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.

Stress Management

5 03 2009

Living in a stepfamily can create the kind of constant stress to the body and mind that astronauts and soldiers are trained to handle. But as far as I know there isn’t a boot camp for stepmoms that teaches you how to handle living with daily stress in the very place that most people consider a place to relax–home.

It can bring a good woman down.

We’ve had flair ups in our stepfamily lately and the stress has started to show up in my body. Tight shoulders, aching neck, shallow breathing, difficultly sleeping. And so, m’ladies, once again I offer you a list of stress busters because we all need them. If you have any you’d like to share, please do!

Read for total escapism. Whatever your favorite reads are, I say go for them, even if you feel like you have to hide them behind a book cover or in your Kindle. Buy the book cover. Download away. Right now I’m reading the classic Glitter Baby by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. It’s good old-fashioned fun.

Watch a movie. One you picked, not one the skids fought over or your husband thought you might like. Pick one that’s just for you.

Find out where stress lives in your body. Close your eyes and think of the most stressful thing in your life right now. What happens to your body? Where do you tighten up? Use breathing, stretching, or massage to get those knots out of your system.

Don’t try to pretend you’re okay when you’re not.If you’re feeling crappy, don’t slap a fake smile on your face. Tell your family you’re having a rough patch and need their compassion. Or if you don’t have that level of openness yet with your stepfamily, head out for a mini vacay to a place where you don’t have to put on your smile like a suit.

Play. Bring out your inner kid with a toy pottery wheel, finger paints, a trip to the ice skating rink.

Allow your anger. Get it out ladies. That stuff is poison if you let it sit. And as you all know, most of us have been trained since birth that anger isn’t lady-like. We’re supposed to be nice, play nice, share, bite our tongues, keep our voices down etc. etc. etc. With that kind of training how are we supposed to know how to deal with our anger in a healthy way? Try screaming at the top of your lungs when you’re alone in the house. Beat a pillow. Throw glassware. Trash your room. Rip something to pieces.

How long will you be angry?

3 02 2009

stepfamily-letter-projectI’ve been struck lately by the letters we’ve received at the Stepfamily Letter Project. They are all beautiful letters, full of love, anger, hurt, alienation, and brutal honesty. And that was the goal for that website: to provide a place where all stepfamily members can have a voice. I’m proud of it. I’m glad it is doing some good. The feelings people are voicing there are real. They allow glimpses into what it’s like in blended families in the United States, England, and Australia. I knew there would be a lot of pain in the letters. I knew there would be anger. Still it makes me sad that people feel so alone within their families. It reminds me of the reason I wrote A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom in the first place, which I explain in this quote from the last chapter:

“The idea for this book had many wellsprings, one of which was an interview I conducted for a magazine article I was writing. I was chatting with a surgeon who ran her own practice. She had also been a stepmother of three for more than two decades. All the kids were grown, and she and her husband enjoyed each other’s company immensely. She told me she was known by all of her friends and colleagues as a success story. Her stepfamily looked like an episode of the Brady Bunch; it was all happy and smiles and good will.

I asked her a few more questions about her stepfamily’s dynamics – for instance, how she’d developed a good relationship with her three stepchildren, two boys and a girl, who were all teens when she moved in with them. I asked if her husband was a strong and present father who supported her. I asked about the relationship with his ex. Nothing seemed to upset her. When I asked a more direct question about her relationship with her stepdaughter, I hit a nerve, and this woman spewed forth a stream of venomous rage about her stepfamily life that she’d stored up for years. The resentment and anger and hurt just poured out of her like lava.

I’ve never written about her, and I’ve changed identifying characteristics in this telling of the story because this woman didn’t want anyone to know her secret: that even though she appeared to be a happy stepmom, underneath it all she still seethed with anger.

