Your Questions Answered: Modeling a Healthy Relationship

5 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I can totally relate to a recent post about a needy 19 yr old daughter, but in a little different way. I haven’t been with my partner for four years, but I totally see this kind of neediness!! Instead of one 19 year old daughter, I have it double with a 9 year old son and an 11 year old daughter. They are both overwhelmingly needy. It baffles me at how not self sufficient they are. From my observations sometimes they are excited when we display affection towards one another and sometimes they fall into the whole I want a hug and a kiss too, in that awful whiny three year old voice! As I read this post I answered the questions that were posed at the beginning:

How close is your stepdaughter to her mother? I don’t see the relationship as close at all. They talk to their mother when she calls, on average that is twice a week and before my partner and I met is was less than that. They go on their visits to see her and they facebook with her. That is about it. Sometimes his daughter asks to call her mom and his son never does. Their conversations on average are between 3 to 10 minutes and nothing important is discussed. I bet she cant even tell you what they got on their last 5 progress reports.

How long was your stepdaughter the only female in her father’s house? From what I understand my stepdaughter has been the only female in her father’s house her entire life. The mom traveled for work and wasn’t affectionate at all. I have derived that because of the lack of affection between my partner and his ex he gave all of that love and physical affection to his children. I have even asked my partner and he agrees.

At what age did the divorce or death of her other parent happen? The divorce began when they were 8 and 10 and ended about seven months after that.

Is she well-adjusted overall or is she a troubled girl? Both children seem to be well adjusted. They are surrounded by my partners family, whom have been active participants in their lies since day one!!

My question is how do we teach his children what a real healthy loving relationship looks like and that he is allowed to love on me. Our relationship goes against everthing that they have ever known! It is not one kiss for me and one kiss for them. Like the book says: though the kids and the ex effect our relationship the relationship is between my partner and myself.

Dear Stepmom:

Thanks for a great question! Please see my second response to the needy stepdaughter here. Also, because your stepchildren’s mother is absent, read this post, too, where I speak more about what might be happening with your stepchildren because Mom is absent much of the time.

In your case, modeling a healthy relationship is exactly how you teach children what is normal and what is not. Children are sponges and they soak up what we DO much more than what we SAY. Because you’ve got stepkids who are used to being the primary emotional focus of their dad, you will be very threatening to the kids. They’ve already lost their mother. (EXTREMELY painful.) And you represent a threat to them. Here are a few things for you to try:

Keep the adult stuff to the adults. If your husband is confiding in his children. He needs to stop. Research has shown again and again that it is unhealthy for children to have too much responsibility too early. The amount of information they can handle is based on their age. That means at ages 9 and 11, he shouldn’t be telling them about his relationship troubles with you, or money issue he has with the ex, or his troubles at work, for instance. Kids who have been confidantes will get very angry about not being included. So see the next point.

Send constant messages of love. Dad needs to be telling his kids he loves them again and again. And showing them, too. By showing up at the soccer game or listening to their problems or playing a game of basketball in the driveway every night. When your stepchildren ask for kisses in a whiny voice, assure her that her father loves her. That way she won’t perceive you as a threat for long. Instead of staying silent in those moments say something like, “Honey, of course you’re daddy wants to give you a kiss. He’s your dad. He loves you, no matter what!”

Be honest about the changes. Kids need to be able to voice how difficult this is for them. Acknowledge that there are good and bad things about being in a stepfamily. And it’s NORMAL to have conflicting feelings.

Lay off the physical affection in the early years. Kids do have trouble watching their parent be physically affectionate with a new partner in the early years. So in the early days take it easy. (This does not mean you shouldn’t touch each other at all! Use common sense here.) But as your relationships grow and deepen they typically acclimate just fine. And in fact, the more you demonstrate over time that your marriage is strong, kids end up feeling safer because you’re showing them you’re not going anywhere.

What Do You Desire?

27 04 2010

Is there anything you’ve wanted to do, be or have that you haven’t done? You know, one of those ideas that might have dogged you from your childhood? Or a wild-hair thought you’ve had about something you’d like to do that would be SO FUN? Or something that makes you feel like you’re a kid getting away with something because it feels so amazingly good?

