Ep 16 – Your Stepchild’s Loyalty Conflict – Part 2: Behavior

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Hello Stepparents! Last week I talked about the background of why kids have an inherent loyalty conflict when it comes to you, the stepparent and their other biological parent. Find the show notes for that episode at synergisticstepparenting.com/15.

And if you haven’t yet listened to that episode, I highly recommend you do so. I shared what’s going on for your stepchild during and after divorce. These insights help you as the stepparent, by understanding how your stepchild feels.

I also reflected that when your stepchild is having big emotions towards you, it’s not personal. They are just trying to cope with what’s going on for them – which is A LOT!

This is not to convince you to condone disrespectful behavior. But often for stepparents understanding the root cause and knowing you’re not being targeted helps you maintain your cool and to move the dynamic in a productive direction.

I also shared actionable tips you can implement right now to get out of the crossfire. So be sure to check those out.

This week I want to continue this deep dive and move on to discussing the behavior.

First of all, I want to clarify that when I say behavior, there is no judgement attached to it. It is not good or bad. It just is. And what I mean by behavior is something a person does or says.

In this episode, we’re going to explore both the behavior of the child, but also the behavior of the parents, including you – the stepparent.

Several Stepparents Have Reached Out with Concerns About Their Stepchild’s Behavior

Case Study of a Stepmom to a 3-year-old Stepdaughter

I spoke with a stepmom about her 3-year-old who likes saying “no” and seems to enjoy being bad. The stepmom was worried about her young stepdaughter’s defiance and how much worse things will get if they don’t nip this in the bud.

I want to start by saying all behavior is communication. After speaking for a little bit more, it was clear that there was a growing power struggle at play between the parents and child.

There was a lot of attention given to judgement of actions as bad or good. Kids don’t know that something is bad or good until they are taught. What kids do is explore and test boundaries to understand their place and their relationship to others around them.

Children respond more to the intensity of a response. The more intense a response the more desired it becomes. Regardless of whether it’s a positive response or a negative response.

So regardless of whether you are jumping up and down shouting “yay, insert stepchild’s name here” or whether you are yelling at them or berating them. What they are responding to most is the attention that you’re giving them and the intensity of that attention.

So you don’t want to give too much attention when the child is being stubborn but instead think of what else you can do to engage them in having success with what you’re asking them to do.

For example, if you’re noticing that taking off their coat while you guys get your outer wear on is becoming a game, then wait to dress them until you or your partner is dressed and ready to take the child outside to engage them in a more productive game or activity like playing “I spy …” .

This redirects the child’s behavior which helps them have success and starts creating a pattern of a successful response. It creates a neuropathway for that desired behavior instead of reinforcing the default for the undesired behavior they’ve been engaging in.

Case Study of a Stepmom to a Tween Stepdaughter

I spoke with another stepmom who is concerned about her stepdaughter’s behavior at school. She is hitting peers, acting out, etc. The stepmom is worried that the issue is a lack of discipline and the child just needs to understand that this is not acceptable behavior.

If you don’t like a particular behavior, it’s best to limit attention given to the negative behavior. This seems counter intuitive, I know, but just like the universal law suggests, what we focus on grows.

So, if you focus a lot of energy and attention on what you don’t like, that will grow as well.

Instead, focus on any and all positive behavior and point it out letting your stepchild know how great they did with it or that they were a big help, etc.

For example, “Thanks so much for doing the dishes. When you pitch in around the house without my having to ask you or remind you, I see how responsible you are. And I’m grateful for your help and appreciate you for taking care of this family!”

All Behavior is Communication

Right now you might be tempted to yell “Maria, what are you talking about? I’m supposed to condone the lack of her taking responsibility for her actions? How is she going to grow up to be a respectful adult?”

Trust me, I hear you and I see you. And once upon a time, not so long ago, I was you!

It’s not about letting it go in the sense that you’re condoning the behavior. But the truth is the majority of children are not enjoying being bad or doing so to make your life miserable.

They are often trying to communicate that something is wrong, but they don’t have the insight to recognize it and are much less able to put words to what’s not working.

These actions are her feelings coming out sideways because they are too painful and most likely she doesn’t have the language to talk about what’s really going on for her or how she feels. It’s about getting to the root of the problem.

What she really wants to be is seen and heard and to get some reassurance that she’s loved. So here are 4 tips for how to do that …

1. Confirm That She’s a Good Kid

Start by letting her know that she’s a good kid and that you know these new things she’s been doing at school is not who she really is and that you understand she’s just hurting. And that you’re here for her when she’s ready to talk.

If you were to punish her, it would validate that she gets attention for doing negative things. This way you’re showing her you have her back.

2. Check In

Ask if she feels safe or if anyone is hurting her or if you can help her in any way.

That way, you’re validating the true part of who she is that you want to see more of and making it okay for her to come to you with her problems.

3. Orient Her to Her True Self and Towards Her Wisdom

You don’t want to have her be completely dependent on you to identify how she should be acting. Instead you want to help her build that barometer for herself and have it available to her wherever life takes her.

To learn how to do that, you have to make it okay to learn. Which means it’s gotta be okay to make mistakes without having her head bitten off. Just like for you and for me too, there is a lot of vulnerability involved in the process of learning.

You have to feel that it’s safe to make mistakes in order to be willing to make them, which is how kids learn. And let’s face it making mistakes isn’t fun so there’s already resistance to overcome. So let’s not make it any more difficult or unpleasant than it already is.

Keep validating that you trust her that she is a good person. So that she can see that in herself too.  That way you’re orienting her sense of self towards that positive core belief.

She will develop whatever skills she needs to live up to that. 

4. Don’t Forget the Self-Care

It’s important to remain calm no matter what she comes to you with. If you don’t know how to do it, don’t worry … I’ve got you!

In episode 7 I shared How to Stay Sane in Stepparenting. Find the show notes for that episode at synergisticstepparenting.com/7. And in episode 11 I shared the components of said Stepparenting Sanity Routine. Find the show notes for that episode at synergisticstepparenting.com/11.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this episode. So please drop me a line to share them with me!

Until next time, be well!

Related Episodes:

Your Stepchild’s Loyalty Conflict – Part 1: Background

3 Common Pitfalls Effecting Your Stepchild’s Behavior

How to Have Difficult Stepparenting Conversations

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