As a step parent, it is natural to feel some resentment towards your stepkids. After all, if it weren’t for them, you’d have the perfect relationship, right? Doubtful, but it often makes us feel at least a little better. Let’s try something a little more productive now. When your stepkids misbehave or disrespect you or their parent in some way, what kind of resolution do you get? Does your spouse allow the behavior, handle it him – herself, expect you to handle it? Does it depend on whether the child is misbehaving for you or for his parent? In Part One, we will discuss how to handle a parent who does not discipline, commonly called a Disney Mom or Dad.
When dealing with a Disney Parent, it is most important to remember that the children, even though they seem like the problem, really are not at fault. It really and truly is a child’s role to misbehave, test boundaries, and act on impulse. This is how they learn. It is up to those raising the children to enforce rules, discipline poor behavior, and set boundaries. If the parent is not fulfilling this role, how can one blame the child? If the child gets away with the behavior, why should he stop? Dealing with this issue is a two pronged approach from you, the step parent. Your first priority is to protect yourself and your own boundaries. The second is to recognize that this really is the parent’s issue to solve (or ignore), and that you will likely not be successful in fixing this problem by yourself.
Just because a child disrespects his parent and gets away with it, does not mean he can treat you the same way. Spend a day, weekend, or some amount of time noting what your stepkids do directly to you. Say nothing, but once you are alone, spend some time making and prioritizing a list of behaviors that are unacceptable to you. For example, if you do the majority of the cooking and cannot get through a meal without complaints from your stepkids, this is a great example of your boundaries being crossed. However, if it is your spouse who does all the cooking, and the children complain every time, that is not something that is happening directly to you, and therefore should not be on your list.
Next, spend some time thinking about your expectations of how you want to be treated, and internalize those expectations. Be fair, but be specific. Then you will formulate a plan of action. During the next meal, if there is a complaint, inform your family that you work hard to create a healthy meal for everyone to enjoy as a family, but if no one appreciates your efforts, you simply will stop cooking. If you ask your stepkid to perform a task, or to stop behaving a certain way, and you are ignored or met with an unkind remark, inform the child that you do not allow people to treat you in that manner, and you are now unable to help the child in some way, such as giving her a ride somewhere. Be clear with your family that your personal boundaries are about what you will accept in how you are treated by using phrases like, “I don’t allow people to speak to me that way. Please reframe your question/ comment in a respectful tone.” Be sure to treat your family with the same respect you want given to you. Finally, do not dwell on the incident, or allow it to escalate into an argument. Leave the room if you have to, change the conversation to something pleasant, or find a distraction. Deal with each issue as it arises, and do not let past altercations cloud your view of the present. Once you have handled a situation, let it go.
The second half of your approach is to know the difference between how your stepkids treat you and how they act with their parent. Just as you have determined your own boundaries, the parent has done the same, and it is important to accept that, even though it might be quite bothersome. When the kids disrespect their parent, and the parent does nothing, it is the parent’s problem. He is the person ultimately responsible for raising the child, and he will do so however he sees fit. If this means that the kids are living without rules, or there is no follow through on discipline, so be it. You have ensured that you are being respected, but you cannot force the kids to respect their parent if he does not enforce it himself.
Often, once a stepparent begins to establish his own boundaries, the parent will follow suit. This is especially true when it involves the stepparent relinquishing a regular duty for the parent to now handle, like the cooking example. If the parent suddenly finds herself having to take care of preparing the meals, she might just suddenly see how annoying it is to have her cooking constantly insulted and start taking corrective measures about respect for the person who cooks the meals. Also, if the parent must suddenly start providing transportation that you now refuse to provide for being disrespected, she may start helping to enforce her kids’ treatment of you and respect for what you do for the family. You may even hear her start telling the kids to thank you for your contributions to the family.
This doesn’t happen with all parents. Some will continue to see nothing wrong with how their kids behave. In this case, it is best to physically remove yourself whenever possible. Leave the room, run an errand, go to the gym, focus closely on whatever project may be in your hands at the time. Don’t allow your self talk to run rampant with how you would prefer this situation to be handled. Repeat to yourself that this is the parent, and this is how the parent chooses to be treated. Again, don’t allow these occurrences to pile up in your mind. Practice letting go, so that you don’t build resentment towards kids who are only acting the way they are allowed to act. Don’t take on the responsibility of handling all the discipline; that will only turn you into the bad guy, so the parent really never has to be accountable for his inaction.
Finally, as I tell all my clients, pay attention to where your resentment lies. Are you allowing your discomfort with the entire situation of being in a step family to cause these feelings? If you can pull yourself out of the scenario for a moment and determine whether your stepkids are acting like normal kids, or if they are acting like monsters, it will help you to recognize if your own feelings are a product of internal or external factors. If it is internal, then it may be time to consider coaching or counseling to deal with your inner turmoil so that you can move forward.