Help! I Hate My Step-Kids!
Remember your parents admonishing you to refrain from using strong words like hate and stupid? Such negatively charged words are grating to the hearer and poisonous to the soul. By nature, humans are passionate, and sometimes, this passion hurtles us to extreme emotional expression. Psychologists caution to resist adding always and never to our sentences for the same reason.
As a step-parent, have you found yourself using taboo statements like, I hate my step-kids, I will never be rid of their crazy mother, and my steps are always causing stress in our family? If you are guilty of such locutions, you are among the majority of step-parents who share similar experiences. Being a step-parent can seem like drowning in a sea of perpetual emotional distress and turmoil with no hope for rescue. When you first married a divorcee, the love you shared filled your gas tank with so much fuel, you were confident you could happily putter down the freeway of love forever. The occasional bumps along the way were barely noticed, but as they increased in frequency, you experienced mild annoyance. Then came the detours, the massive pot holes, the gravel roads, and then finally the bridge that was out—a dead end. Where do you go from here? First, you must back track to find where the road started to crumble.
Do you really hate your step kids? You might be nodding your head and vehemently shouting, “Yes!” but take another honest look. Is it really the person you feel animosity towards, or are other factors forming the crux of the problem? Unless you are a sociopath, you are person with a heart who likes to look for the best in others. You prefer peace over conflict, you work to maintain positive relationships with others, and you’d rather pour love into your family rather than hostility. But WHY can’t you seem to get past these bitter emotions you feel towards your spouse’s children? Since you have gotten married, you have transformed into a different person—one you barely even know anymore. Every thought you think, every conversation in which you engage, every irritation you suffer stems back to the same source—the step-kids. Your once upbeat nature has become overshadowed by the dark cloud of bitterness, and there seems to be no cure for this degenerative frame of mind and heart.
While step-parenting dynamics vary from family to family, there are some generalizations that can be drawn from a cross-section of step families. These generalizations represent the most frequent causes of enmity.
Lazy parenting is probably the number one cause of step family conflict. The newly remarried bio-parent, be it mother of father, doesn’t take a strong enough hand with their children, causing undue stress to the step-parent. Since bio moms typically have full-custody of the children, dads are especially guilty of this passive approach to parenting. Dads who don’t see their children on a daily basis want to ensure their infrequent interaction is happy, causing them to overlook serious behavioral issues that must be addressed before they grow into weeds and thorns that choke out the healthy family garden.
Common snags bio dads overlook include the following:
Allowing kids to display disrespectful behavior towards step-mom
Not enforcing the same house rules and consequences for all his children
Succumbing and catering to his children’s every demand—letting them be in control
Spending exorbitant money on his children in addition to the steep child support obligation
The truth is, kids will be kids. When they observe bio dad (or bio mom) being passive, they are like sharks in the water who smell a drop of blood. They are going to exploit weakness for their own gain. In the end, the parent who tries to play Santa Claus will be the parent who is not respected. You can’t buy love, respect, loyalty, or trust. Kids need discipline. They need boundaries. Giving kids perimeters shows them you love them enough to do what is best for them. When you cave to their whims, you are setting a poor example, and the only thing you will earn is their contempt and impertinence. In addition, you are planting their feet on the path to narcissism, which will not prepare them to be productive adults in the real world. “Parenting” your children in the true sense of the word will also gain the respect and support of your current spouse and will encourage him or her to stand with you instead of against you.
Step-dads lament the lack of attention they receive from their new brides. If step-parenthood is his first introduction to raising children, he is dismayed to learn how much time a mom invests in parenting her kids. Since unwed couples tend to find more pockets of alone time, it might be shocking to learn how much time kids consume when they live with you full-time. It’s entirely normal and indicative of good parenting, but husbands who were hoping to be their wives’ focus might feel like they are only receiving scraps of attention. Step-dads hope bio dads will play an interactive role with the children to free up their wives’ time, but this doesn’t happen when a deadbeat dad is involved. Some dads shrug off children like an old pair of work clothes. They dart from job to job to escape child support obligations, causing the step-dad to invest more money than he had anticipated. Deadbeat dads who make little or no effort to adhere to the visitation schedule leave their children weekend after endless weekend with the mothers, making step-dads feel left out in the emotional cold. Deadbeat dads with significant others become consumed with their new women, running after them like dogs in heat, while their children are the furthest things from their minds. Deadbeat dads have trouble holding down jobs, offering emotional and financial stability, and may even suffer from various addictions. When dealing with this type of ex-spouse, it’s not difficult to see the strain it puts on a step-dad’s dream of his new life.
