Co-Parenting: RelationshipsApril 27, 2012
What should you consider before getting remarried? Ron Deal, a marriage and family therapist, gives some time-tested advice to couples preparing to remarry.
What should you consider before getting remarried? Ron Deal, a marriage and family therapist, gives some time-tested advice to couples preparing to remarry.
Bob: One of the big areas for conflict in a stepfamily is how we're handling the job of raising the kids. Here is Ron Deal.
Ron: When that step-parent says, "But he's doing things. His grades are failing. He's running around with the wrong crowd. We've got to stop this." The biological parent just feels compelled to defend that child, even though they know the step-parent is right. Sometimes, it feels like, “It's an indictment of my parenting. You're telling me I've been a bad parent.” So, they get defensive. What happens is—the child has all the power they want to do what they want.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, April 27th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. If you are in a stepfamily or blended family, is it possible that your children are the ones running the show? We’re going to talk about that today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition. We have been talking this week about the challenges that stepfamilies face. You know, I think Hollywood really hasn’t done us a service here because, oftentimes, the stepfamily situation on television or in movies is fictional—it’s idealized. So whether you go all the way back to The Brady Bunch or whether you look at more contemporary examples, there aren’t a whole lot of movies or TV shows that really show the challenges that face parents, or step-parents, or co-parents in a step or a blended family situation.
Dennis: You know, as we look at life, the ideal always keeps popping up. It's good that we have dreams and expectations of hoping to achieve the ideal; but as you address stepfamilies, the ideal begins to evaporate out on the horizon. It's not quite as easily achieved as perhaps we thought about.
All this week, a good friend has been directing our thoughts toward the scriptural basis for marriage and family—but applying it to that unique set of circumstances called a stepfamily. Ron Deal has been with us. Ron, it's been a treat to have you on the broadcast.
Ron: Thank you.
Dennis: Ron has produced a seminar called “Building a Successful Stepfamily”. He has spoken all across the country, has counseled, and is a minister. All this week, we've been focusing on the special needs of stepfamilies, of step-parents. Yesterday, we focused on the co-parents, who are sharing responsibility for their biological son or daughter—who have usually come to this point because of divorce.
You know, yesterday, we focused on the co-parents; but we never did get around to the whole issue of step-parenting—how two people, who find themselves from maybe broken situations, now begin to forge that new family.
Ron: Dennis, I'm going to say something that the step-parents listening understand, “Step-parenting is really tough.” In fact, Jean McBride, a stepfamily educator and a therapist—I love her phrase. She says, "Being a stepmom is like setting your hair on fire and putting it out with a hammer." (Laughter) I mean, you get it going and coming.
All the way around, it is a tough, tough job. You stop and you think about it for a minute. You've been handed some measure of responsibility for influencing and raising some children for whom you have very little relationship until you've had time in the crock pot to develop that relationship. So, without relationship, how do you have authority? How do you have influence? How do you carry out your responsibilities when everything seems to be undercutting your ability to do that?
Dennis: How do you discipline?
Ron: Discipline—how do you show affection? You know, one of the things that step-parents need to hear is—that they assume that, “Okay, maybe,”—even if they're smart and they know to kind of lay off of discipline, which we need to address—they often think that what the kids need is, “Okay, we need to find a way to love and connect with these children.”
Stepchildren tell us they don't want affection from step-parents, until they're ready for it. That's the cardinal rule. We need to just lay that out right out front. The cardinal rule for step-parents is, “Let your stepchildren set the pace for their relationship with you. When they're ready to hug you, hug them. When they're ready to spend time with you one-on-one, do that; but don't force yourself into a relationship in which they are not ready.”
Bob: You know, it seems like the challenges here begin with the honeymoon. I mean, the new marriage is formed. The first thing that happens is—the step-parent takes the biological parent and—“They go off for a while and leave me with a sense of abandonment.” We're starting off on the wrong foot; aren't we?
Ron: Again, for the children, it's a loss when their parent remarries. It's particularly difficult—the research is telling us—when a biological father remarries—that seems to be even more difficult than when Mom remarries, for children. Nevertheless, it's kind of like, “I have to share this person now with their new spouse.” That's difficult for the kids.
Bob: So, let's say it's the early days. We've gotten back from the honeymoon. The bags are unpacked, and we're starting to get into a routine. How do I make it through those early days? What do I do?
