When I began to write this column, I didn’t expect it to be this long. I thought about splitting it into two parts but decided to leave it one L-O-N-G column. I hope it’s not too boring.
Before I plunge into this topic of parenting and step-parenting, I wanted to first give thanks to my best teachers – my patients. I’m glad I have my academic background and my post-graduate training was invaluable but really, I am most indebted to my patients who have trusted me with concerns that are deeply personal and important to them. It is humbling beyond words that my patients trust me enough to share their dilemmas – their failings – their frustrations. More than they know, I have walked in their moccasins.
Sometimes it may seem that my role is easy; to sit in the chair of wisdom/authority while they bare their insecurities – shame or confusion. I’ve been there myself. It is my patients who have really shown me what works and what doesn’t work. I am and always will be grateful to my patient-teachers.
Many have heard me say that I believe that probably the two most difficult and perilous journeys one ever takes is committing to a long term relationship and committing to parenting. I believe it would be easier to climb Mount Everest or to swim the English Channel. There are many reasons for the belief I’ve just stated; one reason is that a long committed relationship and parenting may last well more than 20 years. Another reason is that a relationship and parenting will find and expose aspects of your personality that you wish were not true, perhaps that you abhor.
Relationships and parenting are day after day, year after year events regardless if you’re sick or are in the mood. I believe these are the toughest tasks we will ever encounter. These are also endeavors that while more precious than gold are parts of our life that others frequently feel free to criticize. A relationship and parenting are not for the faint-hearted. An old saying tells us, “Life is hard; get a helmet.” If that is true, then one should get a helmet, shoulder pads, shin pads, body armor and eat your Wheaties if you plan on being in a relationship or parenting. Those who are emotionally anemic or aren’t ready for hard work, don’t yet have the resume needed. If you still believe there’s a “right way” to parent or that children should do what they’re told “just because you’re older”, you should postpone the challenge of parenting/step-parenting until you’ve got more understanding. (See the earlier posting “Are you ready to get pregnant and be a parent?”)
My initial comments on the subject apply both to parenting and step-parenting. Later, I’ll add further comments aimed at the delicate and tough task of step-parenting.
Power and Control (See the earlier post on power and control)
Many have heard me say that I believe that all of us from birth until death want to have more power and control in our environment. I believe this drive is entirely normal. This idea is perhaps most apparent in dealing with children. Childhood is a nearly endless period of learning about how to gain more power and control. Much, if not most of what a child does may be viewed as an experiment in gaining and shaping power and control. Some people make (in my opinion) a mistake in their thinking when they say a child is manipulative. All of us manipulate. I manipulated my time, money and effort to gain an education which I manipulated into a career which provides an income for me. When one prepares a meal, they manipulate ingredients to create the meal they want. Manipulating is normal and natural – the key is to learn what kinds of manipulation are appropriate. As parents (or step-parents), it is our responsibility to help children learn what is appropriate and what are inappropriate ways to manipulate. It is also our responsibility as parents to teach (mostly by example) how much power and control is reasonable. I often ask my patients, “How much control (in life) do you think you have – and is it realistic or appropriate." One of our most important tasks is to help our children come to terms with the fact that they have limited control.
When a child is an infant, they have almost no control. As the child matures, they learn to have control over some bodily functions, they learn that Life (initially embodied by their parents) has expectations of them and they are expected to learn to control whether their bedroom is messy or clean, they learn that they are expected to control whether or not their schoolwork is completed (a further manifestation of Life). In their later teens, they will learn to have control of a car. All of these tasks and their ability to control certain elements of their own life need to be synchronized with their developmental ability. Asking a child to do something that is beyond their ability will quickly become an exercise in frustration for the parent and if the demand for competence is beyond their ability, it will become a source of failure and low self esteem for the child. I hope none of us would expect a five year-old girl to begin her menstrual cycle – it would be developmentally preposterous. Neither should we expect children to succeed at tasks that are beyond their ability. Another saying tells us that one shouldn’t try to teach a pig to sing – because it will be frustrating for the farmer and annoying to the pig. Our control in this Life is tenuous, we need to learn the limits of our control and we must teach our children that their control in Life is limited and linked to their DEMONSTRATED exercise of responsibility.
