New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Does Stepmothering Get Easier?

15 07 2010

A new Stepmom Circles Podcast is available! Tune in to hear my discussion with Dr. Ann Orchard about what happens over time in the lives of stepmothers. Does stepfamily life get easier? What happens when the kids leave home or there is a wedding or the birth of a grandchild?

Dr. Ann Orchard is a licensed psychologist who runs stepmother support groups in Edina, Minnesota. I joined one of her support groups before I married my husband. It was a life raft in a chaotic time and I have continued to benefit from her wisdom over the years. Don’t miss this one!

Want to talk about today’s show? Join the Stepmom Circles group on FaceBook.

How Do I Listen? Click on the links to the show above or visit HERE for all of the Stepmom Circles shows.

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Stepmothers: Your Anger Could Kill You

16 06 2010

The day I decided to write a book for stepmothers remains vivid in my mind. I was working on a story for a magazine about how challenging it is for childless stepmothers to move in with a man and his children. While researching the story, I interviewed several veteran stepmothers who had been in their stepfamilies twenty years or more.

One stepmom who described herself as a successful, happy stepmother told me about how wonderful her life was and how well everyone got along. “Really?” I wondered. I asked her a few more questions. Perhaps because I was the first person who listened to her challenging stepmom feelings with understanding and without judgment, a flood of anger burst from her heart and the raw pain and chronic stuffed anger of decades came flowing out.

That interview has stuck with me all these years because I have discovered after talking to stepmoms around the globe that anger is a job hazard for stepmothers. Because we often parent from the back seat, play second fiddle to the kids and the ex wife and sometimes the in-laws and ex in-laws, and feel powerless and voiceless in our own homes, it’s no wonder so many of us are pissed off.

Still, just because we have a clear right to be angry in many situations, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. During the last two decades researchers have conducted a multitude of studies which suggest that anger, hostility, and stress have a direct impact on our health. These emotions can lead to heart disease, inflammation, and even life-threatening diseases such as cancer. And that’s only one side of the story. Anger and hostility also does damage to our overall sense of happiness, well-being, and quality of life. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse and overeating. It destroys intimacy and marriages.

I could have told the researchers that anger harms our bodies. In the early days of my stepfamily life I often allowed myself to fall into the whirlpool of negative thoughts. For instance, if I was angry because no one spoke to me during dinner, I would furiously clean dishes feeling like the hired help while everyone else sat companionably at the table. The more I allowed my thoughts to churn through my anger, the angrier I became. My heart rate sped up, my breathing became ragged and by the end of the night I had a horrible headache.

So what can you do about angry and hostile feelings?

View anger as a sign.
If you’re angry, you’re angry. You don’t have to explain it or feel badly about it. Anger is a feeling that you can use as a signal that something is not right. It is often a mask for other emotions. You can use your anger to begin exploring your deeper feelings. Ask yourself questions such as: Are my feelings hurt? Do I feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Do I feel like I am losing myself because I have no voice in this house? Do I feel left out?

Find your own patterns.
Take a moment to think about your life. When do you get angry? Can you identify what happens to set you off? Pay attention to the language you use to describe what is happening. Oftentimes we stepmothers are angry because we feel such a lack of control over our own lives and that is a proven stress producer. “All of our clinical and animal research confirms that the perception of not having any control is always stressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

Change your perceptions.
As Dr. Rosch pointed out it’s the perception of not having control that is so stressful. So how can you change your perceptions? One stepmother I talked with consciously switched from feeling angry at her three teenaged stepchildren for making her life hell to feeling compassion by choosing to turn on her empathy about their situation. She shut her eyes and envisioned them as wounded soldiers in a field hospital. She cast herself in the role of nurse and healer to these kids who were clearly so deeply pained about their parents’ divorce that they made her the target of their anger even though she’d never done anything wrong. She carried that mental image with her so that every time one of the kids directed hostility at her, she responded with a calm demeanor that eventually broke through the kids’ pain so they could create positive relationships.

Calm your body before you speak.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to vent anger because by yelling at your spouse you are focusing on the anger while in an emotional state and instead of feeling better you can actually increase your feelings of anger. Experiment with calming your body before you let the negative words rip. Do whatever you need to—take ten deep breaths, go for a run, take a hot shower, tell a joke—then return to discuss your feelings when you’re feeling calm.

