Step Family Dynamics

Have you found yourself in the role of stepfather, tangling with an adolescent stepdaughter or son?  Here’s some friendly advice: be careful. It’s not your role to parent your stepchildren and, unless you iron out some ground rules right from the start, is likely to upset your new bride more than you imagine.

Blended families can be more difficult than what you may have experienced in your first go round, even if your relationship with your new spouse is a hundred times better. There is some fabulous research on step families, and I’d recommend two books in particular, The Smart Stepdad by Ron Deal and Step Families by Dr. James H Bray and John Kelly.

family-counselingToday’s blog post is about parent focus and the comfort of each parent in the step-family. I hope you find it interesting and useful. Moreover, raising your awareness around this topic could save your second marriage.

Let’s take a scenario where Mom has several of her own kids from her first marriage. Let’s further imagine that they’re teens by now; going through their own identity issues and further doing their normal share of rebelling. Step-dad moves in, perhaps as just a partner, or even as a spouse. Research tells us that parent focus is not symmetrical; and Step-dad’s temptation to parent is in fact a trap.

In this scenario, Mom knows her kids. She has parented them from the beginning, and is confident in her understanding of how to work with them. If, on the other hand, even she is becoming unsure of herself in this new realm of adolescence, she knows she still cares about her relationship with them and has tried to coax them. In contrast, she may be unsure of the relationship with her new partner or spouse. This relationship is something new to her, and research suggests she will typically be less sure of this new relationship, particularly as the new relationship impacts her children.

In dramatic contrast, Step-dad is confident about his relationship with his new wife. Let’s assume that he’s had a bad experience before. This experience is new and the relationship more compatible, but there are these kids that sort of came with the deal. Sure he likes them—maybe even loves them in his fashion—but they don’t behave, or give him respect like his own do.  They demand attention from Mom and soon the little things turn into big things.

This sets up one of the big issues that we can have in a second marriage. She’s kid-focused and confident of her relationship with them, while simultaneously unsure of her new spouse. He’s sure of the new spouse, and confused by the kids. His classic mistake is to act like a parent; particularly when it comes to disciplining without going through mom. That sets up a cycle where:

Step-dad punishes a Step-child who rebels and the Birth mom shields child, seeing her child hurting the Birth mom is further confused by new relationship with Step-dad, as she knows how to interact with her children—not like this—and feels more distance in the new partner relationship.

Things can go south pretty quickly when they’re this way. It’s worth remembering as a stepdad to:

  1. Establish your role. For the first two years, being in a blended family for the stepdad is more like being an uncle than a dad. Talk about it. It’s new—all the research says it’s difficult. Ask questions, engaging your partner and your step-children.
  2. Use House Rules as a way to influence order and discipline. “You are in this house and we have all agreed that we don’t roast marshmallows in the middle of the living room floor; indeed, you are aware of this house rule. Let’s work together on cleaning this fire thing up, so your mom doesn’t have to get involved in the mess.”
  3. Stay calm. See if you can explain what you want. Make an effort to convey how it seems to make sense to you. Reflect on the feedback you get. Listen. Does the child seem to have been heard? Have you asked if they have been heard?
  4. Be patient. They have their own father, they will be concerned about loyalty to him, as well as who you are and your loyalty to them.
  5. Spend time with your Step-kids. As you do try and praise at least 20 times for each correction. You will win their affection with positive reinforcement. (Though surely at times it will not feel natural, make the effort.)
  6. Don’t criticize their father in when communicating with the kids. If he becomes an issue, try and bring him up in private with your spouse.
  7. Respect your step-children’s space and privacy.
  8. Most importantly, engage with your step-children in the way that their mother requests. Communicate issues over parenting with mom first, as a couple and in private. There will be times when mom may not want to be the disciplinarian, and there will be times when she does. Work on how to make that work, without negatively impacting your relationships with her or her kids.
  9. A big part of modeling appropriate communication is to be very careful of how you communicate with your spouse in front of her children. You are modeling how partners communicate effectively against a background of what may be a history of failed communication.

Step-parenting can be rewarding. I’ve gained a son in my own process, but I’ve learned to respect how my three sons are all different. What motivates them, what concerns them and, indeed, how they have dealt with their respective mothers are all different. I’ve learned the most from them by listening to them, although it didn’t come naturally—I’ve personally held my tongue enough to give it finger marks!

If you have questions or comments please reach out. I am always reachable through

The Impact of Gaming on Your Child

Is your child running around forgetful, with limited attention span, or are they focused and calm?  It might be time to ask about what role their gaming is playing in their reality?