I spent several days after the interview thinking about this woman. She felt all the anger and fear and jealousy we all feel, but she’d stuffed it instead of dealing with it directly and letting it go. It reminded me of my dad’s advice he’d given me just after his divorce from my mother: “You don’t have to love your parents, you don’t even have to like them, but you must make peace with them. You can’t be 65 and still let your parents control your life because you’re pissed about what they did to you when you were 5.” I thought this advice, slightly retooled, could have been just as applicable to this woman’s situation as a stepmother.”

Please don’t get me wrong. There are days when I feel anger. There are certainly days when I feel hurt. And my great challenge is to let each new instance stand for itself instead of firing up all the old injustices into an avalanche of negativity. I don’t want anger and pain to be the feelings I’m constantly stuck with, rubbing me raw until I blow up or curl up and give in. You know what I mean?

So ask yourself this: How long will you allow yourself to be angry? What purpose does your pain serve? I am not trying to make light of our challenges, but there has to be a better way to live than being angry all the time. I’ve tried it. It’s exhausting. I would much rather focus my energies elsewhere. What about you?

The Power of Guilt

15 12 2008

journaldmIn blended families, there are few things more powerful than guilt. It is the emotion that fuels many of the negative things that happen in stepfamilies. It is the reason that Dads become permissive parents and allow their children to run wild. It  is often one of the reasons Moms are combative and challenging to co-parent with. In 2003, the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage published a study called Divorced Mothers’ Guilt. The study found that the guilt they felt for putting their children through divorce often kept them stuck in one emotional place and unable to move on with their lives.

Anecdotally, I can attest to this just from listening to moms during interviews. I have always been curious about the moms who originally ask for the divorce and then act as though they are the victims or become vindictive or angry later when they weren’t at the time of the divorce. It could be the guilt talking.

And so for all of us, how do recover from guilt? How do biological and stepparents move on from feeling guilty about an affair, or a divorce or a remarriage? If anyone has some good ideas, please feel free to comment. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts:

Say your sorry. Take the children out for one-on-one time and apologize. Call or e-mail your former spouse and tell them you are sorry for everything that happened. Marriage researcher John Gottman describes in his books how repair attempts can reduce conflict in relationships. If the breakup of the marriage happened because of an affair, leave defensiveness behind, own up to your responsibility and say your sorry.

Look to the future. Instead of remaining stuck in anger and guilt about what happened in the past, focus on your hopes for the future.

Remember we’re alone. Each of us has our own particular path to walk in this life. A divorce and remarriage will affect children for their rest of their lives, but at the end of the day they will have to deal with it on their own. Give them the tools they need to move through their emotions in a healthy way instead of letting them manipulate you with your guilt.

Let go of what doesn’t serve you. Guilt is really a useless feeling. It doesn’t move you anywhere, just keeps you stuck in the past. Wouldn’t you rather choose to let go of the guilt? Challenging things happen to children. How they respond to it can build their character and yours if you allow everyone to move on emotionally.

Be true to your inner truths. Guilt can strip biological parents of their core values. For instance, if a parent would typically believe that boundaries are good for kids but lets them all go because he feels guilty, he is not only depriving his children of the parenting they need, he is abandoning his own belief system. Seriously, guilt is that powerful.

So what do you feel guilty about? How does the guilt of your partner or the ex affect the dynamics between all the members of your blended family?

The Doctor Is In: Emily Bouchard

2 12 2008

Emily Bouchard, founder of, is an expert in stepfamily issues with more than 20 years of experience in working with children and families dealing with adversity. She has a master’s degree in social work and a bachelor’s degree in child development. Emily is also a stepdaughter and a loving stepmother to two young women who were teenagers when she entered their lives. Bouchard conducts live teleseminars with renowned experts to help stepfamilies succeed. Find the schedule of speakers and pose a question to an expert at  

Parenting in the 21st Century
By Emily Bouchard  

In the course of the last week alone, I had three different clients address major issues related to their teenagers. In one family, a 14-year-old girl’s diary was found to contain a suicide note along with evidence that she was acting out sexually. In another family, a 13-year-old boy, who had been recently diagnosed with ADHD, had just failed the eighth grade. And in yet another family, a 16-year-old girl was involved in cyber-bullying and sexually explicit harassment over the Internet with another girl in her school.

