PARENTING IS LIKE NOT KNOWING ANY OF THE ANSWERS AND NOT HAVING ALL THE INFORMATION, BUT NEEDING TO MAKE A DECISION ANYWAY. IT’S STRESSFUL UNDER THE BEST OF CIRCUMSTANCES.
When our children’s behavior becomes challenging and our emotions get triggered it’s easy to see our hopes and dreams for them sail away while we envision years of struggles. Separating our emotions from their behavior is key to keeping cool. Many behaviors are triggering as parents keep up with their children’s or stepchildren’s development, academic and social-emotional lives, and activities. Overwhelm and upset can be the result. Blended families also have the struggle of not being defensive when a new spouse/stepparent starts parenting your child instead of just being a partner. Judgement calls on how children should be parented can make way for parenting-style struggles. Over-parenting and “caring too much” is one of the most common issues with stepparenting – it will get you in trouble every time. Learning to disengage effectively is part of the answer.
Family of origin expectations and heritage differences can bump-up against each other in the new blended family. These conflicting expectations and parenting styles are what cause much of the strife. Differing parenting styles greatly affect the parent relationship with the child and between spouses, and is often a main source for conflict with blended families and co-parents (and first-families.) Often the argument “While I was raised this way and I turned out okay,” becomes the stand-off stalemate statement between spouses for reasons to parent one way or another, rather than problem solving the difference in values that lie under the parenting issue.
Why do we do this? Our histories and childhoods carry various patterns and ways to do things – family cultures. These have powerful emotions attached to those past experiences – which get passed on to our children. How we were parented as a child and childhood feelings like: guilt, anger, embarrassment, joy, pride, rejection, disrespect, frustration, abandonment, hopeless, anxiety, and disappointment often get in the way of making new solid parenting, co-parenting and stepparenting decisions. Children are their own people and often not who we dreamed they’d be in our minds’ eye… The “should” ideas from our childhood frequently play into expectations of behavior and how the home should be run. This causes parenting disagreements on how to raise children. This also happens with stepparents’ expectations as they bring their histories with them into the new marriage and usually remains an issue with co-parenting couples as well.
Since children are dependent on their parents and stepparents for growing in the world, it is crucial the messages sent to our children are ones that raise self-esteem, self-efficacy and set the stage for a positive growth mindset. When adults relate to children in a positive way versus a punitive way – then children see themselves as likeable, lovable, smart, funny, and worthy. This type of positive interaction helps them connect with the world around them and other relationships in healthy ways.
When a punitive approach is taken, children tend to repeat the unhealthy dynamics and reactive emotions with them through life. Children’s interactions with parents, and stepparents, are a crucial part of emotional development, and it’s incredibly important that your children know you’ll show up for them – stepparents too. Often, showing up consistently and being there when a stepchild needs you (which won’t be often) is the glue that starts to create a middle ground that eventually will bond you together. This is the same glue bio-parents build relationship with their children. Stepparents, parents and co-parents need to be able to regulate their own emotions in order to teach children how to self-regulate. Self-regulation always comes with someone before it’s mastered individually.
I spent years working with children and their families in the Santa Clara Unified School District and helped children communicate with their parents, stepparents, foster parents and court appointed guardians to find ways to connect, restructure interactions and assertively communicate. Therapy can help normalize issues and expand the skills the parents used in parenting. I use this experience working with parents, co-parents and blended families to help clarify roles, boundaries and find a civil respect for a more peaceful home.
THE PURPOSE OF PARENTING:
Create a connection with your child, so they feel valued.
When a child feels valued, they feel connected in the family which creates a secure attachment, the main mission of parenting is to build a strong connection with each of your children so they feel loved, valued and have a safe positive environment to grow up in. A positive secure attachment allows for your influence to mean something to them.