Ex-wives are an even bigger problem, if they are the type who seem to suffer from imaginative forms of psychosis. Whether a bio mom lives near or far from your home, she has the potential to create utter havoc in your home and life if her ex-husband is weak. She uses the conduit of her children. While a fair and reasonable ex-wife wants her children to feel like they are at a second home during their stay with their dad and step-mom, insecure moms worry she will be replaced by the amicable and fun step-mom. This causes her to emotionally manipulate her children. The step-mom is her target, and she makes her children feel like they are betraying her if they like dad’s new wife. Children feel compelled to take sides, and they rarely turn against their own mother. Mom’s character assassination of the new wife encourages the children to act disrespectfully towards her at every turn. From turning up noses at mealtime, to face-timing mom the private nuances of the home, to directly insulting her or ignoring her, and even manipulating dad to turn against her—step-moms face a barrage of injustices. Strong husbands nip this interference and turbulence in the bud, but passive men join in the step-mom abuse and allow it to continue. Step-moms who had hoped for everyone to get along and function as one big, happy family become the culprit for every sour situation, stress, tension, and discord that occurs—this wounds them beyond repair.
Is it any wonder step-parents begin to feel thrown to the extremes of hatred? It’s difficult to swallow the resentment that results from the lack of familial blending. Step-parents often struggle with having no sounding board. When step-parents attempt to express their exasperation to friends, co-workers, or family, they appear harsh and unreasonable—the “bad guy.” Without a support network, they begin to die a little on the inside every day. To a step-parent, the children are the cause of all that’s wrong in marriage. After all, if it wasn’t for them, one could live the fairytale with their new mate, right? Not really. What’s wrong with the kids is often a result of what’s wrong with moms and dads. Until moms and dads parent properly, the kids will continue to conduct themselves as the products of bad parenting. Constructively dealing with the source of the problem (the parenting styles) is critical to fixing the problems. Sadly, a lack of sincere desire to do the right thing and be the right kind of people who operate with integrity and good character stifles real progress. It takes hard work for parents to curb their own rancor and bitterness to set better examples. Self-control escapes a lot of people. It’s much easier to fly off the handle and speak from the position of hurt and anger rather than work towards healthier emotional habits.
What about when one parent IS doing the right thing and being a healthy example, but the other parent doesn’t cooperate? Then, there will continue to be conflict and stress. Kids are smart, however. Even though they may appear to resent the parent who is doing the right thing by setting boundaries and actually “parenting,” their odds of growing to respect that parent are much greater over time. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries—that can’t be expressed enough! At some point, kids reach the age of accountability. By the time they are adults, they need to make their own judgments. They can’t use the “I’m from a broken home” line forever and blame every problem in life on their childhood. There comes a time when they need to look at life, see where they’ve come from, evaluate where they are, and plan and work out the future they want for themselves. Do they want to use the victim crutch forever, or do they want to learn from the past to make them better people who live victoriously? Do they want to believe all the lies they’ve heard about their non-custodial parent and his or her spouse, or do they want to make their own character evaluations? At adulthood, the ball is in their court.
We’ve already addressed how lazy parenting and poisonous ex-spouses create contemptible children. Even though you know these children have been encouraged in the wrong direction through no fault of their own, and maybe even brainwashed to a degree, you can take charge of your own home—even if it seems like it’s spiraling out of control.
Set boundaries with electronic devices and social media. Nothing fuels your step-children’s scorn more than instant access to mom and friends. Step-kids who enjoy bashing you to mom with a continual stream of texts and videos need you to pull the plug. Social media emboldens and fuels their jeering. Passive bio parents might wag their head in reactive protest—they don’t want to strip their children of the gadgets that make them so happy and deal with the subsequent petulance and sulking during their parenting time. Too bad! Pull the plug anyway. It will do your family good. Instead of hiding behind a screen, coax your step-kids out for a board game, a family day trip, or allow them to invite over a friend. Maybe they will learn there IS fun to be had at your house after all! Let it be known that electronic communication will be kept at a minimum until it can be used in a respectful manner and for shorter periods of time. This move might pit you and your spouse against each other temporarily, but it’s a battle worth waging. Kids need to work at developing relationships—not be consumed by faceless media.
Limit gaming. If kids can’t be texting, they love to escape reality through gaming. Don’t give them this “out” while they are at your house to get rid of them. If they want to play a video game, make sure it’s one your whole family can do together. It’s good for you to take an interest in the things that are important to them, but in healthy doses that encourage relationship.
