Your Questions Answered: Anger at the Stepkids

28 07 2009

Dear Jacque, I want to thank you for being such a wonderful and insightful resource for stepmoms!!! I am writing to request your advice on an issue. I am a stepmom to an 11-year-old girl, Sylvie. I have been in Sylvie’s life for 7 years and overall we have had a good relationship and we do love each other, although it is certainly complicated by all of the issues relevant to “steps.” In the past year, Sylvie has changed dramatically. She has become sarcastic and angry and very difficult to deal with. I believe this is caused by a few factors, including the fact that I gave birth to a son 2 years ago and, although Sylvie adores him, she is no longer the only child. However, I think the primary cause of this change in behavior is the onset of adolescence and the normal development issues that are very unpleasant for parents.

My problem is dealing with the intense anger that I have felt toward my stepdaughter. It is much more difficult to cope with this behavior when it is a stepchild. I feel angry and resentful often and I need a place to process these feelings and move beyond them. Do you have any resources for me to review that will give me techniques for dealing with a very difficult tween stepdaughter and handling my anger and resentment in a way that is least destructive to my family? I do not want to ruminate over these feelings and I certainly do not want to create an enduring riff in my relationship with my stepdaughter. If anything, I would like to take this challenge as an opportunity to grow.

Any advice that you have would be so greatly appreciated. Thank you so much! Keep up the wonderful work.

A tween girl! I have one of those myself. And you’re absolutely right that part of what is happening in your home right now is the normal development stage of a budding teenager. I’m not aware of all the specifics of your situation, but it’s very possible that jealousy of her younger half-sibling is playing a role, as well as anger or grief over the end of her parents’ relationship. If she has a stepdad in her mother’s home or stepsiblings, those dynamics could also be affecting her behavior. But as you say so eloquently in your letter, knowing what it is doesn’t make it any easier!

Dealing with anger doesn’t necessarily get less challenging over time because the longer we are in a stepfamily, the easier it is to call up the long list of hurts and injustices every time something new flares up. I think there are a couple of things we can do to work through anger at our stepchildren in a healthy way. It involves both direct and indirect methods.

Insist on respectful behavior. There are kids who say please and thank you (even if they are surly about it) and there are kids who are not required to be respectful by their biological parents. Whichever type of stepchild you’ve been blessed with, it is absolutely okay to demand respect in your own home. Clearly outline how you expect to be treated, share it with your spouse, and insist that your tween speak graciously to you. When I’ve been on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior in my home I addressed it like this: “I know you’re at an age when you think adults don’t know anything and that’s just fine. You can think whatever you want in the privacy of your own mind. But I will not tolerate disrespectful behavior toward me in this house.”

Disrupt the rumination.Most women are accomplished ruminators. When something makes us angry we descend into a spiral of negative thoughts that make us remember every single thing that person has ever done to piss us off. The more we think about how wronged we are, the angrier we get. And on it goes. Do whatever it takes to stop the thoughts. In my book, A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom, I describe how I used this trick whenever I was having jealous thoughts about the ex wife. It works with angry thoughts directed at the kids, too:

“Find a way to laugh, to change the downward spiral of your thoughts mid-stream. Here’s a completely ludicrous exercise to try. I’ve done it and it’s so stupid, it actually works. It was beginning to feel like there was a track in my brain that the ugly, jealous thoughts, once started, would just run along, as though they were recordings. I wondered what would happen if I disrupted the flow of negative thoughts with a nonsensical word that would jar me out of the cycle. My youngest stepdaughter was wearing a shirt with a pineapple on it that day. So I started saying “pineapple” to myself every time I started feeling jealous, and it was so ridiculous I ended up laughing every time. The good news is that it worked.”

Find the humor.Asserting your authority with a teenager is a good way for a stepmom to drive herself crazy. The last thing a teen wants is a non-blood adult telling them what to do–they don’t even want their biological parents giving them direction. Humor works really well to help diffuse tension between stepfamily members. And it’s a fantastic antidote to anger, too. It’s hard to hold onto rage at a stepchild when you’re smiling. If my tween and teen stepkids make a sassy remark, my blood pressure doesn’t rise at all when I respond with something like, “Oh boy, here we go. Teenage angst. Time for me to move out until the hormones have stabilized again and you’re a normal human being!”

Take ten breaths. If you’re mad at a tween or teen, do not engage in a conflict when you’re in the heat of the moment. Instead, tell a child you’ll address whatever the conflict is when you’re feeling more calm. Leave the room. Take ten deep breaths. Calm your body so you’re not clouded by the adrenaline in your system.  

Move your anger outside. If you’re raging around the house because of something a stepkid did, get out of the house for a while and do something that nurtures you. Take your son to the park. Meet a friend for a vent session. Go for a run or get a massage.  

Remember what it was like.The adolescent years are difficult for kids. I mean, seriously. Would you want to return to that time in your life? Kids are cruel to each other. Your body is changing. You don’t understand why you feel like crying all the time. Every injustice is magnified every hurt is the end of the world. Every time you feel anger toward your stepchild, take a moment to remember a painful moment from your own adolescence.

Let your partner deal with his kid.  Have a discussion with your spouse about how you can best get through these coming years together. Stepfamilies tend to do better when Dad steps up his parenting and Stepmom steps back.

Hold on. The next few years are going to be a wild ride. Sometimes all you can do during the turbulent teen years is to hold on tight until it’s over.

For many more specific tips to help you deal with the many stressors of stepfamily life, check out my book: A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom.  Readers: Please chime in if you have advice to share about how you’ve dealt with your anger at a stepkid! Oh, and one more thing: DO NOT HANG OUT WITH ANYONE WHO SAYS THIS TO YOU, “How could you be mad at her? She’s just a kid.” Call up any stepmother you know or log on and chat with your stepmother friends. It takes one to know one.