel like kind of a tool.)

When they're behaving in a specific way you find unacceptable, ask for another, incompatible behavior, and then reward them for it: "Jason, dinner is almost over. Will you please sit quietly for the next five minutes? Thank you! Here's some ice cream."

I cannot say enough good things about Karen Pryor's books.

Good luck!
posted by thehmsbeagle at 6:13 PM on January 31, 2007

How old are the stepkids? Because if they are teenagers, you may find your difficulties are not due simply (or at least only) to being a stepparent, but because they are walking hormone bombs.
posted by schroedinger at 6:19 PM on January 31, 2007

I'm a new-ish parent to two teenagers (foster kids). I have found working with this program called MST to be really helpful. Basically I meet with this therapist (I really think of her as a parenting coach) twice a week and we go over systems and behaviors and what's working and how I'm doing with X or Y. Since I started the program (and I was a skeptic because I'm not much of a disciplinarian) I've decreased my anger and yelling by about 80 percent. And the chores have gone up from about never to they usually get done.

Also -- I don't know why people express surprise that you're so stressed out -- kids leaving stuff around and generally being clueless and irresponsible can be super stressful! Even when you know that it's 50 percent just part of being a teenager. I've been less stressed out since having some systems and structure (via working with the MST therapist). But it's still stressful.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 6:53 PM on January 31, 2007 [1 favorite]

Kindness and eternal patience - smother them with it. Don't take their stuff being strewn around personally - it's not personal. They're children who don't like to clean, and haven't been trained from an early age to pick up after themselves. They may be testing your boundaries, but it's not like a gauntlet has been thrown down.

Stepping in and being the disciplinarian when they aren't used to it is not going to work. Their lives went a certain way, you came along and now they've got someone holding them accountable. The only weapon they have is making you lose your shit. So don't lose your shit. If they don't care, explain to them why they should. If they roll their eyes, make sure they know that you respect them and that you expect that respect back. Show them that you care, and if you don't care, fake it until you do. They're in your life forever now - your love should be unconditional. Even if you resent having to be a parent to kids who don't listen, don't like you, and don't give a damn. Struggle as much as you can to be consistent with how you treat your kids and how you treat hers.

I went through this in my large blended family, and I can't stress enough the lasting effects of your behavior now. Something that seems like a reasonable action to you as an adult may leave lasting effect on the kids and how they see you. They will be in your life forever now, and if you fit into that neat hole of being the "bad guy" they will run with it. If you become the evil stepparent, you may risk never having a relationship with them. And they will spend the rest of their lives trying to make you as miserable as they feel you are making them. It may not be fair, but you know that life isn't fair - and they'll learn that soon enough.
posted by SassHat at 6:54 PM on January 31, 2007

I was a child in a family much like the one you described: My father was very strict while my stepmother was very go-with-the-flow with her two children. Me and my brother knew not to screw with our dad, or fear the consequences. Watching our step-siblings run wild in the house not only made us hate them, it made us angry towards our stepmother. Sure, it's childish, but hey-- we were kids.

One thing that I recommend to you, anonymous, is to try to build one-on-one relationships with your stepchildren. In my family, this would involve the other parent taking one of us kids on a mini-vacation, or even just to the mall for an afternoon. Sure, we took family vacations, but we also had a lot of time to personally adjust to the other parent. Also, I think that stepkids act different when they're not together.

The other thing that I should emphasize is that your kids are adjusting to the situation, and you should not over-look them in this whole ordeal. I assure you, they will hold it against you later.
posted by jivesoul at 7:37 PM on January 31, 2007

i have no advice, only sympathy. my boyfriend's son is here 40% of every month and he doesn't discipline him either. tonight's great misadventure came when i was sitting on the couch keeping to myself with red wine in hand (completely my fault, it should be in a sippy cup, i know) when the boy came in jumping all about. he was told to settle down, didn't, and then 5 minutes later he ended up jumping on my lap and the wine went all over my clothes. he thought he was in trouble, his dad said "you're not in trouble!" when i was seething and wondering why not. it's like that in every instance and i hate it. he gets time outs if he's especially snotty, but then he reneges on them halfway thru. it makes me insane and whenever i even think of telling him no (not even yelling, just a simple "i don't think so tonight") he holds a grudge against me. he hasn't stopped glaring at me ever since i said he can't play gameboy two weeks ago. frustrating is an understatement.
posted by kooop at 7:49 PM on January 31, 2007

I can tolerate my kids doing the same thing much better (and realizing this makes me feel very bad).

Well, that's a good place to start; just don't think of them as your wife's kids anymore. They're your kids too, and I'm sure you're a great father, but if you don't show them that, then they won't know. So please try and be more patient with them.
I know it's not the easiest thing in the world, but you must try. (Don't take it so personally the next time they don't do something that you'd asked them to, as in picking up their stuff, and thinking that it's an attack on you personally. They're just crying out for attention, and if they see that they're getting it that way, they'll keep on doing it.)
Instead, why not be less authoritarian with your kids (yours and hers too) and not sweat the small stuff so much. (I used to do this too, so when I realized that it was just a way for me to be controlling, and it was the control that I desired, and not the task or the chore that needed to be done, I became a much better person, and the people who needed to do the chores became much better people too when they saw this change. So now when they don't do what's expected of them, I remind them without getting bent out of shape, and if they still don't do it--big deal.
This doesn't mean that they have carte-blanche to run wild though, so you'll have to consult your wife on that front, and both of you will have to hammer out an agreement that you both can live by when it comes to disciplining your kids, and then stick to it.
posted by hadjiboy at 9:22 PM on January 31, 2007

I'm really glad you posted this. I'm in a sort of simular situation, and espeically hearing from folks who grew up in blended families is super helpful.

