Sunday, July 02, 2006

EVIL STEP-MOTHER 2nd Installment

The last we heard from Miranda, the Not So Evil-Step Mom, Eddie, age 14, was cussing her out. see Lessons from a Family Therapist

MIRANDA: Eddie, the car pool will be here in ten minutes! You better get dressed.

EDDIE: Go to hell.

MIRANDA: Seriously, Eddie. You'll miss your ride and your dad will be upset. Why not just get going?

Eddie ignores her.

MIRANDA: Eddie! GET GOING!

EDDIE'S SISTER #1: Miranda, don't yell at him, Jeez.

EDDIE'S SISTER #2: You're so mean, Miranda, honest.

What's a woman to do? Yell back, NO I'M NOT! I'M NOT MEAN!!???

Actually, saying, not yelling, No I'm Not is a good start. Miranda should never let those kids get under her skin. She should never lose it. They win if she loses it. Losing it just proves to them that she's a b…. .

Easy for you to say, Therapy Doc. We know you've been married to the same shlumf for 30 years. You don't have step-children pushing your buttons.

Perhaps. But I really do feel your pain. I know it's hard to keep your cool when little children who have been raised right, who have attended parochial schools that emphasized respectful behavior, are really mean (ching, ching, ching, goes the money, and for what!?). And when I was a young parent, I yelled puhlennnty, although the kids don't seem to remember it. It helps to stop yelling while they're still pretty young.

But talking, not yelling, is what assertiveness is all about. I push assertiveness in my relationship therapies for the obvious reason. It works.

Assertiveness, you'll hear me say on this blog over and over again, is JUST THE FACTS. NO EMOTION. Just the facts, ma'am.

So "No, I'm not," IS the proper response to a kid who calls you mean. But you have to say it quietly, and not defensively, speaking above a calm whisper, audible but not aggressive, as if you're saying, Please pass the cream. "No, I'm not. I'm not mean, actually. You're wrong. You have the facts wrong."

Then I would suggest you continue and say, "And I know you're really nice kids, too. You're not mean. You're just under a little (huge pregnant pause) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . stress."

Then you say nothing else, nod empathetically, sympathetically, like you really care, and fold the laundry while singing a happy tune (I'm suggesting Stevie Wonder's Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing) these days, peppy, enthusiastic and happy.)

What should you NOT do? Don't go telling Dad on them. Keep it between you and the kids that they verbally abuse you. Let them know that you're a big girl, that you grew up on, STICKS AND STONES WILL BREAK MY BONES BUT WORDS WILL NEVER HARM ME. You don't need to run to their Dad and tell them what bratty kids he's got.

STICKS AND STONES WILL BREAK MY BONES BUT WORDS WILL NEVER HARM ME

Such a crock, right?

Let us digress.

In my office I have this marvelous bus poster. Maybe you've seen it if you ride busses. About twenty years ago a young patient of mine ripped it off a CTA bus and gave it to me, rolled up. I loved it too much to give it back to the CTA. It has a picture of the cutest, saddest little boy, maybe 3-4 years old. He has the biggest, saddest eyes I have ever seen on a child and long, blond hair, a big tear is splashed on a round cheek.

The poster says, WORDS HIT AS HARD AS A FIST—WATCH WHAT YOU SAY.

Hundreds of patients have seen that poster in my office and nodded in agreement. They all know how hurtful words can be, and so do you. But if I tell you that in all sincerity they are only words and that if you imagine them as text floating off the page and into space, you can take the power away from the person who said them. Or if you write them on a piece of paper and burn them they will, in fact, disintegrate, I am not lying. They are only words. The message, however, still has to be deciphered, understood, and reduced to meaninglessness.

So let's look at Eddie's mean words and decipher the message.

He said, GO TO HELL. Does he mean it? Or does he really mean that he wants his real biological mommy back and can't stand the thought of a substitute. It's the latter, of course. And he's angry. How dare you impose yourself and your likes and dislikes, thoughts and ideas, upon this family? Who freaking asked you?!? If I want to be late for school, says Eddie, I'll be late for school. What're you gonna' do, kill my mom? You can't hurt me.

Poor kid.

So angry and sad. Can you do anything to change that?

No. But you can accept it for what it is. It is not a personal attack against you. It is an expression of grief.

Should you acknowledge that? Should you say, "I know you'd rather I was your mommy and you hate me for taking her place?"

Maybe, but don't be surprised if it goes nowhere. Speaking to angry people rarely goes anywhere. They're in what I call emotional nuts-ness, in NO mood to listen to reason. When they calm down and can discuss things rationally, then we can talk. But by quietly saying, No, I'm not mean, at least Miranda sends a simple message about what is really going on. It's not her who is freaking out. She's not the emotional basket case. And she's there to help, not be mean.

Eddie may not be ready to really process what's happening for a year or two. But if Miranda doesn't freak out and scream, reflecting back her own insecurity and need for acceptance, she has a chance to play the hero, the one who isn't miserable.