Intentionally and unintentionally reinforcing behavior.
Continuing from the above idea that children are small learning organisms, we might ask, “How do they learn to manipulate or control their environment?” AN EXCELLENT QUESTION! Have you ever watched a small child play a video game? I have. They don’t read any instruction book and adults don’t explain the myriad shortcuts and tricks – but within a month or so, the child has amazingly learned the most arcane aspects of the game. If you ask them to explain the game they get into a detailed but hard to follow explanation. It’s like listening to a 4 year-old physicist – except they aren’t explaining physics. The important point is that they’ve learned and they’ve learned quickly. I defy most adults to play a video game against a six year-old and win, I’m not expert in education but here’s what I’ve observed. The child RANDOMLY pushes buttons on the controller and they pay attention to the reaction. Through almost-endless repetitions of this, the child learns. This same pattern is enacted again and again with a child and their parent. (Now the parent replaces the video game.) The child RANDOMLY pushes our buttons. Some of our buttons are connected to our unresolved emotional issues – when those buttons get pushed, we “light up” with an interesting response. Perhaps we blanch, perhaps we blush, perhaps we react verbally or perhaps we react with alarm. Allow me to illustrate this process: Let’s imagine a seven year-old Alison comes home from school where they’ve just had a day with Child Welfare Services learning about “good touch and bad touch”. Alison naively but proudly announces, “I know what a penis is!” Probably, if Alison’s mom experienced some kind of sexual abuse as a child, she’ll have a strong reaction to Alison’s announcement. Perhaps she’ll blanch, her pupils might dilate and she’ll ask with a tone of alarm, “What did you say?” (She lights up.) With all of these interesting reactions, Alison has inadvertently been strongly reinforced. She has learned that when she says, “penis”, she will get an interesting, strong emotional reaction from mom. Perhaps, if mom has strong unresolved issues about her own past abuse, she might even take Alison to a therapist to make sure nothing bad has happened. Being taken out of school and being asked about where she heard about a penis will further reinforce that talking about a penis will reliably elicit a strong reaction. Children are incredible learning machines – they notice the reactions that follow their actions; an effective parent will know this. An effective parent tries to control their reactions because they know how influential their reactions are in shaping their child’s behavior. (Remember: as a parent, you can’t get an “A”, the best you can achieve is a “B+”. At times we’ll “blow it” but we need to always try to be in control of our reactions.)
A child’s behavior can be reinforced inadvertently but their behavior can also be reinforced intentionally as well. Remember, children are strongly reinforced by the quality of our reactions. If a child does something we want to encourage, we should react in a manner that reinforces the behavior. Most of us know that we should praise desirable behavior, but praising can have a paradoxical effect. I remember when my son, then eight years old drew a stunningly good copy of a famous piece of art. I generously praised him for his efforts but that gave him information about how he could have power by refusing to produce more art; power is also obtained by defying the desire of parents. Remember our rule of thumb: DO WHAT WORKS. We can react in a manner that suggests we are amazed and puzzled by the child’s behavior. “I don’t understand… how did you learn to take out the trash? Usually kids can’t take out the trash until they’re seven or eight!” Another way to intentionally reinforce behavior is to wait until the child is within earshot and then make a phone-call to someone and tell them how surprised you are with your child’s behavior. The only consistent guideline we can use is DO WHAT WORKS. Different kids will respond to different parental reactions. To be an effective parent we must be keen observers of what works and what doesn’t work.