Ron: When Nan and I go out on a date, we call Amy. She's our babysitter. We love her to death, and our kids love her to death. But when we were first working with Amy—she came to our house to babysit our kids. I would stand, in front of my children and in front of Amy, and I would say, "Now, kids, boys, when Mom and Dad are gone, Amy's in charge. We've talked about the rules; right?"
"Yes, Dad." "Amy knows the consequences if you disobey the rules." "Yes, Dad." "And, by the way, if you disobey her, you're going to have to deal with me when I come home." "Okay, okay, okay." They got that straight. Amy now has power. Why? Because I gave it to her. I have passed power to Amy because I've told my children to respect her.
Biological parents must communicate to their children an expectation that, “When I'm not here, you don't have to treat this guy like your dad; but he is the adult in the house at the time. Much like a teacher who would be in your classroom, or much like a coach at your soccer game, they are in charge. I expect you to follow their lead.” They are the babysitter. The step-parent relies upon that passed power from the biological parent. They can enforce rules and they can enforce consequences, but it's not on their own power.
Dennis: Let's go back to your babysitter because it's been our experience with babysitters—and I'll bet it's true of you, Bob—you vest that power in the babysitter. You reinforce it with your kids. You leave and go out on a date. You have a wonderful time! You come back; they've had a great time! So, you call the babysitter again for the second night.
Bob: That's right. “We've got the perfect babysitter.” It's wonderful!
Dennis: This girl knows how to make it work, and it may go perfectly for a second time. But somewhere between the first time they babysit and the fourth, there will be the big test. I guarantee you—you can count on it as sure as the sun comes up tomorrow. Your children will test the mettle of the babysitter to see if, a) she loves them; and, b) if she is going to enforce the rules.
Bob: It's almost like they lay awake at night and think, "Okay, when the babysitter comes over, you try this. I'll try that, and we'll see what happens."
Dennis: And, “We're going to take a blue-chip, five-star babysitter and we're going to turn her into a bowl of mush. We're going to manipulate her. We're going to work her over.” Invariably, the parents come home and find a babysitter all tied up, emotionally. Now, that's funny when we talk about babysitters, sort of; but when we talk about a stepfamily and the person they are manipulating is our new husband, our new wife, how are we to deal with our biological children?
Ron: The form that that takes in a stepfamily is, "You're not my mom. I don't have to do what you say," especially if that's being fed by the other household. If my biological mom, in the other house, is telling me, "You don't have to listen to her," that makes it doubly difficult for the kids. “I don't have to do what you say;” and so, they give that step-parent a very difficult time.
The biological parents, when they come home—they must be patient, and be understanding with your kids, and have some compassion; but you've got to draw the boundary and you've got to say, "I know she is not your mom; but when I am not here, she is empowered to take care of the rules and the consequences. I expect you to obey her; and because you did not, here are the consequences you are going to receive from me."
Bob: "But, Daddy, she doesn't do what you do. She has different rules. She's stricter.”
Dennis: “She's mean. She's really mean."
Ron: That's a good situation. That's why we tell parents and step-parents, “You've got to back up a step.” Before you get into a situation where you're trying to—a step-parent, early on in the process, should not be making up rules. There should be house rules, posted on the refrigerator—that the biological parent has communicated—so there's none of this, "Wait a minute! She's mean. She's making up rules. She's doing stuff you wouldn't do." “Well, no. See, we have discussed this; and these are the rules.”
And so if there is not unity—you know, we're back to a principle that holds for parents, whether they're biological or step. You've got to be unified together. You've got to have a plan that you can both mutually support together. Otherwise, it's very easy for those kids to divide and conquer.
Bob: How can I know, as a parent, as a step-parent, that it's okay for me to start taking some next steps—that I can show a little more affection, or I have a little more authority? There's part of me that wants to say, "Listen, you're a kid. I'm a grownup. You just are going to do what I say, and that ought to be the end of that."
Ron: The principle that we’ve kind of shared—again, I will come back to, “Let the children set the pace.” If they’re giving you some indications—if they’re showing a little more affection; if they stop calling you, “Mr. Fred” and now call you, “Fred;” if, all of a sudden, they don’t just say goodnight to Mom and then walk past you to the bedroom—but they say goodnight to you, and they stop, and they pause—those are some nonverbal indications that there’s a connection there. They’re beginning to feel more comfortable.