In each instance, my initial response to the parents was the same. I’d like to share the coaching I gave them to you here, as I believe many parents need all the support they can get in this day and age – with what their children are exposed to and contending with.

When a parent initially discovers that their child has made a mistake or has a specific challenge, the range of emotions can span shock, disbelief, distress, anger, rage, frustration, loss, grief, fear and worry. Parental reactions from these emotions typically look like punishments, lectures, “raking over the coals,” expressions of extreme disappointment and dissatisfaction, yelling, or maybe even a complete breakdown, from the devastation and fear.

Very few parents are prepared to effectively deal with major, emotionally charged and frightening issues that most teenagers face in the course of that developmental stage. The strategies they choose are the ones that were modeled for them, years ago, when the world was a different place, and when the family dynamics were different as well. Add to the equation that most parents BOTH work now, and, for many teenagers, they are living with only one birthparent at any one time, and you’ve got a recipe for even more challenges in dealing with the toughest issues in the lives of teens.

So, what can you do?

First, and foremost – BREATHE. When you learn that something awful has happened (or you think it has happened), immediately breathe deeply and consciously into your belly – at least six deep breaths, allowing yourself to feel whatever you’re feeling fully. If your teenager is right in front of you – just simply say, “Stop. Wait. Breathe with me.” And invite him or her to take in some deep breaths. I recommend holding each breath for a moment, before letting them out with an audible sigh.

At any time you start to feel yourself becoming emotionally reactive around the issue, take a “time out” and breathe deeply again. You’ll be amazed at what this will do to calm you down, to allow you to think more clearly, and to bring you back to the present moment with your child – who needs you more than anything in that moment.

The reason we become so reactive is because we take ourselves out of the present moment by projecting into the future all the horrible things that may happen to our children as a result of this one mistake or present issue. The mind latches on to the possibilities as if they are factual, and then proceeds to scare us out of our wits. It’s hard to access your intellect and your resources when you’re terrified about what could happen – as if it has already come to pass.

Breathing keeps you present, and keeps you from getting caught by the stories your mind wants to feed you.

Now that you have the concept of deep breathing down, here’s the second thing I strongly recommend that you do – before anything else…GET THEM! Go into your heart, find your love, empathy, and compassion for the teenager in front of you and SEEK TO UNDERSTAND what THEIR relationship is to what you’ve just discovered. Questions like “What was that like for you?” and simply asking them to “Tell me more” can be very helpful.

Years ago my teenage stepdaughter, Robin, used my car while I was away for the weekend. I had noticed before leaving that the odometer had a funny number (333333). When I returned, the number was different. What was I to do? She’d obviously used my car and I knew it. I was shocked and upset. And I knew that she had to be sitting on the knowledge that she had done something behind my back.

There are many ways I could have handled this same scenario, and been totally justified and within my rights as a stepparent. Some ideas that came to mind were to ground her from using my car for a month; or taking away other privileges as well; or having her wash my car and work off the mileage she added to it, etc. I also contemplated going to her father and having him give her all sorts of punishments and consequences, and not confronting her or addressing this with her myself. I’m sure you’ve thought of all kinds of options I could have used to address her disrespect and disregard for a boundary I had given her. After talking with her father about the options, I came up with a solution that made the most sense to me – with the goals of (1) deepening our connection and (2) using the opportunity as a chance to guide and consult with her around choices and trust.
I chose to wait to talk with her until I had to drive her to school the next day, in my car. I calmly showed her the odometer and let her know that I knew she’d used the car, because I’d noticed that the reading was different. I then looked at her and asked her, “Can you help me understand what caused you to choose to use my car when I’d asked you not to?”

She knew she’d been caught and she started to give me excuses and reasons. I then asked her, “What was it like for you to use it when you knew you weren’t supposed to?” and she opened up more and shared her worries, her fears, and her reasons for taking the risk. I followed this by asking her to share what it was like for her to have me know and confront her with it. Her immediate response was relief – like she’d been holding her breath and finally got to let it go.