Probably, therapists are to blame for the fact that parents (particularly mothers and step-mothers, as a generalization, because women are more verbal than men) try to utilize verbal communication as a way of providing positive and negative consequences for children. Again, think about what is developmentally appropriate. A, three - five year-old child roughly has the intellectual abilities of a smart dog. If a dog kept their sleeping area messy how long would you talk to the dog about it? Hopefully, not too long. Hopefully, most of your praise and corrections of a dog are primarily behavioral and hopefully they are relatively brief (1-2 minutes) and hopefully your response to a dog’s behavior is “closely paired” time-wise. If your reaction to a dog’s behavior occurs four to five hours after the event, it is wasted because the dog doesn’t have the capacity to link what they did to your reaction. The same is true of children. Generally, we expects far too much of children when we talk to them. Children have little capacity to comprehend and utilize a conversation lasting more than four – five minutes. Our rewards and punishments should be closely paired time-wise with the child’s behavior and we should try to make the reward or punishment non-verbal (i.e., standing in the corner, taking away a favored toy, going to bed early). With adolescents, we should also limit our talking. At all costs, avoid protracted arguments with kids. If kids can engage you in an argument wherein you’re intent on “winning” – they’ve already won major power points. If you’ve ever had a debate with an adolescent, you know that a ten year-old’s mind-numbing arguments can quickly take an adult from bemusement to sputtering frustration in a matter of five minutes. I advise parents to avoid longish debates with their adolescents. If an adolescent can bring you to the point of frustration – they have won that power-game round. Any conversation with kids should be kept short (five – six minutes) if the issue will necessitate more time, break-up the talk into segments. When I see children in therapy, I don’t expect them to sit and discuss an issue with me for 45 – 50 minutes as I would with an adult. With a child, I will often have a parent come in and I direct much of my comments to the adult; the child is allowed to draw or play with toys and they interject what they are thinking as they have the inclination and then when their attention span is exhausted they go back to their play activity. If I’m alone with the child, typically, well discuss the issue for a while, detour to an entirely unrelated topic, and then come back to the problem in ten minutes. It’s important to keep it brief.
Time is of the essence.
As I mentioned earlier, time is crucial. In order for a reward or punishment to be effective it must be tightly paired time-wise to the child’s behavior. Suggesting that a child will be rewarded with a day at Disneyland if they bring up their grades during the next report period will not be an effective incentive because the trip to Disneyland is temporally too distant from the desired behavior. It would be more effective to offer a reward if they show you their homework each day. (This goal is more incremental and the reward/punishment e.g., staying up an extra 90 minutes vs. going to bed 90 minutes earlier is more tightly paired.) The more time that intercedes between the child’s behavior and the consequence, the more the effectiveness of the consequence will be diminished.
Learn to pick your battles.
This axiom is important in Life, but very important in parenting. An error some parents (and step-parents) make is that they try to correct everything they see a child doing that the parent deems to be “wrong”. “Sit up straight. Don’t chew with your mouth open. Say hello. Say excuse me. Don’t fidget. Don’t interrupt. Clean your room. Eat your dinner. Wash your hands. Don’t pick your nose. Stop making that noise. Wake up. Go to sleep. Do your homework. Ad infinitum. When will it ever end? This is a mistake for a few reasons; first, if we jump on everything a child does that we view as “wrong”; it will dissipate our own energies. Beyond that it communicates to the child, “Everything you do is wrong”. Remember the first point about control – one way a child gains control is if they do some behavior which will trigger a reaction from a parent. I can’t tell you how many times a parent has been in my office with a child. The child is slouched in the chair (what could be more normal?). The parent snaps, “Sit up straight!” – and the child sits up A LITTLE. Again the parent demands, “Sit up!” – the child pretends not to hear. The child is winning “control points” by defying the parent.
Usually, I suggest that parents write out a prioritized list of ten concrete/behavioral target behaviors they want the child to change. Then, we will initially only focus on the top three items of the list. We intentionally turn a blind-eye to the others. Once we have controlled the three behaviors, we move on to the others – three at a time. If we react to everything a child does it implies that everything they do is wrong and we’ll find ourselves becoming more and more frustrated. We need to learn to pick our battles.
If you want respect – demonstrate respect.
Really, need I say more about this? Children are not slaves to be ordered around. It’s true that you are the parent but a child’s personhood should always be respected. Of course your decisions will usually prevail but their positions should be heard and valued even if you ultimately disagree.
Positive and negative consequences.