How do you let a child know they’re valued? By listening patiently, focusing on the emotion under their behaviors and validating their emotional experience. An obvious, yet under-rated, way to let children know you value them is to treat the with respect and kindness. Many parents assume children are theirs and therefore can order the children around with a sharp tone of voice, use verbal abuse or humiliation, guilt or fear etc… All that teaches is an outdated and dysfunctional way to relate. Using positive discipline is a better pathway to a clam home. Positive discipline influences children away from negative feelings, role models emotional self-control, and teaches children about making good choices. It also helps build a positive connection between children and their caregivers, and that leads to building self-confidence and self-esteem in children through feeling respected and valued.
All behavior means something and is motivated by underlying emotion. Bad behavior especially has underlying wishes for: connection, attention, love, and acceptance. Children do not have the vocabulary to express most of their emotions verbally so they act out on their emotions. When the parent skips getting involved in the fight and focuses on the underlying emotion this helps the child feel understood and validated. When a stepparent validates a stepchild’s feelings it allows for an opportunity to create common ground. When parents or stepparents try and connect through anger, criticism and contempt then they lose the attachment to the child and their parental/adult influence over the child and create compliance through fear and control. Fear only works until they’re old enough to not be scared of the parent anymore — or until they stop caring what the parent or stepparent thinks.
Parenting styles affect how everyone in the home relates to each other, and how children will try to relate to friends outside the home. A parent’s ability to manage their own emotions and repair negative interactions, when necessary, is one of the most important factor in a child’s growth. Setting the stage for cooperation, calm decision making and repair when feelings get hurt are essential life skills parents, stepparents and co-parents can impart. Emotionally unregulated parents create stressed, unhappy and emotionally reactive children.
BOUNDARIES – FOR YOU AND THEM
Many people get boundaries mixed up. There are parental boundaries that create structure for children, and there are personal boundaries. Boundaries for children let children know what to expect and help create a family routine. When a child knows what to expect each day they feel safe. Boundaries also help create a family culture – how and when are things done, what’s acceptable and what’s not, what’s expected and what’s not. Establishing a framework allows children to be part of the family and learn to work together. Mary Poppins was adept at keeping boundaries – firm and kind, a spoonful of [emotional] sugar goes a long way with winning over step-children and gaining their cooperation and willingness to connect and have a relationship with the stepparent.
Blended families, and co-parents need both sets: parenting and personal boundaries. It’s necessary for stepparents to maintain a sense of self-worth in the blended family as feelings are apt to get hurt especially in the beginning when the family group is starting to form. Setting personal boundaries in response to unpreferred behavior is a way to handle respecting yourself and personal values when something feels disrespectful. Personal boundaries and family boundaries are also needed when a High Conflict ex-spouse is involved.
IMPROVE FAMILY RELATING
Parenting / Blended parenting counseling and co-parenting counseling provides an excellent opportunity for parents to help their children and strengthen family relationships. I work with parents and stepparents to increase their skill sets, confidence in their decisions, increase personal boundaries and staying kind, yet firm, with the family rules and what’s best for the children.
- Tools for blended families
- Understand how to talk so your children will listen.
- Understand and utilize assertive communication.
- Reduce family stress and anxiety by normalizing childhood development and blended family development.
- Learn to let go of what can be ignored.
- Learn how to “meet a child where they are at” and de-escalate emotional situations.
- Learn how to validate a child’s emotional experience without validating poor behavior.
- Raise self-esteem, self-awareness and self-efficacy of child and parents.
- Understand scaled thinking and growth mindset.
- Set appropriate consequences.
- Learn ways to increase common ground between blended family members.
- Learn about developmental stages, parenting styles and communication styles for bio-families and blended families.
- Change parenting strategies to realign parenting in blended families.
- Create House Rules for blended families and Parent Rules for individual bio-children
- Increase awareness between family members differing emotional experiences inside of a blended family.
- Help children gain decision making skills and help parents separate behavior from emotion in guiding children.
- Reduce the amount of co-parenting conflict and/or learn how to co-parent more cooperatively by understanding negative interaction cycles and the emotional triggers that start the conflict.
The Power of Showing Up
by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
By Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.
By Michele Borba, Ed. D.
The Teenage Brain
By Frances E. Jensen, MD
Parenting a strong-willed child.
By Rex Forehand, Ph.D. and Nicholas Long, PH.D.
By Sarah Ockwell-Smith