Learn communication skills.
Take advantage of the many resources available to learn strong communication skills. The tools you learn can help you with every relationship you have. I highly recommend picking up Harriet Lerner’s classic book The Dance of Anger and any of John Gottman’s books for married couples. In the early days of my marriage, I had to learn how to use softer start-ups and “I” language. Clearly saying something like, “You are such an idiot for marrying that woman!” is not an effective way to start a conversation. Instead, stay firmly in your own feelings. “I am feeling jealous today that you had children with someone else.”

Arm yourself with positive emotions.
Another army of scientists have spent the last few decades researching how positive emotions affect our health and well-being. And the results are impressive. By cultivating positive emotions you can dramatically improve your social relationships and physical and mental health. Armed with positivity you are more resilient when bad things happen, you’re a better problem-solver, and you’re more equipped to deal with the ups and downs of stepfamily life. This is why I am constantly telling stepmothers to have fun! Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! This simple advice is backed by serious research so plan something fun right now.

In the end, as more and more research shows, anger can actually kill you if you live with it long enough. By choosing to learn new ways to cope with your feelings so you aren’t a victim of your negative emotions you can head off the long-term affects of chronic anger.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepfamily coach and educator, the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins), host of the popular Stepmom Circles Podcast and co-creator of The Stepfamily Letter Project. This article originally appeared in Stepmom Magazine.





Stepmother Resources

16 06 2010

Stepmoms looking for help: There are several upcoming ways you can find the support you need to create a happier stepfamily life.

RETREAT!

There are still spots left in the Stepmom Circles Retreat, July 18-20. Don’t miss your chance to meet other stepmothers IN PERSON!, learn stepfamily strategies that work, and get away from it all to refresh your spirit.

TELE-SEMINAR

Join me next Tuesday night via the telephone for the Stepmom Circles Seminar: The Ex-tra Woman: Success Strategies for Stepmoms to Better Cope, Communicate, and Co-Parent with the Ex-Wife.

COACHING

As always, one-on-one coaching and group coaching sessions are available.





New Podcast: The Smart Stepmom AND a Contest for Free Books!

12 11 2009

stepmomcircles3Tune in the Stepmom Circles Podcast to listen to my conversation with Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge, the authors of The Smart Stepmom, a wonderful christian-based resource for stepmothers that is filled with practical information that can help your stepfamily thrive. The book includes prayers for stepmoms as well as research-based strategies for new stepmoms. During our talk we discuss disengaged dads, how to deal with ex wives, and the realities of stepfamily life.

BONUS: Listen to this episde of my free Stepmom Circles Podcast for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Smart Stepmom. I’ll choose two winners from the people who comment here with the correct answers to the following questions. Hint: Listen to this episode to hear the answers!

Question #1: According to Ron and Laura what is one thing that makes a stepmom smart?

Question #2: Can you have a happy marriage even if your stepchildren hate you?

Question #3: What did Ron tell the woman whose boyfriend was doing things behind her back?

Good luck!





Your Questions Answered: Measures of Success

10 06 2009

Q. Dear Jacque, I just read this and it’s very concerning:

The Children’s Society contributes to the existing body of research on absent fathers with a finding from their own study of U.K. runaways, noting that “children living with one birth parent are twice as likely to have run away and children in step families are three times as likely to have run away as those living with both parents.”

(source: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=15472)

 I think at some point you had cited a statistic about academic achievement for children in stepfamilies being lower than for children in single-parent or dual-parent families (can’t remember if this was grades, test scores, college attainment, or what). But now this statistic about child runaways has got me thinking: do kids in stepfamilies have worse outcomes on EVERY possible measure of life success? I’ve been living with my boyfriend for a while now and we plan to get married eventually. Does my mere presence in his household bring down his kids’ success rates? It’s extremely disheartening! I want to know the “why” behind these statistics. I want to know what commonalities are shared by the families where these kids are running away. Is this only happening in families living out the worst stereotypes – the wicked stepmother or abusive stepfather? Or is the “slightly baffled by children but very well intentioned non-wicked stepmother” a good enough reason to make the kids get out of dodge?

A. What a fantastic question. It is extremely challenging to get at exactly why kids who are living in single-parent or stepfamily households are behaving the way they do, but you’re absolutely right. The research is stacking up that says kids from divorced households don’t fare as well in all of the categories used to measure the well-being of children.