See, at the end of the day, people don't like hanging with people who are miserable. They like happy people. So Miranda, you gotta' be happy. Kick up your Ipod. Wait it out. Things will get better. Time heals. Usually.

But wait, what did you mean DON'T TELL DAD. In the last blog on Step-Mom, you said that Dad and Mom are the primary dyad, the executive committee (I did say that, right?). Isn't Step-Mom taking the place of Mom? Isn't she now in the primary dyad?

Yes, of course. She can and perhaps should tell Dad, but not right away, and not when he's in a bad mood. He'll be much happier and more willing to help her shape the behavior of the little ones if she's not accusing him of raising miserable, mean children.

It's the old joke. I can say whatever I want about my mother. But you better not. You can substitute children for mother and you get the drift.

NEXT TIME: PSEUDO-INTIMACY, why everyone picks on step-parents, even when they KNOW it's not nice!

Copyright 2006, TherapyDoc

2 comments:

Paula Egner, Stepparenting Editor, http://www.bellaonline.com/site/Stepparenting said...

Interesting stepmother scenario, and true to life. I agree that yelling back at the stepkids is an exercise in futility, and only lowers Miranda to the childish ways of her stepchildren.

However, I couldn’t help but wonder where dear ol’ dad was in all of this. I understand that Miranda shouldn’t go whining to her husband before he even gets in the door from a hard day at the office. But has he ever had a heart-to-heart talk with his children and explained just where his new wife fits into their stepfamily? Has he let them know — clearly — that there will be consequences for disrespecting her?

I am a firm believer that stepparents are doomed to fail without the absolute backing of the biological parent. In this scenario, Miranda is trying to get Eddie not to miss the carpool or his dad will get upset. Perhaps it’s time for that to happen ... to let him miss the carpool while she does all of those other things you mentioned (like going on with her business and singing a happy tune). Maybe dad SHOULD get upset.

I believe that the biological parent has to be the disciplinarian. It simply won’t work any other way, at least when the stepchildren are rebellious. I have a feeling that Eddie’s shenanigans wouldn’t continue for long if dad had to intervene a few times in order to get his son to school.

Eddie’s dad needs to reassure all his children that he has enough love for everyone, without taking away from anyone. And although he needs to establish that his love for his kids is eternal, so is his love for the woman he has promised to share the rest of his life with. Miranda is fighting a losing battle without this overt show of support from her husband. THAT is the conversation she needs to have with him, not just tattle telling about the one episode.

I’m also curious what the children’s behavior toward their stepmother is when their father is present. I’m sure they would accuse him of defending her, but the truth is he has to do just that. Otherwise, Miranda will eventually realize that life is too short to be mistreated in her own home, and the children’s ploy to sabotage the remarriage might succeed.

I also don’t believe for one second that Eddie’s behavior will improve once he grows older. The truth is that adult stepchildren can still be extremely rebellious and just as exasperating as their adolescent counterparts. In fact, years of practice has helped them master the art of manipulating their biological parent.

Remarried couples need to make each other a priority. Miranda and her husband definitely need to start working together as a team concerning the behavior of these kids.

Therapy Doc said...

Dear Paula,

I couldn't agree with you more. I meant to continue this thread and got distracted. NO QUESTION Eddie's dad has to sit down with the family and lay down the law, and he has to establish Miranda and himself as THE primary dyad in the family, not one that can be sabataged by a disrespectful child's acting out.

I should have said, as you do so eloquently, that of course "Miranda" should let the kid miss carpool so that his father WILL become upset and get involved (assuming she couldn't get him involved using good old fashioned communication). And of course the biological parent must be the disciplinarian. A step-parent is doomed if he/she is the bad-guy, (often doomed regardless).

Let's look at this: I’m also curious what the children’s behavior toward their stepmother is when their father is present. I’m sure they would accuse him of defending her, but the truth is he has to do just that. Otherwise, Miranda will eventually realize that life is too short to be mistreated

In T.D.'s experience, every family works differently and there are many variations of interaction. Paula is correct, however, that Miranda's new spouse MUST defend her even at the expense of upsetting his already upset children.

But then, in my opinion, he should take a walk with the kids, a literal walk outside,individually, not as a group, to let them vent. Each one who was involved in the event. Venting is SO key for these kids, and knowing that their father is still their father is essential. Yeah, it's tough to be a bio-dad, but not impossible.

Thus the process works like this: He defends Miranda in front of them, then takes each one away from her separately to reestablish each connection.

This is operationalizing what Paula is saying-- he has enough love for everyone. There really is enough to go around.

That will also begin to resolve another problem, the pseudo-intimacy that develops between siblings when the usual and customary triangles in families are interrupted by divorce or the death of a parent.

The kids don't have their mom to talk to, so they talk TO one another, but ABOUT someone else (Miranda, usually, a convenient scapegoat).

That's called pseudo-intimacy. Intimacy is me talking about me to you, you talking about you to me.

I will get to writing about this, sometime soon, I hope.

Readers, by all means, visit the web site highlighted above! And thanks again, Paula, join me anytime.

T.D.