Don’t cater to picky eaters. This might seem a minor point, but many kids use the food you serve as a way to get under your skin. Don’t go out of your way to cook dishes you KNOW they’ll hate, just to be passive-aggressive, but make your household rule this: You eat what I fix, or you go hungry. Period. No ordering pizza for Princess or stuffing Fat Albert with his beloved chips, cheese-puffs, and soft drinks. Plus, if dinner isn’t eaten, snacks and desserts will not be available for the rest of the evening. Who’s in control? If you let the kids dictate the menus, they have more authority than they should. You aren’t being mean. You’re trying to teach them tips for healthy living so they can enjoy a longer and better quality life.
Establish chores for everyone. Step-parents resent feeling enslaved. They don’t like being everyone’s maid. Yet, step-kids act mistreated if they are expected to do the basics, like place laundry in a basket instead of all over the room, tidy their rooms, hang up towels after a shower, or help with the dishes. Expecting step-kids to complete daily chores isn’t abuse—it’s teaching them a good work ethic.
Give them time alone with their bio-parent. Step-kids often feel like the new spouse has taken their place as the center of their parent’s universe. They want to engage in activities with their parent without the step-parent being included in every single thing. This doesn’t mean the step-parent should be an outcast—he or she should be secure enough in their relationship that they can step to the side for a period of time and allow parent and child to bond. During this time, the bio-parent should stifle any “smack” the child might try to speak against the step-parent, but deep down, the child will appreciate your willingness to give them alone time with their parent.
Unless the bio mom has already positioned herself in a successful career, divorce can be financially devastating for her. If she had been a stay-at-home-mom, only worked part-time, or simply never worried about obtaining a high-paying job because she was devoted to raising her children (not including those who are just a lazy scum bags), she may be scrambling to gain viable employment. From her perspective, the child support money she receives from her ex could mean the difference between feeding her children or going hungry and providing a roof over their heads or sleeping on a park bench. In fact, if her resume and education is limited, she may never recover financially and barely eek out an existence. The children are not at fault for this. Like nomads, they may roam from one apartment or rental space to another, wondering when they will ever have a stable home again. Even if mom kept the house in the divorce, will she be able to afford the mortgage and living expenses? It’s a very scary and uncertain time for both the mother and her children.
From a step-mom and bio dad’s point of view, the father gets the shaft in a divorce. He is expected to pay preposterous child support, provide health and life insurance, pay for other incidentals, and in some cases, make provisions for college. How can he ever be expected to get ahead? If he has children with his new wife, the court system treats them like second class citizens. While his first wife might swindle $800 per month in child support for one child, his newborn is only given a nominal $200 credit towards his monthly support calculation. Where is the justice? Where is the fairness? Why is the father expected to pay more than his fair share? The legal system defends the financial rape by saying his new children get to live with him, while his prior ones do not. Blah, blah, blah. It doesn’t matter if the ex-wife is a millionaire—child support is calculated on the father’s income regardless of how much she rakes in annually, assuming she has full custody.
For a step-mom, this financial obligation is a bitter pill to swallow. Her dream of being a stay-at-home-mom is shattered because her income potential becomes critical to her family’s well-being. Taking her kids to Disney World must be put on hold until the child support disappears. She can’t afford to dress her kids as well as she had hoped, save for their futures like she had planned, or do the extra-curricular activities they want to be involved in—life is dictated by the monthly smack in the face. She doesn’t begrudge her step-kids receiving financial support—she resents the disproportionate amount to which they are legally entitled. As if that’s not enough, she resents the guilt trip the step-kids place on their father, making him feel he has to provide for the extra amenities they desire. They label him a bad dad if he doesn’t buy them cell phones, pay for their sports uniforms, replace their computers when they crash…..never acknowledging that he HAS already provided for these expenses through his monthly child support. It’s not his fault if his ex doesn’t use it for the intended purpose.
Entitlement mentality is on the rise in society. Try not to hate your step-kids for falling prey to it. Instead, have an honest talk with them about finances, budgeting, and developing a strong work ethic. Reward them for chores when they are young, and push them to acquire jobs to get ahead when they are older. Teach them to babysit, shovel snow, and mow lawns until they can drive and pursue better opportunities. Involve them in charitable works to nurture empathy for others instead of trying to always “get” for themselves. If your step-kids are receptive and grasp what you teach them, it will be hard to hate them when you see them trying to take responsibility for themselves and working to make a better life, rather than relying on dad to foot the bill for everything.
