Dear Dr. Diana,
I am a stepmother of two children (one boy, age 11, and one girl, age 8), and have my own child with my husband — she just turned 2 years old. My husband works full time and we have the children 50 percent of the time. I love my stepkids and don’t mind taking care of them.
But sometimes, I get really tweaked by how their mom and dad (my husband) handle things with the kids. They don’t take my feelings into consideration and then we get into fights and it’s just terrible. I need to figure out how to keep these things from getting so out of control. If I just shut up and don’t say anything, then I build up resentments and I eventually explode or start snapping at my husband and the kids over small little things. Do you have any suggestions for me?
— Emotional EmmaDear E.E.
The most stressful situation is when you have responsibility with very little control. Do you have input with your husband when things are calm? Ideally, in blended families, the parent and stepparent discuss rules etc. in private and show a unified front to the kids. It works best usually when the biological parent lays down the law or tells the kids what to do with the stepparent backing him or her up. It’s not unusual for a stepparent to disagree with how their partner and ex-spouse handle the kids; but if you are a primary caregiver, it especially makes sense for your feelings and thoughts to be taken into consideration.
When it comes to managing your self, the first step is self-awareness — being able to observe yourself and notice what exactly tweaks you? What feelings and thoughts come up when a particular thing happens? How much does it have to do with that incident or is it that you feel you aren’t being taken seriously or that you don’t really matter. Try to talk with your husband about your feelings and concerns before you get mad. He’ll be more likely to be receptive when the winds are calm.
When you feel yourself getting upset, try to pause and reflect on what buttons are being pushed. Developing the ability to observe your reactions so that you are not fully submerged in your emotion can help you to gain some perspective on what the best way to handle things is. When you feel yourself getting upset, try taking some slow deep breaths…and think of the emotion as a wave and ride it out with your breath. You can also try breathing in to the count of four and breathing out to the count of eight.
Before you approach your husband about these issues try to see it from his perspective. Often divorced dads feel guilty and super concerned for the kids to the point of being a little lax on the discipline. It would also be natural and even healthy for the family to some degree for him to try to keep the peace with his ex-wife (if there is some). For the children’s sake, less conflict between their parents will help them with the adjustment to life post-divorce. If you take your husband’s feelings into consideration before addressing your concerns with him, it will soften your approach. And he will most likely be able to hear your needs and concerns more easily.
As a full-time caregiver to your children, it’s important that you take some special time for yourself on a regular basis. Taking time to exercise and spend time with friends can be good for blowing off steam and reducing stress. Just make sure that you chose friends who don’t expound on your difficulties and that offer constructive, equanimous feedback. Stepfamilies can be complicated with all the conflicting needs, feelings, and pre-existing loyalties. It’s important to take a broad lens view when looking at the whole picture.
Diana Weiss-Wisdom, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Rancho Santa Fe. Specializing in marriage counseling, stepfamilies, and personality testing, she does private counseling as well as marriage enrichment retreats. (858) 259-0146 www.cottageclinic.net
Jessica Buss, Ph.D. is a licensed psychological assistant working under the supervision of Dr. Weiss-Wisdom She works with adolescents, couples, and does biofeedback for stress reduction, anxiety, and emotional regulation. She has a sliding scale. Their next Hold Me Tight Marriage Workshop will be Feb. 1-3, 2013 and April 26-28, 2013 at the Cottage Clinic in Rancho Santa Fe, 92067.