What are you waiting for, Dear Stepmom?

If you’re doing things that make you feel like you’re special then you’ll be a better wife and stepmother. If you feel like your needs and desires are valuable, you won’t be a stepmartyr. And the funny thing is, the moment we start feeling good about ourselves and our amazing lives, our relationships tend to rise to the occasion almost by themselves.

What can you do today that will help you move toward something you desire?

Your Questions Answered: Needy Stepdaughters

14 04 2010

Dear Jacque, I have been married now for almost 4 years to a wonderful man. It has been such a hard adjustment to say the least. I have no children of my own but now have a 19 y.o. stepdaughter and 15 y.o. stepson. I would like to put in a question request…Needy teen stepdaughters who compete for dad attention. Everything I find is about adolescent girls in this situation. She reverts back to a child in his presence and does things like want to sit on his lap, hangs on him, gets upset if he hugs/kisses me (literally asks why I get a hug and she doesn’t), calls our house then cell over and over until he picks up, competes in conversation with her brother and myself. Husband enables this behavior by refusing to set boundaries, tucks them into bed, reads bedtime stories, runs his fingers through her hair and cuddles next to her (almost spooning) while we are watching t.v. That one really creeps me out. She’s 19 with a woman’s figure, not a child. She is wonderful girl and we get along great, I just cannot humor this behavior anymore. I have tried talking to my husband but he only gets upset at me and asks me to stop telling him how to love his children. And that I make it sound like something weird is going on, which I try really hard not to. In this scenario, how can I bring up her neediness and his enabling without upsetting him? I am tired of feeling like the second wife when they visit.

Your question is one that many stepmothers have asked me over the years because the relationship between a stepmother and stepdaughter can be extremely difficult.

There are many factors that can play into this relationship. How close is your stepdaughter to her mother? How long was your stepdaughter the only female in her father’s house? At what age did the divorce or death of her other parent happen? Is she well-adjusted overall or is she a troubled girl?

Clearly your stepdaughter feels a sense of competition with you for her father’s affection and attention. Many children of divorce feel a dramatic loss after their biological parents’ relationship ends because they lose time with both of their parents (if it’s a 50/50 split) or with Dad, if the custody arrangement is more traditional and favors Mom. The fact that this girl’s parents are no longer together and she doesn’t get to spend the time she once did with her father is enough to spur the behavior you describe. Even at 19 years old.

Children who have had a traumatic experience early in life (divorce, death of a parent) are often emotionally less developed than their peers. It’s like their growth gets stunted at the point of impact and it takes them a lot longer to catch up. And there’s also something called Developmental Grieving. At each life milestone, children of divorce re-experience the grief of the childhood trauma. Your stepdaughter is at an age that kids typically leave home for college or their own apartment and that can fuel a big of a backslide into neediness.

I’m going to assume in my response that there is nothing seriously inappropriate going on between your husband and his daughter. That said, I do have some thoughts for you:

Build your marriage. When your stepdaughter is not around, make sure you and your husband are connecting emotionally, physically, and spiritually so you have confidence in your relationship. Go out and have a good time. Volunteer together. Build a vision of your future that you can work toward together. Connect every single day by giving each other compliments, holding hands, or kissing each other on the forehead. Your relationship is between the two of you. If you feel solid in your partnership with him, you won’t care that he’s close to his daughter.Tell your husband what you need to feel loved. Ask him how he likes to express his love for you.

Consider your own assumptions. Families have different levels of comfort with physical closeness. Stepmothers often feel uncomfortable with too much physical closeness between their husbands and their stepdaughters. But your level of comfort with your husband’s physical displays of affection is your problem. If you shared blood with your stepdaughter, you most likely wouldn’t be bothered by the closeness because you would be a part of it. But we stepmothers are the outsiders. We are not allowed in. And in fact, as you mentioned in your email, are viewed as the enemy when we are touched by our husbands in front of their daughters. As long as there is nothing really inappropriate going on, then my advice would be to accept that you have a different comfort level and allow your husband to love his kids the way he wants to as he requested.