The Kids Who Really Get the Shaft
If you and your new spouse have children together, it hurts to watch them get the tailpipe. There are things you want to do with your spouse and children as a family without the step-kids, and when the bio-parent doesn’t feel the same way, it’s irksome. It’s your child’s fifth birthday, but you can’t celebrate it on his actual birthday because you have to wait for the step-child to show up over the weekend before life can march on. How is this fair? What child wants to wait until AFTER his birthday to celebrate it? You have two-day’s vacation during the week, and you want to take your family to an amusement park. Oh, but wait, you can’t because the step-kids aren’t with you on either of those days. Heaven forbid you have fun without them. You want to invite the grandparents over for dinner and let them visit with their grandchildren. Not going to happen! They’d want to spend time with their OTHER grandchildren too, so they couldn’t possibly come until ALL the grandkids are present. You are shopping with your kids and see toys on their wish list on a major clearance, but you can’t buy them unless you can find something of equal value to give the step-kids too.
In the meantime, what are the step-kids doing when they aren’t with you? That’s right. They are having fun. They are having overnighters with friends, they are visiting relatives and having playdates, they are going on hikes, shopping at the mall, and having popcorn while they watch a movie. Their lives aren’t on hold until they are with you again, so why should yours be?
Communicate with your spouse on this issue. Spending quality time together as a family without the step-kids is perfectly natural and normal. The “hate” you feel towards your step-children might be greatly reduced if your spouse will recognize your family, minus the steps, has just as much value.
If your step-kids only visit on occasion or every-other-weekend, how much space is fair to allot to them? Bio-parents like for their children to have their own rooms and to feel at home when they are there, even if it’s infrequent. Step-parents, on the other hand, see this as a major waste of space. Especially if your house is already cramped, how can you justify turning an entire room into a shrine for someone who is rarely there? It makes that “hate” trickle in again, doesn’t it? After all, your kids could have their own rooms if it wasn’t for the steps, or at the very least, a playroom. Look for ways to compromise to beat “the bitters.” Can you make one bedroom into a toy room for your kids and then pack it away and easily convert it to a bedroom when the step-kids are there? Can you keep a big box of the step-kids’ things you can put out to make it homey for them when they visit and then store again until the next time?
Keep discipline the same across the board. It’s not fair for your spouse to enforce standards and discipline with your children together, and then lower the bar and have no consequences for the step-kids when they are visiting. Not only will chaos reign where there are no boundaries, but your bio children will resent the parent and the steps for the double standards.
There Is No Easy Fix
When you have a headache and take medicine, it goes away. When you cut your finger, it heals. When you get the flu, it passes. When you have step-kids, they are there forever. Will you let bitterness overwhelm and poison you? Has the dark cloud of hate eclipsed your loving heart? It’s easy to do. Many have already done it. Too many step-parents feel like they are in a pit and trying to claw their way out. Life used to feel like sunny skies, colorful rainbows, and happy smiles, but now it’s a cold, rainy, and dismal season.
A catch phrase in our culture today is “toxic relationships.” We are admonished to eliminate toxic relationships before they pollute our lives and our homes irrevocably. In extreme cases, breaking relationship with step-kids is the only way to protect and preserve your family. But how often can kids be labeled “toxic?” We can easily classify drugs, alcohol, clinical depression, and wrong friendships with bad people as “toxic,” but can we really justify calling every stepchild “toxic?” You may never feel, as some step-parents do, that step-kids are your “bonus kids” (in fact, hearing that might make you want to puke). When hate wells up in your heart, you see a bulls eye on your step-kids’ shoulders. It’s hard to separate the source of your stress from the person. After all, you’ve watched your step-kids emotionally blackmail your spouse and manipulate in ways beyond their years. No one would believe you if you told them. They learned it somewhere—from a jaded mother, a spineless father, a society that teaches them they are entitled to everything without lifting a finger.
No one can judge you or your situation. It is unique to your family. Textbook advice falls short. Guidance from others sounds trite. No one knows the demons you’ve fought. No one knows the tears you’ve cried, the prayers you’ve prayed, or the grief you’ve suffered. If you want to stay married, if your love is worth fighting for, keep plugging. Decide today that step-kids aren’t going kill your dreams. Decide today that you are going to advance through adversity and rise above the trial. You don’t have to love step-kids as your own—you don’t even have to like them, but don’t let them rob you of your joy and zest for life. Don’t live the defeated life of a victim. Communicate, communicate, communicate with your spouse, compromise, be honest, act justly, show mercy, act humbly. No one lives a perfect life. Everyone has problems, but problems don’t mean you have to sacrifice happiness. Your situation might not change, but you can. Pluck hate out of your heart from the root, and, in time, you might recognize that person in the mirror once again—the one with the sparkling eyes and bright smile.