Being a parent is hard. Personally, it’s one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. But I think being a stepparent is even harder.
Research shows that relationship challenges with the stepchildren are one of the top two challenges for stepmoms. The dynamics of relationships with our stepkids is so complex and multifaceted. There are so many variables outside of stepmom control that impacts our relationships with stepkids. However, there’s not nearly as many outside variables beyond the birth mother’s control.
I’ve heard many women talk about how hard it is to make a positive connection with their stepkids. Attachment is second nature for most birth mothers. Its roots take hold before a child is born-in utero. That bond and attachment make it easier to forgive and forget the behaviours that children throw at you when you are at your wits end.
However, what about creating a connection to a child you haven’t given birth to? The experience of being able to make a connection and bond with our stepkids can be positive and rewarding and it can fill our maternal cup. But it can also be the exact opposite.
I’ve spoken with women feeling pushed to the side-lines or fringes of the already established or pre-made family. Women have shared with me experiences of alienation and outright rejection by their skids in their own homes. Women’s self-esteem and more importantly their self-worth goes into a nose dive. Losing all sense of themselves as a caring authority figure or a caring mother figure. They react by withdrawing emotionally and set up protective barriers around their hearts. Then sometimes thoughts of “I hate my stepkid” or “I resent my stepkid” or “if that child were mine they would NEVER get away with that” start to ooze out of very desperate places. And then almost immediately panic, shame and self-judgement overwhelm them at the admission “I can’t hate my stepkids. I shouldn’t hate my stepkids…they are only children after all. WHO hates kids?! I can’t be one of those”. It goes against the very grain of what we believe women are supposed to be and who we are – nurturers and caretakers. However, we get stuck in an emotional field of landmines. You are told and you believe that you are supposed to love them as your own, yet you cannot claim them as your own.
But what if you don’t love them like your own? What if you don’t even like them? What if their presence is barely tolerable? They drive you crazy. They are lazy, selfish, and disrespectful. They are ruining your relationship with your spouse because of their behaviours. Know that what you are feeling is common. It does happen – women do detest their stepkids. Although this feeling is kept like a dirty secret.
You are told and you believe that you are supposed to love them [stepchildren] like your own, yet you cannot claim them as your own.
But know two things: DON’T tell your spouse you hate their child and DON’T tell the child you hate them. Doing that and saying that will cause irreparable damage to both your spouse and your stepchild.
Is it ok to have these feelings?
It’s always ok to have any feelings as they are there for a reason – to give you information. Because there is more going on. Much more. So get it off your chest…confidentially. Then process those emotions. Once they are released then they won’t get buried and come out when you least expect them and when you least want them to. Denying they exist will cause MORE problems. Stop and figure out; is it the child you hate or their behaviours? Likely it’s the behaviours.
So let’s look at those behaviors that you detest so much. If you understand what’s underneath their behaviours you’ll find compassion. If not for them then for yourself knowing not to take it personally.
Here are some things that might help shift that perspective and help you separate the deed from the doer.
First, your stepkids have been influenced from birth by other people whose values, morals, and opinions of how children should be raised may look very different from yours!
Most parents raise their children in much the same way as how they were raised. “It’s how I was raised and I turned out ok”. For first time families, this can take some negotiation if parenting styles are different. It’s compromise and conversation. But for stepmoms, those rules of engagement for handling behaviours were created by other people for very personal reasons long before you came into the picture. Then these rules of engagement are often confusing for the stepmom because they are “just the way things are done because they’ve always been done that way”. And those rules have likely “worked” for them so why change that? But they may not necessarily work for you. Because in the earlier stages of your new family you haven’t yet earned that right. It takes time to earn the right to discipline a child. Both from the parent’s perspective (sometimes especially the bio mom) AND the child.
But those loathsome behaviours like the lazy, whiny, annoying, manipulative, revengeful behaviours that often lead to power struggles are behaviours with a purpose. Their behaviours gave them what they wanted so they become reinforced and part of a pattern-like a choreographed dance. These are the Goals of Misbehaviour as described by Rudolf Dreikurs. It’s an old book but puts things in a clearer perspective.
Another potential contributor to those behaviours is after the divorce the stepkids are being raised separately by newly single parents who are going through their own grief and loss. There are no consistencies and routines or structure. It may be pure survival mode for both their biomom and your spouse following that separation. Part of this might be Daddy Guilt (see previous article) when Disney Dad appears and it’s hard to put him away because Daddy gets some pleasure (or guilt relief) from indulging. Again, he may believe if it’s not broke don’t fix it!
I’ve also posted about your stepkids experiencing grief and loss because of the divorce or separation of their parents. Experiencing loss and how they process grief can impact their behaviours significantly as well. Check out that blog for further details The Impact of Divorce: Grief and Loss in Stepchildren.
Another piece of the behaviour puzzle can also be loyalty binds. Loyalty binds are horrible situations where your stepkids are locked (either overtly or passively) in a battle between liking you and then betraying their mother in the process. This betrayal is a seed planted by their mom. So they are then put in a no-win situation (both you AND them) where mom makes them decide “her or me”. It may go so far as reporting back to their mom everything you do or say and in particular every mistake you make. You feel like you’re being spied on and therefore don’t feel safe in your own home.
So these are just a few clues as to the underlying unmet needs that are likely contributing to those behaviours you detest in your stepkids. The truth is that kids are a product of their genes and their environment. Stepmoms have no influence on the first point and may have very little influence on the second. And until you have earned that position of authority over time and dad has given you the authority to parent his children, all a stepmom can do is take a step back to manage her health and wellbeing. If that is all you can do, do it well. Once you are well rested and your emotional tank is fuller, the behaviour is easier to tolerate. This way, it’s much easier to separate the deeds from the doer.
Ali Wilks has a BA in Psychology and an MSc in Human Ecology specializing in Family Studies. She is also a certified stepfamily coach and the owner and founder of Step by Step Mom – a stepfamily/stepmom coaching business. Her other job is with Children’s Services, since 1998, in Edmonton, Alberta. She is currently a trainer on Edmonton’s Caregiver Training Unit teaching classes on building skills, providing advocacy and support for foster, kinship and adoptive parents. These classes include building the essential skills in raising nonbiological children from the foster care system who present with special needs. Ali is a stepmother of 3 adult children (with a couple of grandkids too) and the birth mother of 2 beautiful girls.