Send a no-threat message. When your stepdaughter does flare up when your husband touches you in front of her, don’t rise to the bait. Make a joke. Tell her how much her father loves her. Tell your husband to set up a one-on-one outing. Children need to know their parents love them. Especially children of divorce. They are needy. You’re right about that. To help you understand what’s going on in her mind, read Between Two Worlds by Elizabeth Marquardt or Carolyn Grona’s fantastic blog, The Grown-Up Child.

Look at the big picture. You’ve made it through the hell years, my dear. Teen girls are challenging. Now you won’t have to be stepparenting in person as often as you were the first four years since it’s time for your stepdaughter to set out on her own. Lucky you! Instead of focusing on your negative feelings, look at the up-side. You’re now going to have lots of time to continue building your strong marriage. You’re going to have to opportunity to develop a new kind of relationship with your stepdaughter that over time could really feel great. If you want it to.

Take care of yourself. Sometimes, you need to just get away from stepfamily life. Go away for a weekend when your stepdaughter is going to be there. Remind your husband that you’re in this for the long haul and one weekend, or one day or an evening away from the family is not going to be a big deal.

Celebrate what you’ve done already. You mention that she’s a wonderful girl and you get along great. Wow! Typically the girls who are displaying the behavior you’re describing are really challenging for stepmothers because they swear at us, talk back, ignore us, refuse to be in the house at the same time as us…etc. etc. etc. This is a major achievement. Celebrate it! That she has a good heart means that you will be able to move past this in my opinion. She’s going to find her way to adulthood and it sounds like she’ll be the type of girl to thank you for everything you’ve done for her. Well done!

Your Questions Answered: Difficult Exes

19 11 2009

Hi Jacque,

Could you offer some advice (or point me to the right place) for how to handle an extremely difficult ex-wife/bio Mom? In our case, my dh’s ex-wife is stunningly cruel and disrespectful. She sends us horrible emails with all sorts of untrue accusations and we are also convinced that she makes my stepdaughter fully aware of her feelings towards us. We have never retaliated with disrespectful behavior and we have, on several occasions, asked her to join us in therapy sessions so that we can learn how to better co-parent. She refuses. With this said, I have come to understand that I cannot change her behavior but I can change how I respond to it. Unfortunately, lately I am doing an awful job and I am allowing this behavior to occupy my consciousness much more than it should (ruminating thoughts, etc.). I have practiced some of the excellent tips that you offered to me in the past to disrupt the ruminations. I am now wondering if you have any advice that is geared towards this very situation (or, again, if you can point me to the right place for some thoughtful guidance/support). Thank you very much!

Dear Reader: You raise a lot of issues in your short email! Unfortunately as so many of you know, the more challenging the ex is the more difficult it is for stepmother and dad to create a stable stepfamily home. Putting together a system that works for you and your family will largely depend on the particular dynamics in your home mixed with old-fashioned trial and error.

Take the 100-year view. You didn’t mention how old your stepdaughter is, but remember this: Someday she will be 18. You will still have to deal with the ex but it will be a lot less than you have to now (assuming your stepdaughter is younger than 18).

Create a sanctuary in your home. Make your home a relaxing and fun place to be for you, your spouse, and your stepdaughter. When stressful things happen with the ex, turn toward your husband, not away. Find ways to spend time together. A good relationship with your spouse is the strongest antidote to a tough ex.

Develop a thought-management plan. For a few days, carry a notebook and jot down the times you think about the ex. What sparked it? What did you think? Write down what those thoughts make you feel. Now, make a deal with yourself. Allow the thoughts about the ex only at certain times. (For instance, for a half hour on Saturday at 2 p.m.) Then on Saturday at 2, rant and rave about the ex. At all other times, practice training your brain to stop the nasty thoughts. Here are things that might help:

  • Distract yourself with something else. Call your best friend, go for a run, walk your dog, turn up your favorite music really loud, send a prayer of gratitude to the ex for signing the divorce papers.
  • Practice gratitude. A simple thing really, but research has proven that by making lists every day of the things you are thankful for it can really help alleviate the negative spirals we get ourselves into.
  • Ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts. This is straight from Byron Katie’s wonderful theory which she calls, “The Work.” You have the power to choose the direction of your thoughts. It takes practice, like anything else, but you CAN do it.
  • Add a ritual or reward system that reminds you of your intention to think less negatively about the ex. Every time the ex pops up in your head, do some physical ritual to help you remember. For instance, light a candle and blow it out. When the light extinguishes, so do the negative thoughts. Or track the number of times you successful banish negative thoughts. Then set up rewards when you hit certain numbers. The 10th time you start thinking, “That B*&(#!!” and end up wishing her peace or distracting yourself with thoughts of the day’s tasks or a newspaper story you read, then reward yourself with something wonderful.

