It’s not easy being a stepparent. Stepping into a parenting role with your partner’s children can put a lot of strain on a blended family. Dr. Coor interviews Coach Naja Hall from Blended and Black and VIPStepmom to get some tips for reducing conflict and increasing connection with your stepchildren.
I recently received an email from a stepmother requesting help with handling her step children. Here’s her email (edited for clarity):
“Hi, I am writing you because I honestly don’t know how to handle so many situations with my step children right now. I have 3 step children (all girls ages 8,10,15). Right now I am just referring to the younger two. Our 10 year old is extremely stubborn, always has been, and does not like to do anything that doesn’t benefit her. If you ask her to do anything, I mean anything she says 'NO.'
"Examples…. 'Can you feed the dog?'… Her response: 'Are you going to pay me? Then NO.' ... 'Can you please go get your Grandmother a glass of water?' 'NO.'
"When I grew up we treated adults with respect, and I get no respect from her. It’s not just me, it’s her dad as well. She treats us both the same. She fights with me every time I have to wake her up in the morning. She does not respect that I have to do things on a particular time frame. She can also say very mean things for absolutely no reason and her response when it’s pointed out is 'I was only kidding.'
Our 8 year old says mean things as well—calling people names and just saying ugly things to people. This is on a daily basis for the 8 year old. She has also been saying 'NO' to a lot of things as well. I get that kids will say no to things but this is for everything.
I would love some advice on how to handle them. I hate fighting all the time and I’m willing to listen and try something new because what I’m doing isn’t helping. They all think they are entitled to anything and everything. What can we do?”
I knew just who to go to for help answering this listener: Coach Naja Hall, the founder of the largest blended family community for millennials, Blended and Black. She also runs VIPStepmom.com, a membership community for stepmothers. As a certified coach and educator, and stepmom of 3, she understands that the family is the most influential entity of human development, and her work centers around helping individuals, couples, and families navigate some of life’s toughest transitions. Host of the popular podcast, I Know I’m Crazy with Naja Hall, and author of the Amazon best-selling book series Girl, Bye!, Naja’s life’s work is to teach empathy, accountability, and emotional intelligence through the art of story-telling and genuine human connections.
I think you’ll enjoy our conversation and come away with a better understanding of how to interact with stepchildren in healthy ways, the importance of effective communication with your partner, and troubleshooting relationships with ex-partners. Some key takeaways from our conversation:
- Step parents shouldn’t take responsibility for disciplining their partner’s children. Instead, take a “cool auntie/cool uncle” stance and leave the “bad cop” parenting for your partner. Try to walk the fine line between friend and parent.
- Reflect upon and discuss with your partner the kinds of parenting styles you each grew up with and what you each expect from the children and each other where parenting is concerned.
- Understand that your stepkids have been used to other people parenting them. Pushing your own parenting agenda with them will only result in resistance from them. It’s important to understand the needs of your unique stepchildren. One size doesn’t fit all.
- Know when the situation has gone beyond what you and your partner can handle on your own. Speak with your partner about seeking professional help from a family coach or therapist. You, your partner and the children don’t have to remain suffering in constant conflict. Reach out for help if you need it.
- Look beneath your stepchild’s resistance to what could be getting in the way of them being more cooperative. Get curious about why they’re so resistant, angry or distant. They may be in a loyalty bind, and feel guilty about getting closer with you, lest they betray your partner’s ex—their other parent.
- Connect with your stepchild by taking a deep dive into their interests. Ask them about their video games and the shows they watch and the kids they talk to. Invite them to join you in activities that you know they really like.
- Let them see your humanity. Humanize yourself by telling your stepkids about your life when you were their age, useful knowledge you learned from trusted adults growing up, funny stories about mistakes you made and how you made amends. Help your step children see you as a regular, fallible human being.
- Best practices for introducing your children to your new mate: wait until you’re sure that this person is who you want to be with for the long haul. When you’re sure about everything but how you will get along with one another’s children, it’s time to make the relationship and the partners known to the kids. But keep in mind the trauma it can cause for all of the children if everyone bonds and then you break up.
- Manage high-conflict ex-spouses by refusing to engage or negotiate. Use apps that monitor their communication with you, set firm boundaries, and warn others about the person. Limit communication as much as possible to logistics with the children and remain non-reactive even in the face of their hurtful or aggressive communications.
- With temporarily heartbroken ex-partners, try to be understanding of their rocky adjustment to their new situation while still protecting your new family and setting appropriate boundaries.
- Not every blended family is a cohesively blended family. Some stay in a steady state of chaos and conflict. There’s no specific timeframe for when a family is considered truly "blended." It’s about choosing peace or choosing chaos.
- Prioritizing effective and conscious communication helps keep would-be problems from becoming big problems.