And I think you can reciprocate that. You’re letting them set the pace. The other thing is—the answer to that question is, “What do you say when the child says, ‘You're not my mom,’ ‘You're not my dad,’ ‘I don't have to do what you say.’” The answer is this, "You're right. I'm not your dad. Your dad lives in Minnesota. Would you kind of like to call and talk to him? By the way, I am the adult in the house right now. These are the house rules, and you do have to obey them. If you choose not to, there will be a consequence; and your mom will deal with that when she comes home. I'm wondering if you'd like to talk to your dad. Are you missing him?"
You see, one of the things that step-parents and biological parents need to understand is that the resistance that kids often give toward their step-parent is coming out of loss. It's coming out of a sense that, “You're here, and my real dad's not. That's who I really want in my life. That's who I really want in this house. You're just the easy target to take out my pain because my real dad's not here.”
Dennis: They're acting like they're angry at you, but they're really angry at the circumstances that created this new stepfamily.
Ron: It's not personal, most of the time. It's really not about you, as the step-parent. It's just what you represent to them. If you can depersonalize their anger or their resistance, then it helps you to respond in a little bit more compassionate way. Oftentimes, when kids are resistant, what they're asking for is more contact with their non-custodial parent.
Bob: Does it make it easier to be a step-parent and does it speed things up if the non-custodial parent is a jerk?
Ron: No. It makes it much, much more difficult. In fact, the biggest gift that you, as a non-custodial parent, listening today—the biggest gift you can give your children is your permission for them to respect, and honor, and, perhaps, even love their step-parent.
See, biological parents need to understand—you will never lose your kids' allegiance. I mean, “You're Dad,” for crying out loud! You have to try to be a jerk to ever get your kids where they're mad enough at you where they don't want anything to do with you. It doesn't matter that their stepdad is a wonderful guy and takes them fishing. That doesn't matter. They will love you until the end of time. It's blood!
And biological parents—when they get into competition with a step-parent, in the other home—it's unnecessary. You give them your permission to respect that person. That helps the child to deal with their situation in that home. It helps them to have a better experience. It will help them to have a better emotional state; and when they come back, and they're with you, it's going to be a wonderful time. It helps everybody when you do that.
Bob: What if the biological parent has dropped off the face of the earth—you never hear from him or her. You don't know where they are. The last time you talked to them was when they sent a late birthday gift, three years ago.
Ron: Sometimes, that's even more difficult. It's amazing how children can get protective of an under-functioning parent. They oftentimes resent the fact that their step-parent is a higher-functioning individual than their biological parent is—that's not in the home. They often resent that.
Dennis: What do you mean by that?
Ron: Well, let's just say it's a stepmother situation. My stepmother is godly; she's kind; she's considerate; she's a blessing to a lot of people; and she treats me with fairness. My biological mom is an alcoholic. She can't keep a job; her life is the pits; she complains all the time; but when I'm over at her house, she lets me know how badly she needs me to take care of her.
The child feels compelled to protect the alcoholic mother—to somehow lift her out of her—out of the quicksand that's pulling her under. At the same time, she's protective of her biological mom, she's resistant towards her stepmom because it feels like, “If I love you, you're doing so much better. We would have a great relationship; but look at my mom over there, she's wasting away. She needs somebody, too.” It's amazing how children will take care of adults who don't take care of themselves.
Dennis: One of the resources you've created in your seminars is a chart that compares a misguided step-parent and an effective step-parent. We don't have time here, on the broadcast, to go down through this entire list. We'll make it available on our website, FamilyLife.com; but take a couple of the most frequent misguided attitudes that step-parents have.
Ron: The first one is—they try to replace the absent parent, the absent biological parent—try to take their spot. Step-parents, you can never take the spot of a biological parent, even if they're deceased. You cannot replace them. Don’t try. Simply be another adult who is a good role model for these children.
By the way, one of the best tips—I've got to get this in here—for a step-parent to do is to call the non-custodial biological parent. This stepmother is going to call the biological mother and say to her, on the phone, "Listen, I know this is an awkward situation for us; but I want you to know I will never stand between you and your relationship with your children. I will never get in the way of you being their mom. I am their stepmom. I know that that's all that I am. I will honor you when you're not around. I will make sure the kids get to your house on time. I will make sure they get home with everything that they need, and we will always be fair in how we treat you."
Now, why is that important? Because it helps the biological mom go, "Okay, I'm not in competition with her. I don't have to spoil my kids' opinion of her. Maybe I don't have to talk so badly about her because she's showing me that she is not going to be a barrier to us." That is a step-parent who is being very effective and who is setting themselves up to be successful with their stepchildren.