I often relate to parents that some time ago I saw a television program wherein a man had trained house-cats to do circus tricks. After the performance the man was asked how he’d trained the cats since it was thought it was at best difficult to train cats. The man explained that these were ordinary cats he’d obtained from the Humane Society. He went on to explain that when he first brings the cats home (this usually makes people wince), he doesn’t feed them for four days! He explained, “After four days of not eating the cats are extremely smart (I.e., motivated). The man then places a morsel of food on the other side of a hoop. “The cats go right through the hoop without reading instructions or explanations from him. The keys are that the cats must be motivated and when rewarded, the cats should not be completely satisfied; they should remain somewhat hungry. The same principle holds for dealing with children. If we’ve given the child everything they want and more – they will lack motivation. If our children do the behavior we desire we should only reward them a bit so as to not rob them of their motivation
Being a good parent includes the effective and judicious use of consequences, both positive and negative. In order for consequences to be effective there are some basic guidelines a parent should keep in mind. Parents (and step-parents) often make the mistake of believing explanations should lead to changed behavior. I encourage parents (and step-parents) to create a prioritized list of five positive consequences (rewards) and five negative consequences (punishments). As stated above, these consequences should ideally be available for utilization immediately after a child’s behavior. The consequences should primarily be non-verbal whenever possible. The consequences should be tightly-paired, the more tight the pairing the more effective the consequence, whether positive or negative. Remember my earlier comment that children are naturally driven by a desire to have more power and control in their life. Invest some of your time figuring out what your child values most; this will provide important information in deciding on rewards. Your child may like video games, skateboard riding and watching TV. Your child may find deprivation of the foregoing most annoying. I encourage parents to create prioritized lists of rewards and punishments. Explain these to your child before implementation is needed. Once equipped with the positive and negative consequences, I advise that parents rehearse the punishments and rewards. (Remember that emergency first responders rehearse or drill for events.) As an example, after explaining what the consequences will be for good and bad behavior at a super market, plan for a drill journey to the market. Plan the drill for a day and time when you don’t need to do anything else. (Attempting initial trials when you have a pressing appointment will likely result in a failure. The drill should be planned so that if a negative consequence is called for, you won’t be inconvenienced.) It might resemble this: Explain that you’re going to the store – remind them what the positive and negative consequences will be for good or bad behavior. Go to the store fully prepared to walk out the instant bad behavior occurs and once home, commence a time-out in the corner for 20 minutes. If there’s been good behavior, administer a significant though not overwhelming positive consequence. This type of rehearsal should be done several times so that your child fully knows what to expect.
Teach by modeling.
Whenever there is a moment to use yourself as an example – seize it! If you get irate with other drivers when your child is in the car with you – use that moment (assuming you can catch yourself in the act) to say something like, “There I go… I need to learn to react more appropriately because I can’t control other’s driving behavior.” Modeling like this is powerful. We all know the saying, “Do what I say – not what I do.” And we all know that our kids pay far more attention to what we do. YOUR KIDS WILL LEARN PRIMARILY FROM THE BEHAVIOR YOU DEMONSTRATE.
In personal relationships, criticism RARELY is effective in accomplishing the goal. I often explain to patients that I have a boss that is the medical director of the Clinic where I work. He often makes decisions that I think are unwise; despite this, I have never told him he’s wrong or that he hasn’t thought through a decision. Why – because I value my job. I’m CAREFUL in the manner I speak to him (i.e., full of care). Let me confess that I have failed to follow this advice and the result is the same you’ll experience. It doesn’t help; actually it makes things worse.
At the beginning of this column, I said parenting is extraordinarily difficult. If you’re a step-parent, you also need to be a consummate diplomat.
In a remarried family with kids, there are subtle and not-so-subtle politics involved. Often the biological parent will feel trapped in their loyalty to their kids and their loyalty to their new mate. How can the biological parent choose one without alienating the other? Often, step-parents will be ambivalent about “forcing” their agenda, the kids are confused and quite naturally (i.e., instinctively – not consciously) will exploit any difference of opinion between adults.
Start Small and go slow.