I have seen research and articles coming at this topic from many angles. Some writers argue that kids are faring so badly because they don’t have access to their fathers. Some think it is the nature of single-parent households–there are fewer people with much less time to look after kids to make sure they are okay. Other writers say that it’s the nature of stepfamilies causing it–that the common stressors of stepfamily development mixed with the anger and grief over a divorce or the death of a parent cause children to act out in dangerous ways. Kids in stepfamilies can fall through the cracks a lot easier when parents feel guilty and act permissive and stepparents don’t feel like they can get involved. It’s enough to make your head spin.

So what can you do about it? The fact that you are conscientious enough to be worried about the kids leads me to believe that your stepchildren will be just fine, but here are a few tips that can help up your stepkids’ success rates:

Pay Attention. Kids need parents and stepparents who are paying attention. They need their parents to pay close enough attention that when a kids smells like smoke, they ask if they had a cigarette and demand to talk about it.

Continue Parenting. Kids need their moms and dads to parent them the same way they always did–riding them to get their homework done, expecting polite behavior, etc. They need rules and boundaries, not ice cream and trips to Disney Land. It is extremely difficult to parent and stepparent a troubled kid. A teen who is already exhibiting destructive behavior needs you, but you might not ever see any thanks for the efforts you put in. And the bio parent should always take the lead with a troubled teen.

Read About Stepfamilies.I know I say this one all the time, but it’s absolutely critical in my mind. If you know what is normal behavior for kids in stepfamilies, you won’t overreact when it happens to you. Plus, you can tell the kids that whatever they’re going through is normal. They’re not freaks. And it will pass.

Encourage One-On-One Time With Dad.I’ve heard from a lot of adult stepchildren who said they felt their stepmothers were jealous of the time they spent with their dads. I’ve also heard stepmoms admit to feeling that way. But the research is really clear. Kids do FAR better when they have a strong relationship with their dad. Send the stepkids off for a fun day with dad while you hit the spa.

Reduce Loyalty Conflicts.Kids from divorced families often feel stuck in the middle of their bio parents and duel households regardless of anything you say or do. Still, do what you can to mitigate loyalty conflicts for the kids and it will help in the long run. Don’t badmouth Mom. Don’t make a kid chose between Mom and Dad. And remember, sometimes loyalty conflicts are hidden. One stepmom couldn’t understand why her stepdaughers were so angry that she replaced the living room couch. Turns out it was one of Mom’s favorites.





What stepmoms can do for dads and their kids.

10 12 2008

Before you read this post, please read the research by Constance Ahrons that sparked this list. In my book and on this blog, I have said many times how important the relationship between your husband and his kids is. Not only because I value my own relationship with my father, but also because much research has been done on how negatively impacted children are when they don’t have their fathers in their lives.

So what can we do to help foster the relationship our partner has with his kids?

Encourage one-on-one time. When your stepchildren are visiting, suggest that your husband take each one of them out at a time for a walk, a visit to the park, a meal, so they can have time together.

Support involvement. If your stepkids have school events, games, or concerts tell your husband to attend them with or without you. I clearly remember looking for my father at my sports games and feeling such deep disappointment when he didn’t show and joy when he did.

Let him do the parenting. As a stepparent, you play second fiddle to the biological parent when it comes to discipline. If Dad is showing signs of becoming a permissive parent because he feels too guilty about what he’s done to his kids to parent them, then show him this post. He needs to parent his kids for them to feel loved and safe. Disneyland Dads are harmful to their children’s development. And as the stepmom, you shouldn’t be asked to discipline his kids. It’s not fair and it has the potential to ruin your relationship with the children.

Create traditions. Because stepfamilies take so long to feel like family (7 to 12 years according to researcher Patricia Papernow) do everything you can to build traditions that are just for your new family. One tradition my stepmother started that I deeply appreciated was a gift she made. Every year she put together a photo album of each of us kids with our dad. Though she was a part of those albums, too, she stayed in the background. By putting together those albums every year she was fostering my connection to my father.  

Let go of jealousy. Your stepchildren will have a relationship with their father until the day he dies. So think big picture here. That relationship will affect graduations, weddings, funerals, the birth of children, etc. etc. etc. If you’re really in this relationship for the long-term, then you simply can’t be jealous of the time he spends with his kids. If you have your whole lives together, then there is plenty of time for Dad to spend with you, any children you have together, and your stepkids.

