By Julie A. Ross, M.A. and Judy Corcoran

Being a step parent is a difficult and many times unrewarding job. Think of all the fairy tales where the step-parent gets a bad rap and you have a not too unrealistic picture of society's view of step parents. Yet the bad press that step parents get is, in the majority of cases, totally unjustified.

Step parents can be a loving, supportive, understanding presence which can enrich a child's life immeasurably. If you delve beneath the surface of those fairy tales, you can see the difficulties which step parents do face. The doting biological parent ignores the misbehavior of the children, creating more work for the step parent, who feels left out, resentful and angry at the "raw deal" she or he was dealt. After all, the step parent fell in love with another adult, not the step children, yet they always seem to be around, interfering with the marriage. Likewise, the biological parent isn't always approachable about the subject!

In cases where the parent has joint custody with a jerk, the issues are further complicated for the step parent. Not only does he or she have to deal with the children, he or she has to deal with the ex (in absentia) as well. While the ex may not be physically present, the ex who is a jerk makes their presence known, as he or she lives on (psychologically) in the daily life of the parent. A step parent is then not only dealing with the reality of someone else's children, but also with their spouse's frustration, anger, helplessness and complains about the ex. Many times it feels as if the ex is actually living with the new couple. In addition, the mistakes that ex has made with the children also takes its toll, because the children very often act out, misbehave and have a lack of consideration for the rules in the step parent's home.

Consider the following: "My husband's son, James, who is 7, came to visit us. We have two children of our own, 5 and 3 years old. Well, the first few days were okay, until we got together with a group of friends who have children. My husband was at work and I had all three kids. James picked up a stick in the park and was swinging it around. I asked him to please stop, because I was afraid he might hurt someone, and he said, Good! I'll hit 'em all. My mom hits me, why can't I hit them? Well, I was shocked. My husband and I don't believe in hitting our children. So later, I asked James to tell me what he meant, and he shrugged and said, My mom has to hit me 'cause I'm a bad boy. I said, James, it must hurt your feelings when that happens. "

"Well, it was like I'd opened a Pandora's Box. He began to sob and all this stuff came pouring out. He said, I'm bad. Mommy hits me when I'm bad, but there's no one there to protect me. You're not supposed to hit people, but Mommy hits me when I'm bad. I have to go, and he started to walk away from me. I said, James, let's talk about it, and he said, No, I can't be around people when I'm upset. My Mommy doesn't let me be around people because when I'm upset because I'm a bad boy. "

" I have to tell you I didn't know what to do with all this stuff this poor kid was suffering with. I tried my best to just be sympathetic but it was difficult to get through. The rest of the day was awful. James had a lot of anger and it just came pouring out. By the end of the day, my kids were a wreck and so was I. And truthfully,I began to lose some of my sympathy when it started affecting my kids. I mean, who was this woman who had so much power over all our lives? "

This kind of scenario is not unusual. Very often, the step parent is placed in a position of being a confidant to the child, and, as in the story above, the awkward position of protecting her own children from the step child. What the step mother did next, however, shows insight and skill in handling the situation with her husband.

" When my husband got home, I decided to let him have some 'down time' instead of coming right at him with my concerns. I'm so glad I did! Between the time he got home and the time the kids went to bed, he had already experienced some of what I had during the day. All three kids were clingy and needy, verbally as well as physically picking on each other. "

" It was so unusual for our kids to be that way that my husband asked me what was going on. I suggested that we wait until the kids were in bed to talk, and he agreed. When we sat down later, I told him that it looked like he was concerned (instead of focusing on myself) and he brought up the children's behavior. Rather than get defensive about our kids being included with his(since I saw James as the perpetrator), I simply relayed what James had told me earlier about being hit. "

" Well, my husband was equally shocked--and furious at his ex as well! It provided a really good entry to a discussion that may not have been possible if I had exploded about the tough day I'd had. It was worth keeping my feelings to myself for just a little while, because my husband was much more open to hearing them after I told him about James in a sympathetic way. "

When your spouse's children are with you, schedule routine talks with your spouse. And let him or her air their feelings first. Whenever possible, try to be empathetic about your step child's behavior, recognizing that often the behavior is a result of the ex.

" I have to say, our discussion went on for a long time, and I tried hard to see my husband's point of view, because he did feel defensive at times during our conversation. I tried to focus on his feelings, and truthfully, he was equally concerned about the impact that James was having on our kids. I told him what I wanted too, that his ex needed to be approached about her parenting because it was so obviously affecting James (I tried to keep our kids out of it, even though it was hard.) I could see that my husband was feeling a little overwhelmed, so I gave him a concrete suggestion about how to approach her. "

When possible, avoid simply airing your feelings without having a plan of action to suggest. In all likelihood, your spouse is also feeling overwhelmed and needs specific suggestions as to what to do.

" We ended up brainstorming about what to do for a long time, and at one point called our step family counselor for a little support. But it was my husband that actually came up with the final solution. He decided that the toll James' visits were taking on us as a family was too great when he couldn't be there full time. And he only has a certain amount of vacation days. So he decided that unless his ex got help with her parenting so that James' anger wasn't so devastating, we'd limit the times James was with us to time when he could take off work. Basically, because they live in another state, that'll mean going there once a year for a week of our vacation time. But he gave her an 'I' message about it, and now I guess we'll wait and see. If she gets help, maybe we can see James more often. "

While this was a difficult choice to make, and not all couples will be comfortable enacting this consequence, it does show the teamwork that the step mother fostered to reach a solution. It can be very rewarding to act as a team. Don't make it "our kids" vs. "your kids", or your spouse will become protective and close off communication. Call a professional for help if you get stuck. The primary role of a step parent is to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.

Read the chapter on "When Your Child Owns the Problem" for supportive techniques which won't put your spouse on the defensive. These techniques are also appropriate to use with your step children (and your biological children as well.) Remember that you can take your feelings to a friend or counselor, but the most effective way to get through to your spouse is through teamwork, not a "me versus you" mentality.

Divorce-Online wishes to thank once again, Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran, for contributing their wisdom to our readers. A superb reference for general custody issues! Joint Custody With a Jerk: Raising a Child With an Uncooperative Ex is available through St. Marten's Press, New York.

Posted on Saturday, February 24, 2007 at 02:20PM by Registered CommenterSite Administrator in | Comments Off

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