Repeat this to yourself 500 times per day. When a step-parent enters a family, it’s important to remember that you’re the newcomer. Politically, you carry little if any authority or leverage. Your status will grow over time if the child learns that your behavior is reasonable, fair and trustworthy. I always suggest that for the first SEVERAL YEARS, just hang around and observe the child and their interaction with their biological parent. Avoid making judgmental comments about the child’s or parent’s behavior. Your first goal is to gain the child’s trust.
DO NOT USURP THE OTHER PARENT’S POSITION.
This can’t be stated strongly enough. Any perception that you are competing with the other same gender parent will become a likely opportunity for a power struggle. You’ll have enough power struggles without inviting another – and this is one you can’t win. Find a way to complement the other same gender parent. Nearly always, criticizing the other parents will be viewed as you not respecting them (most often, your mate). You should expect significant differences in your views – this nearly axiomatic. Avoid right/wrong and good/bad characterizations, instead talk about “differences in perspective.
Support the role of the biological parent.
Be a neutral sounding board for the child and be supportive of your partner’s role as parent. DO NOT offer advice UNLESS it is asked for and then offer it in a very tentative way. Avoid “You should…” comments, instead you might say if asked (or you can ask if your opinion is welcome) that, “Here’s another way…” Don’t insist that your way is right and their way is wrong. As I said earlier, labeling parenting styles as right or wrong leads to problems. Think in terms of what is effective – what works. If you must be in a position of authority it is better if you obtain the biological parent’s approval in the child’s presence. (e.g., “Since I can’t go to the zoo today, Jean will be in charge.”)
Be careful of the pitfall of interjecting prematurely. Interjecting in the middle of the biological parent’s interaction with the child is nearly guaranteed to become an emotional hand-grenade.
Develop your mate’s confidence.
One of the most important family-tasks is to gain the trust of the biological parents. This is a slow process – it may take years. With the child, the age of the child plays an important role. The younger the child the more quickly trust is developed.
Allow your role to show your strengths.
As a stepparent, you will have opportunities to bring your talents and strengths to the life of the family and to the child, BUT DON’T RUSH IT. Find your sweet-spot. Maybe your role will be as someone who helps the child to read or brings a sense of art to the child’s life. There will be a role for you but you’ll have to wait for it to become clear to you. (Remember - it's about TIMING – start small.)
This may be one of the most touchy topics in step parenting. For the first several years, the biological parents should be the sole administrator of discipline. Avoid being an obvious tattle-tale. Your primary allegiance is with your mate and some of the child’s behavior should be reported but it is the biological parent’s decision regarding how infractions are handled. There are few “black & white” issues in this Life so avoid too many rigid black & white rules in the home; too many rigid rules often leads to the development of a “false-self”.
The intimate outsider
Your role is unique and extremely valuable to the child. Any child would benefit from having a relationship with an adult who is trusted but is not a parent. Protect your role from being contaminated with resentment because you were viewed as competing with a biological parent. You are there to help in character building – not judging or disciplining.
What is developmentally appropriate?
Particularly if you haven’t had children of your own (and even if you have) do some reading to find out what is developmentally appropriate and realistic for your stepchild. Just as we would not (I hope) expect a seven year old girl to have a menstrual cycle (in case some don’t know – it’s not developmentally appropriate) – we shouldn’t expect children to exhibit behavior that is beyond their developmental ability. Expect kids to test, retest and retest family rules. Testing and retesting is their job. Kids are neurologically hard-wired to push the envelope. The parent’s (and step-parent’s) job is to maintain clear boundaries. If you maintain CLEAR BOUNDARIES THAT ARE REASONABLE (not excessive and not too rigid), the child will develop a sense of security and safety. If you don’t have children of your own take classes that are offered in most schools. (P.E.T. and S.T.E.P. are excellent.)
Above all - GOOD LUCK! It's a difficult task which at times may seem impossible. Give yourself breaks. Training for a triathalon, being a motorcycle stuntman or special-ops commando would be easier than being a pretty-good parent. There should be a National holiday week for parents and step-parents. If you're getting a C+ or B- you deserve a medal!