Employ your empathy. People are not all good or all bad so work to find something about the ex that you can empathize with. Try putting yourself in her shoes to see if you can understand why she might be feeling threatened. Remember she’s a woman who has been through divorce (even if she wanted it) and that is painful. She likely feels guilt about the breakup of the family and how it will affect her children. She could be scared to be a single mom or afraid that she’ll like your house better than hers. Find your compassion for her and it will make giving up negative thoughs much easier.

Other resources: Besides Byron Katie’s work, you might check out Positivity by Barbara Frederickson and The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Both authors are researchers who have tested out their theories on hundreds of people.

Do you have physically violent stepchildren?

28 07 2009

Ladies: Wednesday Martin, the author of Stepmonster is looking for stepmoms to interview. Here is her request and contact info:

“If you are a woman with stepchildren who has experienced physical violence in your household at the hands of your stepchild or adult stepchild, or know someone who is, I would like to hear from you for research purposes. I also encourage you to find support so that you can feel and be safe in your home. My email address is”

A Stepmom’s Inner Critic

11 05 2009

There are few things more dangerous to a stepmom’s mental health than a loud and damning Inner Critic. I don’t know about you but sometimes all the “shoulds” about how I’m “supposed” to be that I beat myself up with are enough to drive a good woman to drink. According to the voice inside my head I’m supposed to be more maternal to my stepkids, nicer, more bonded with them. I’m supposed to have a cleaner house and a better relationship with my husband’s ex. I’m not supposed to get tired, be jealous or angry. I’m certainly not supposed to snap at my stepkids because I am supposed to make this family work!

Sometimes I really need to tell that Inner Critic to shut the hell up. Know what I mean? I’ve written several pieces for this blog on the art of smacking down the Inner Critic. You can check them out by clicking on the S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms category on the right hand side of this page. I’ve also written a new book with a friend of mine called S.M.A.C.K. Your Inner Critic: Knock out your doubt and live the life of your dreams.My agent sent it out to publishers on Friday! So I have a favor to ask, m’ladies! Please visit our blog at www.smackyourinnercritic.comand if you feel called to make a comment on one of our posts, I’d be deeply grateful! Drop me a line at becomingastepmom (at) to let me know you commented and I’ll send a free, signed copy of my book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom to the person who writes the 25th comment we get starting now! Many, many thanks!

Free to Be Me

18 02 2009

Here’s an exercise designed to help you see what your comfort zone is, to help you figure out what kind of stepmother you want to be. Consider the statements as jumping-off points, and if something rings true for you, follow it and see where it leads.

  • I want the kids to be able to talk to me about their problems.
  • I don’t want to feel responsible for their daily lives: their schooling, discipline, friends, allowance, guidance, etc.
  • I want to be an active participant in their daily lives.
  • I am an affectionate person and I love it when they give me hugs and kisses.
  • I want to tuck them into bed and read them stories.
  • I am more comfortable remaining at a distance, like a teacher who gives guidance but does not get emotionally involved.
  • I do not need my stepchildren to give me emotional support.
  • I want my stepchildren to make me feel loved and included in this family.
  • I can tell them what to do, like pick up their socks or dirty dishes.
  • I want us to be respectful of each other.
  • I want to be the ringleader of fun.
  • I want to be a role model.
  • I want to feel like they’re my kids.
  • I want to be a mother.
  • I have never wanted to be a parent.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m willing to be open and accepting of my new experiences.
  • I’d like to be a warm and soothing influence on my stepchildren.
  • I want to be the “intimate outsider.”
  • I want to feel like I am a part of this family.

Figuring out your role within the stepfamily is a lifelong process. You, your husband, and the kids will negotiate it over time. You can create the role that fits for you and your family.

Excerpt from A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom