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Stepmom’s nightmare is not her problem to solve:

March 5, 2013

You are the stepmom to kids who not only don’t listen, but threaten to go back to the other parent at the mere mention of expectations. When you complain to your partner – their father, he shrugs it off, not wanting to upset the apple-cart and risk losing precious time with his little angels.

These situations often involve separated parents who have poor to limited or no ability to communicate between themselves. It is likely that their relationship as a couple was a disaster and that court or the threat of court figured prominently in their settlement.

Dad is either limited in his parenting abilities or is afraid that his kids won’t see him if he doesn’t give way to their demands. Either way, dad tries to either be an ostrich and put his head in the sand to avoid the situation or tries to befriend the kids, thinking that the kids will like “Uncle Dad” and thus behave better.

Kids in these situations have long since learned to exploit the parental conflict to get what they want. Instead of expectations they have things – toys and gadgets. They may also have no meaningful curfews or consequences to hold them accountable.

The stepmom is at risk of being set up as the wicked witch for ratting out the kids, spoiling everyone’s’ fun and being a pain in the butt to her partner. Truth is, she may be the most distressed and may be the only one to see the situation for what it is – a bigger train wreck waiting to happen.

Kids who are out of control and who can pit their parents against each other are at risk of school failure, early onset sexual behavior, pregnancy, drug alcohol abuse and trouble with the law. As they disrespect their stepparent and get away with murder at home, they then try out their misguided skills and beliefs outside the home at school, workplace and community.

This is actually a pretty common scenario and if there is a call for counseling, it is usually by the stepmom who is fed up with the situation and feeling unsupported by their partner with spoiled kids running roughshod over them both. Trouble is, without both bio-parents on board, the likelihood of turning things around well are limited.

In order to make a good difference in these situations and the lives of these children, both parents must learn to cooperate and support each other as parents lest the kids continue to divide and conquer. Trouble is, as the stepmom takes on the task of calling people out and seeking to improve matters, all eyes are on her as an agitator. She becomes the source of conflict and she feels like she is steering a sinking ship.

The truth of the matter is, these are not her kids and this is not her responsibility even though she becomes a victim of the family dysfunction.

Stepmom, you have two options: leave or step back and let the chips fall where they may.

Assuming you step back and let the chips fall where they may, the real trick is to redirect any issues or expectations with regards to your partner’s children, to your partner. Do not take responsibility for his children because in so doing, he gets to avoid it.

When he finally gets overwhelmed and asks for your advice, don’t get sucked into rescuing him!

The real trick to facilitating change here is to leave him wrestling with these problems of his own creation. Unless he truly feels there to be an issue from which he cannot escape, he will not be motivated to address it. You rescue, he is relieved and nothing changes.

Eventually he has to come to realize that counseling is a must for him and his former partner and that together they must resolve the situation.

You as stepmom continuing your involvement in their dynamic only serves to keep the heat off them and keep it upon yourself.

Want to feel better? Take a bath, read a book, go for a walk, get a manicure, do anything but take on your partner’s responsibility. As you disengage from the turmoil, you leave it for your partner to engage.

If you don’t have the stomach for this, then you may have to consider leaving as an option and that too may trigger a crisis to raise your partner’s profile in terms of taking the situation seriously. But still, the problem with his kids is his to solve.

Tough medicine for tough situations.

Gary Direnfeld, MSW, RSW

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13 Comments
  1. Deliwe Menyuko permalink

    Hi Gary, I love this, its brilliant. I develop programmes for social workers and also train them to implement. The issue of step-parenting comes up a lot. This is the best advice because step parents carry the burden of fighting battles they can never win. Am going to use your idea in my trainings. Also loved & used your ” guerilla love” idea. Thank you for keeping me inspired. Am a fan.

  2. Pleased to be of service!

  3. Yvette Emmanuel permalink

    Excellent advise! Stepmom has to practice tough love.

  4. Good work Gary! Best,Diana Weiss-Wisdom author of “Wisdom on Stepparenting: How to Succeed Where Others Fail”

  5. Although I agree with the foundation of these principals, I also believe it’s not entirely as black and white as your plan is laid out. A take it or leave it approach by the step -mom is not conducive for a family that is already struggling under the issues of living in a blended family. The husband and wife are as one, and like a first marriage, each should support, encourage, and advise each other to possibilities the other one may not notice. Especially important when children are born of their marriage…this

    I truly believe that there are many more gray areas than that are discussed in this article, and that a holistic view of the modern family, especially a blended family in conflict, is what is required for this type of situation.

    However, for many cases I do believe that your advice is very important for step-mothers to hear.