Do you have things you do to support your partner’s relationship with his kid(s) that have worked well? Let us know what you do so the rest of us can try it!





Remarriage causes stress for kids.

10 12 2008

Ladies, I’ve come across some research you have to know about. In fact there is so much in it that I will do several posts on the issues raised in the study. Stepfamily researcher and author Constance Ahrons published a study last year called Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children in the journal Family Process. Click on the link if you’d like read the entire paper.

“Drawing on the data from the longitudinal Binuclear Family Study, 173 grown children were interviewed 20 years after their parents’ divorce. This article addresses two basic questions: (1) What impact does the relationship between parents have on their children 20 years after the divorce? and (2) When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family?”

This passage struck me as particularly powerful because it relates directly to our role as stepmoms:

“Over the course of 20 years, most of the children experienced the remarriage of one or both parents, and one third of this sample remembered the remarriage as more stressful than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both of their parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.”

Two-thirds!!!!! This is deeply distressing. Why do these children find Stepmom and Dad’s marriage so stressful? And what can we stepmoms do to ease this transition not only for ourselves but for the children we take on in our remarriages?

Here are the findings Constance reports:

“When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family? Twenty years after their parents’ divorce, most of the adult children had experienced the remarriage of at least one parent. Of the 89 families in this analysis, at least one remarriage occurred in 95% of them; 72% (n = 64) of the mothers and 87% (n = 77) of the fathers had remarried at least one time. In 64% (n = 56) of the families, both parents had remarried. In only 4 families had neither parent remarried. More fathers than mothers remarried, and they remarried more quickly after the divorce. In this sample, 24%, 60%, and 70% of the fathers had remarried at 1, 3, and 5 years postdivorce, whereas fewer mothers had remarried in each of the times, 12%, 38%, and 49%, respectively.

Remarriage represents another dramatic change in the divorced family’s reorganization, and children vary in their responses to this change. When asked whether the divorce or a parent’s remarriage was more difficult to cope with, more than half of the adult children reported that the divorce was most difficult, and approximately one third remembered the remarriage of one or more parents as creating more distress than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.

The adult children’s reports of the impact of their father’s remarriage were associated with their reports of changes in father-child relationship quality. Specifically, those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive impact on their lives were more likely to report that their relationship with their father got better postdivorce compared with those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a neutral or negative impact on their lives. A disproportionately high number of those reporting that their relationships worsened with their fathers after divorce had experienced his remarriage within one year postdivorce (Ahrons & Tanner, 2003).

The majority of children in the study reported that at the time of the interview, they had good relationships with one or both of their stepparents. Most noted that this was not always the case in the beginning but that relationships had improved over time as they came to know their stepparents better. Some gender differences emerged, with two thirds reporting a close relationship with their stepfathers, and somewhat less than half felt close to their stepmothers. For those children who feel that their relationships with their stepparents were close, two thirds considered their stepfathers as parents, and somewhat fewer felt the same way about their stepmothers. The others, who felt close but did not consider their stepparents to be parents, describe their stepparents as friends or mentors. It is important to note that although there were some differences in their feelings toward their stepmothers versus their stepfathers, these differences were not related to the child’s gender. Boys and girls both viewed their stepparents in similar ways.

The age of the child, the personality match between a stepchild and stepparent, the relationship with each biological parent, and the amount of time spent with a stepfather are major factors that influence the role he takes in their lives. Because most mothers are still the primary residential parent, most stepfathers live with their stepchildren. Although some children who are close with their stepfathers have poor relationships with their biological fathers, others who have poor stepfather relationships are close with their biological fathers. Still others are able to maintain good relationships with both, and a small group of children have poor relationships with both.

The findings also show an association between relationships with their father and relationships with their father’s kin. When relationships with their fathers got worse over time, they reported poorer current relationships with their stepmother, her children (their stepsiblings), and their paternal grandparents. This was most salient when the father remarried shortly after divorce. Adult children who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive effect on their lives also said that they had better relationships with their stepmothers, stepsiblings, and paternal grandparents. This is important because it relates to the long-term implications of the adult children’s sense of family after divorce. Because children have two sets of kin, whether and how they relate to them carries implications for the continuity of family relationships (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1989).”

So what does this mean in real terms? Clearly, helping to foster strong relationships between your stepchildren and their Dad is the most important action you can take. I will post separately about steps we can take on a daily basis to make sure that our families are the ones that have a positive effect on the children.