I wish I had a solution though! I read Stepfamilies for Dummies shortly after I met my partner. It wasn't that helpful, but it was validating to learn that how you and I often feel: that the other parent isn't disciplining enough, that the step children don't like us, that we're less patient with our step-children, is all very common and normal.

While I have tried to follow the advice that some people here give about treating both kids as both of ours, that isn't so easily done. I'm a fairly principled and fair person, but still, if I'm out of town for a couple days it is my biological child that I think of and wonder about more often. A certain amount of that is innevitable and I think it would be a disservice to the kids to pretend that it's not. I do believe in trying to treat both children equally though. And I liked the advice about forming individual relationships with each child - especially by having time alone with them.

In terms of dealing with the daily stress, my major project is trying to save my commentary until after the kids are asleep. I find myself shooting looks at my partner when I disagree with her parenting, and the kids can see that and pick up on it. No wonder her biological son doesn't trust me if he can see me giving his mom mean looks for letting him get away with something! Does that make sense? So I spend a lot of time taking deep breaths or leaving the room for a few minutes.

Therapy has been semi-helpful for having a place to just hash out parenting strategies like "Ok, we have to figure out how to deal with x dicipline issue" although we still have big differences. Of course, traditional families contain these differences too - most parents disagree with their spouses on certain child-related issues.

Mostly, I can just offer my sympathy. I feel your pain! It is super hard, so good luck to you.
posted by serazin at 12:45 AM on February 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ages 8 - 16 are old enough to have some say in what they believe is going well or going badly in the house. My advice to you (other than the previously voiced advice that they are all your kids now - yours and your wife's - and you both need to think of them as such) is to sit down with your wife and decide what you both want the house rules to be - what the chores are, what the guidelines are, what the punishments should be - then sit down with everyone and have a family meeting, where everyone can have a voice but you and mom have the final say.

Stress that the kids need to be respectful and kind to one another, but also let this be a time when they can say - really say - whats bugging them and what they think the rules, responsiblities, and condquenses should be. What they say may surprise you.

Then take the plan you and your wife agreed upon, revise it a bit (if needed) based on the input from the kids, and post a list of rules and responsiblities that everyone in the house needs to adhere to. Then follow your own rules.

It will take work - work from everyone - but blending these two families can work.
posted by anastasiav at 8:17 AM on February 1, 2007

Kindness and eternal patience - smother them with it.

Er, don't do that. Kids really do not respond to nagging. If you try to handle this situation yourself by nagging your children -- that is responding each time they do something wrong with a 'discipline moment' or continually asking them to improve -- then you'll achieve nothing but exhaustion on your part and resentment on your children's part.

Don't feel bad that you're angry. There's no need to hit yourself over the head with guilt. If you come home and the house is a total mess you have every right to feel angry. Instead of trying to bury the feelings or deny them perhaps find a way to work them out. Exercise, talking to your wife, or even going for a drive. Later on, after you've calmed down, you can come back and deal with the situation.

Typical kid things (such as not picking up after themselves) make me very stressed. I almost feel personally attacked when I see there stuff laying around. I can tolerate my kids doing the same thing much better (and realizing this makes me feel very bad).

Try creating a system. The details of the system don't matter it just needs to be a simple, clear set of punishments and rewards. There should be more rewards than punishments. Be generous since kids respond to positive feedback and negative feedback has little lasting effect. If you have to, write the system down and post it somewhere. Handling situations where they break the rules shouldn't require any effort or emotional investment of the part. All you have to do is calmly refer to the system, determine the correct punishment and then dispassionately dole it out. Your wife needs to do the same. But neither of you get caught up in the whole 'righteous avenger' schtick. Make it clear that you're not angry with them (since anger will tend to encourage a lot of children) but they broke the rules and now they have to do the time. Let the system do all the work for you.

Also you really should spend more time with them. It doesn't matter if this time is full of awkward silences or insulting sarcasm or even angry shouting -- it's still time. Try to be around them in the evenings (instead of having them disappear to their rooms) or make regular outings or whatever. The only way for people to grow on one another and perhaps even come to like each other is to spend time together. Make this a priority.
posted by nixerman at 8:21 AM on February 1, 2007

When they're behaving in a specific way you find unacceptable, ask for another, incompatible behavior, and then reward them for it: "Jason, dinner is almost over. Will you please sit quietly for the next five minutes? Thank you! Here's some ice cream."

I'll second this. Try to get in the habit of saying 'thank you' to your kids as much as possible and encourage them to say it to you. It's a little thing but it helps a lot.
posted by nixerman at 8:29 AM on February 1, 2007

Coming from a blended family I'd say the most important thing you can do is really get to know and form a relationship with your stepkids. You don't have to "be" their new dad but you should form a friendly bond (this may take a lot of work on your part but it is worth it in the end) note a friendly bond is not the same as friends, kids need parents(step or otherwise) first and foremost. Once you have a bond with these kids it will be easier to deal with the displine and normal kid behavior issues like they were your kids. The other point I would stress is be consistent, set the house rules and make sure they are enforced the same way every way for each kid.Equal treatment will go a long way to cementing the family.
posted by estronaut at 9:01 AM on February 1, 2007

I'm not a step-parent but I am a step-daughter and I can tell you at 16 being disciplined by my step-father would have made me feel very bitter toward him. He was already an intruder in my family and unless my behaviour was a direct action upon him I would've felt it was none of his business.

I'm in my 30s now and I'm closer to him than to my own father, and I genuinely like and respect him, but if he'd been a disciplinarian or otherwise intruded in things that should've remained between me and my mother, it would have damaged an inherently complicated relationship further.
posted by loiseau at 1:50 PM on February 1, 2007

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