    Thank you for your wonderful article.

    Anna Tivade
    http://www.pasanj.org

  6. True – I live to find the grey too, but in this example, husband has his head in the sand and/or becomes Uncle Dad, despite wife’s efforts. Now what?

  7. Toshiko Matsumoto permalink

    Thank you for this article. This summarized my difficult situation. In my family my stepdaughter who is 14 will not spend the weekend with her father which is court ordered. My own children and I live under the constant threat of her calling her mother if she is unhappy with anything. We have realized that she will do so on several occasions and this results in her mother and police in front of our house. Her moter has alleged abuse on my husband (verbal and emotional, not physical) and I feel in fear of my own children and I being caught in a very ugly situation. I have told my husband I would like him to take his visits with his child outside of our home and that I would opt out of family events and holidays so he can’t be with his child. He is very unhappy with me for this and seems to neve want to place any blame or consequence in his daughter for her behavior. Do you have any advice in this extreme circumstance? Thank you.

  8. My advise is contained within the article: “Stepmom, you have two options: leave or step back and let the chips fall where they may.”

    Given your partner won’t do anything different, then the ball is in your court. You may want to discuss this with a counselor, hopefully your husband will attend with you.

  9. cricket permalink

    Yes, thank you for the article, it really helps me feel less alone. I know there are many gray areas in most situations but after 7 years of being a step mom, I have finally come to exactly these two options for myself – leave or let the chips fall where they may (as in my situation my husband’s head is in the sand). I wish I had realized this earlier but we hadn’t yet reached the train wreck and even though I tried to warn him it was coming and kept trying to change the trains path it never worked. I had to “give up” and let them deal on their own. It is very hard, frustrating, and sad. It is sometimes very lonely to be a step mom in a situation like this because you are seen as the “bad guy.” I am working on not beating myself up for letting the chips fall because I know now I have to take care of myself.

  10. Annette permalink

    Thank you for this article. I had begun to doubt myself. I am leaving my partner after two years of trying to make a life together. I have tried to ignore the many harsh accusations from the Mother, and constant criticism from the eldest boy, (who will be 15 next month). From being accused of child abuse for having them clean up their room and put their laundry away, to child neglect for telling the eldest to prepare his breakfast and lunch when home on vacation. I was also accused by the Mother of plotting to acquire the children’s inheritance if my partner passed away and of being a raciest. (I have no idea where that came from, nothing could be further from the truth, My family is bi-racial.) The children lived with us the majority of the time, (the mother had left the country to be with someone else), which made the constant criticism harder to bear. My partner did little to appease the situation, choosing to ignore it, hoping it would go away. I felt such relief when I told him that I was leaving. I had a loving home with my late husband and now grown son. I know I am a good person and deserve better.

  11. Eva permalink

    Thank you dearly for this artical!
    It really resonates with how I am feeling ATM, which is a time of much needed emotional support!
    Appreciation goes out to all, particularly those whom make the effort to see things from anothers perspective other than just their own.
    So much gratitude for your depth, and empathetic understanding.
    🙂 nameste.

  12. depressed-stepmom permalink

    Thanks for this article and for actually articulating that an option is to GET OUT. What I find interesting in much of the online advice for distressed stepmothers is that they’re told not to interfere, not to expect reciprocal love, to be endlessly understanding–all the while they’re damn sure expected to take care of their household responsibly and to help cover the cost of raising extremely selfish individuals whose biological parents are quite happy to let her suffer. It’s everywhere–I hear these stories time and again. My own friends tell me how much they despise their stepmothers, for no apparent reason, despite the step-mom raising them while their biological mothers washed their hands of the responsibility. It’s like a societal looking-away, pretending it’s a norm and it’s normal for a woman to endure endless abuse because the “poor child” is dealing with divorced parents. It’s a nightmare.

    More often than not, it seems it’s the husband’s inability or unwillingness to truly support his wife (the stepmother) that creates the trainwreck; it’s as you say, “Uncle Dad,” the good cop, and never mind the conjugal partnership. I am in this situation myself, patiently and lovingly provided for these selfish manipulators since their early childhood and now in their 20s–have had absolutely enough and I’m thinking of leaving, although I can’t help but wonder what would happen if society were less tolerant of this whole abusive stepchild phenomenon, if it were widely publicly acknowledged (in the same way physical abuse is acknowledged) that step-parents are expected to tolerate no end of abuse in the name of supporting supposedly disadvantaged children who in fact are spoiled beyond compare. It seems to me the biggest failure here lies with the spouse who happily brings a new spouse into the fold and then expects them to just cope.

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