I am increasingly running into boys who have been “diagnosed” with ADD or ADHD. As part of the intake process I always ask about their activities. Too often I’m told that the young man or adolescent doesn’t really have any outdoors activities, and he spends his time playing video games( gaming)—sometimes more than 40 hours a week. I think that for many of these little guys, it is too often a real addiction. It is perhaps, short term, a convenience for parents, but ultimately devastating for the adolescent.  I might also add that, for parents, this convenience ultimately becomes quite inconvenient, as the young person “spins out” and has trouble launching into a world that requires long term focus and commitment, as well as resilience.

The Impact of Gaming on Your Child Robin Johnson West Hartford CTSo what’s happening here?  First, the business of video gaming has progressed, and the realism is acute enough that the action has become a remarkable experience. Yep—it works as a business. Video gaming world-wide is a $100 billion dollar-a-year business. I would argue, however, that the attraction works too well, given the ultimate impact on young people. This intense game involvement leads to antisocial behavior and, all too often, a form of an actual addiction.

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.

Be skeptical about what you read:

The lobbying power of the industry, and the misinformation it puts out, are actually pretty wild. Here are some examples of this misinformation, and please ask yourself if it makes and sense to you. This was published by the Interactive Software Rating Board (ISRB)—an industry mouthpiece.

ISRB suggest:

  • the average gamer only plays 8 hours a week
  • 83% of parents limit game use
  • 40% of gamers are female
  • only 25% of gamers are under 18

If you believe those numbers, you haven’t around a 14-year-old boy recently. There are not enough limits on game use and among my clients who play, the average use per week would have to be closer to 40-50 hours. Think about that: a full time job. Girls are not playing games, just walk into a game store if you are uncertain. The younger gamer market is critical to the business, and it is underestimated in their stats for what I believe is good reason.

The alleged information on gaming found on the web is extraordinarily misleading, and, again, I’d encourage you to think about whether any of this makes sense):

  • a researcher at University of Illinois suggests that heavy users of video games are more fit than non-users
  • The Chicago Tribune suggests video games improve moral sensitivity and physical fitness, as well as improved cognitive skills

The real health world suggests otherwise:

Countering this are more credible health sources:

  • “The American Psychological Society task force on violent media concludes: ‘The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in pro-social behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.”
  • Health Central suggests that games cause muscle pain, seizures, obesity, aggressive behavior, poor grades, sleep deprivation, and attention problems.
  • An older National Institute of Mental Health study suggested:
    • Children may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others.
    • Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
    • Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

What to do, if you are a parent

  1. Some folks confiscate smart phones and video games after 8, and always make them inaccessible if homework is not done.
  2. I simply did not introduce games in the home. There are no Wii players, X-Boxes or PlayStations, and computer time is limited to a machine where the administrative password is locked, allowing only certain programs and disallowing downloads.
  3. Have dinner together; set a time, talk about the day and check in about relationships.
  4. If a child is visiting another home, ask if there are limits on game use. Explain that you are strictly limiting the use of games in your home and would appreciate consideration.
  5. Much of what is required involves clear limits around what is acceptable and what is not. Make these agreements ahead of time. Be a parent, and set limits. Giving in undermines authority and actually conveys that all limits are potentially negotiable.

So if kids through gaming are suffering from attention deficit… what can we do to increase attention?

It stands to reason that some kind of attention training would be in order, and the good news is this kind of intervention has been around for a long time.

Thich Nhat Hanh is a well-known Buddhist teacher who advocates focus through mindfulness and meditation. He is among my favorites for explaining the benefits of being present and giving your full attention to your experience. He suggests, “Our true home is not in the past. Our true home is not in the future. Our true home is in the here and the now. Life is available only in the here and the now, and it is our true home. The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together. ”

The Mayo Clinic suggests that meditation can help:

  • Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
  • Building skills to manage your stress
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Focusing on the present
  • Reducing negative emotions

The National Institute of Mental Health suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, positively impact anxiety and depression, insomnia and the incidence, duration and severity of acute respiratory illnesses, like influenza. Please see”Meditation: In Depth for more information.

Will meditation be a good substitute for games at home? Probably not initially, but, as a parent, you can encourage slowing down and taking stock of the “now”.

Any time you see…

  • underperformance in school or sports
  • lack of reasonable listening skills
  • trouble sleeping
  • trouble starting or finishing a task
  • angry outbursts
  • prioritization and time management issues with school work or weekend time
  • impulsivity

Think about activities and interactions that slow it all down. Develop observation skills, go for a walk with your child, talk as a family—particularly at regular meal times—and encouraging hanging out with friends away from a computer terminal.

If you don’t like the behavior you see in your child—and the behavior includes any of these seven symptoms—consider a change.  Learning to focus might be a great start.