Stepmoms Speak

25 02 2009

 Rev. Peggy P. Wilkinson ipeggys an interfaith minister and pastoral care specialist. She’s also stepmom to Casey, Kelly and Christy (and happy about it). Check out her website, where you can sign up for a daily dose of her wisdom, humor, and touching stories. She writes here about how she used a creative solution to overcome tension with her stepfamily.                      

Using the Refrigerator to Thaw Things Out

When my husband and I married, three kids were part of the package. In the beginning, keeping track of what each of them liked to eat was just one more point of “overwhelm” for me. One would not touch milk. Another loved the stuff – but it had to be a certain brand, in a carton, not a plastic bottle. The other loved Gatorade, but not the original green stuff – the blue stuff. The other two loved peanuts but not peanut butter. I could feel myself tense up the minute the fridge was opened, at the outset of every weekend visit, as the kids surveyed the contents with deep sighs of disgust.

A couple of things occurred to me. One was that they should be made responsible for what they liked. And, two – I should make it easy for them to be responsible. The refrigerator could become the great common denominator between us. As it is in most homes, it could become the center of family info and fun.

And there was a third thing. Compassion. Have you ever gone to someone’s house and happened to look in their refrigerator? It in no way resembles the inside of yours. Even the same condiments feel foreign because they are not where you are used to seeing them. Kids are just so out of their comfort zone when they are getting acclimated to life in “Home B.”

So I took three brightly colored plastic placemats and cut them to fit in the shelves of the fridge. When the kids arrived, I asked them to pick their favorite color of placemat. I also put notepads in the corresponding color on a magnet, and attached each of them to the refrigerator door. Each kid now had a special place inside and out of the fridge.

Then we went to the grocery store together and they got their own favorite things. We put those items in their colored place in the fridge. When they needed more of something it was up to them to list the item on their pad on the refrigerator door. They loved it. I actually got a “COOL!” out of them.

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).