We then had a whole discussion about what it’s like to do what we want even when we know it is wrong. And we talked about what happens in life when we make choices that could hurt others, or when they could backfire and hurt us in the long run. We looked at how she’d hurt the trust between us and that she’d need to work to earn back my trust, and what a loss that was for both of us. And we discussed ways she could go about earning back my trust.

Our conversation finished with an exploration together about what would be a reasonable and natural consequence for her, given the fact that she chose to go behind my back and use my car without permission. The fact that she never lied about it and that she was willing to explore the whole thing with me helped her cause, and I showed her that her choice to own up to her decision was already a step toward earning back my trust.

Using this approach took forethought combined with a clear INTENTION about what I wanted for the outcome. My goal with my teenage stepdaughters was to be a role model for them, and to support them in being young women who make healthy, life-affirming decisions for themselves in their lives then and in the future. As a result, the majority of my interactions with them came from that place of seeking to understand first, and then being curious with them about the results in their lives that happen due to the choices they were making.

Many parents and stepparents get tripped up by the notion that if they seek to understand, they will somehow appear to approve of the behaviors that have them so concerned. What I find happens is the opposite. By treating teenagers with respect, and as people who can think for themselves, you get to discover their whole world, and what matters most to them. You get to know them as who they are in that moment – instead to imposing onto them who you want them to be and making them wrong because they are not the perfect child anymore.

Once you meet them with understanding and get them of their reality, they become MUCH MORE OPEN to listening and respecting you for your perspective and opinion. Teenagers are in a constant state of turmoil and confusion. Their hormones are running amuck, they are bombarded by so many social pressures, and they are still trying to learn and succeed in a teaching environment which is sorely lacking in what they actually need at that stage in development (that’s a whole other topic). What they need more than anything is a way to make sense of their inner and outer worlds, and to be loved and accepted for who they are, while also being given clear boundaries and limits, and being shown what happens when they step over them – now and in the future. Your lack of approval, when shared after you’ve shown the respect and understanding, will be met with respect, and they are much more likely to comply with their consequences.
Action Steps
The next time your child or teenage acts out or steps over a boundary, remember to:

Breathe deeply and deliberately.  

Meet them first and foremost with curiosity and seek to understand their perspective.  

Explore with them the possible consequences of their choices/actions.  

Determine together what steps they will take to earn back their privileges.  

If you have on-going challenges with a teenager in your home, you may want to visit for his books and ideas on how to parent teenagers. I also highly recommend Kelly Nault’s book, When You’re About To Go Off the Deep End, Don’t Take Your Kids With You  – she has great insights into parenting strategies that really work. And, I always tell my clients about, as their resources are exceptional for parents (best to start with them as early as you can).

Taking Things Personally

28 10 2008

Stepfamily experts tell us to not take things our stepchildren say personally. Sounds easy, but when you’re listening to a stepkid shout that they hate you and wish you’d never met their dad, it’s next to impossible not to feel hurt. Try one of these tips for maintaining a cool head when you’re the target of a kid’s emotional pain.

1) Acts of kindness. Maintain a positive, supportive attitude instead of joining the child in a fight. Show empathy and kindness instead of anger. For instance, if a child shouts that you can’t tell her what to do when you ask her to pick up her room, instead of responding with anger, calmly tell her that she knows the house rules and she must abide by them. Make sure to include statements such as, “I know this must be hard for you to have two houses,” or “It’s a bummer that you have to follow the rules of our house and your mom’s, but someday you’ll get to make your own choices about how you live when you get your own apartment!”

2) Forget about it. When you’re hurt or outraged by something your stepkid said, it’s easy to replay the comment in your mind until your anger escalates into a grudge it’s hard to let go of. Try noticing the next time you allow your thoughts to increase your anger and instead consciously soothe yourself with positive self-talk, an outing with friends or an appointment with your massage therapist.

3) Practice self-confidence. If a child is being disrespectful, tell him you understand how he feels but that he is still not allowed to treat you poorly. Remember that you are influencing those children, and by demonstrating your own self-worth, you are teaching them something important.

4) Be gentle with yourself. Repeat this mantra whenever you are feeling attacked: “I am doing the best I can. I am doing the best I can.”

5) Imagine your stepchild’s life. Think about your own childhood. Did your parents divorce? Did you have to go back and forth between two homes? Did you have to listen to your parents badmouth each other? Were you a witness to violence or were you confused when your parents suddenly announced their divorce? Or are you from a happy home? Compare your upbringing with your stepchildren’s and see if you can find compassion for these people who are experiencing something that is painful, confusing, scary, and will change their very identities.

You Talkin’ To Me?!!!: Anger Management is a crucial skill for stepmoms.

27 10 2008

I wrote a book about becoming a stepmom because I was scared. I wanted to talk to as many people as I could to make sure that I did it “right.” And I learned so much from the many brave stepfamilies I interviewed for the book. I found out what worked. I wrote it all down. I practiced it in my own home. But there are still days when I can’t handle stepmotherhood with much grace at all.

Some days I am in such a bad mood that I am not fit for human company. Those are the days when my thoughts spiral down into negativity. When I feel claustrophobic in my own home. When I feel taken advantage of because I am providing free daycare to kids not my own. When I feel assaulted by the noise and chaos. When the last thing I want to do is sit down for a stepfamily meal to bond with my stepkids; I’d rather jump off a bridge, thank you very much.

And the resentment builds.

Even when I am volatile and cranky and just plain burnt out, I know I don’t want to keep resentment in my heart. In five years or 10 years I don’t want to be mad about something that happened today. I don’t want to explode someday because I’ve never gotten my anger out. So in this post I wanted to write about anger and the things that stepmoms can do to dissipate resentment because I need to learn how to do it, too.

Escape Clause
Head out for a weekend getaway alone or with a close friend. Changing up your daily routine can help you, your spouse and the kids get a fresh perspective.

Play Time
Do something you really love to do. When was the last time you actually took time to do something you love? Americans are taking fewer and fewer vacation days. So what if you just took a day off from work or taking care of the kids and took care of yourself? What if you took today off? Or tomorrow?

Anger 101
Be mad. Be hurt. Be outraged. Acknowledge your feelings. If you’re mad, tell a trusted friend you’re mad. Write it down. Get it out into the open air. Swear if you need to. Name the feelings you’re having. Write a letter to the person you’re mad at. Tell them why. Tell them what they could do to make you feel better. Destroy the letter, send the letter, or call the person you’re upset with and have a discussion about what happened. Even if you’re upset, make sure to use compliments and gratitude to ease the tension so you can have a real conversation, and not a fight that ends with either of you saying hurtful things you can’t ever take back.

Body Building
Stretch out on your bed, the couch or the floor and tense your entire body. Tighten your hands into fists, make an angry scowl. Hold your breath and hold the position for as long as you can. Then let all your muscles relax and breathe out. Do it a few times. If you’re daring, add a scream when you tense and a big, loud sigh when you let the pose go.

Creative Solutions
If there’s something happening at home that bugs you, be as creative as possible to find ways around the issue. For instance, with three kids in the house, there were A LOT of stinky shoes cluttering up the front hallway of our home. It drove me crazy. I hated those shoes. And for a few days I didn’t do anything about it but complain to my husband and get madder and madder. I had just tripped over a set of sneakers on my way to the car and was about to go on a rampage when my eye caught two sets of metal racks in the garage that were holding an assortment of junk: tools, baseballs, bicycle helmets. And I had a stroke of genius: I could use those racks! So I lined them up in the garage right by the door and gave each kid a shelf to put their shoes on. They sometimes leave their shoes next to the racks instead of in them, but at least they are out of sight and don’t present a danger to anyone coming into our house.

Take time out for deep breaths to nourish your body with all the oxygen it needs.

Now you: What strategies do you use when you’re feeling angry and resentful?