Dennis: You know, all this week, we’ve talked with you, Ron, about the needs of step-parents. We’ve tried to bring resources to our listeners. It just hit me, as you were sharing that—that one of the greatest needs of a step-parent, or for the biological non-custodial parent, is for spiritual growth and maturity. If you're not growing as a Christian, circumstances are going to dictate your life. You are going to be tempted to become bitter. You are not going to end up with a relationship with your child, with your grandchildren, later on when they get married. It's going to result in an estranged family that's broken.
Ron: The way I put it is this, “My identity is found in Jesus Christ—in His love for me.” If I am a step-parent, and I am putting my identity, my worth, and my value into how well my relationship goes with my stepchildren, I am in trouble because there will be days when they are rude, and crude, and don't want to have anything to do with me.
If I am putting my identity in how well my spouse, their parent, loves me—there will be days where the biological parent does favor the children—just out of that deep bond that they have for them. I've got to fall back on, “I am a person of worth because of what Jesus has done for me. I can do what's right, even in the face of circumstances that are disappointing to me. I need to live with integrity.”
Bob: You know, Dennis, I've heard you say, many times, that single parenting may be the single most difficult assignment on the planet. It occurs to me, as we talk, that being the child of a single parent, who then goes into a stepfamily situation—that may be equally difficult—and being a step-parent is not too far behind the assignment of being a single parent.
What we're talking about are life circumstances that demand hard work and are going to require things of you that you're going to look around at other people and say, "They don't have to go through it, and I do." You may feel, “It's not fair.” You may feel that life hasn't dealt you the right set of circumstances; but there is a God, whose grace is sufficient in the middle of those difficult circumstances.
Dennis: And His Word directs us. Proverbs 15, verses 16 and 17 says, "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and turmoil with it. Better is a dish of vegetables where love is, than a fattened ox and hatred with it." All this week, we've been talking about how God is a God of redemption. Ron, I've got one last question.
Ron: I bet it's a doozy. (Laughter)
Dennis: It is; it really is.
Bob: Hang on! Before you ask your doozy question, let me let listeners know how they can get a copy of Ron's book, The Smart Stepfamily, or the small group DVD series that Ron has put together called The Smart Stepfamily. We have The Smart Stepdad; The Smart Stepmom—all of Ron’s resources are available at FamilyLifeToday.com. In fact, on our website, we have hundreds of articles that Ron has written for stepfamilies because Ron’s become a part of our team, here at FamilyLife. He now heads up our stepfamily initiative, as we seek to provide new resources and new strategies to strengthen blended and step-relationships.
So, when you go to FamilyLifeToday.com, there’s access to all kinds of resources and materials that are available for folks who are in a second or a third marriage. Again, go to FamilyLifeToday.com for more information on the resources we have; or call 1-800 “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY”. We can let you know what’s available and how you can get some of these resources sent to you.
And we want to wrap up this week with a quick word of thanks to those folks who made today’s program possible—those of you who, from time to time, get in touch with us and offer your support, financially, of this ministry. We appreciate that. We appreciate those of you who pray for us, those of you who drop us notes of encouragement. It’s always great to know that our listeners are a part of the team.
In fact, this week, if you can make a donation to help support FamilyLife Today, we’d like to say, “Thank you,” by sending you a copy of Dennis’ brand-new book, Aggressive Girls, Clueless Boys: 7 Conversations to Have with Your Teenage Son, as he goes through the teen years. Actually, you ought to have them before he goes through the teen years.
And in addition, we’ll send you a copy of Dennis’ book, Interviewing Your Daughter’s Date. You’ve got a couple of resources to help you with your teens; and if you don’t have teens but you know somebody who does, pass these books along to them. You can make your donation online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the button there that says, “I Care”, and just fill out the online donation form. We’ll know to send you copies of these books. Or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. You can make a donation over the phone. When you do that, be sure to ask for the books for parents of teens. We’ll know what you’re talking about, and we’ll be happy to send them out to you. We just want to say again, “We appreciate your partnership with us and your support of this ministry.” Dennis?
Dennis: Well, Bob, if there is anything that I've become convinced of, all week long, is that God knew what He was doing when He called one man and one woman to forge a covenant relationship, called marriage, that lasts a lifetime.
Bob: That's hard enough; isn't it?
Dennis: It is hard enough; but when you start mixing and blending marriages, and families, and children, and step-grandparents, and aunts and uncles, you get some tough circumstances that demand a lot of an individual. Ron Deal has been our guest, on the broadcast, focusing on the needs of stepfamilies. Ron, I want to thank you for being with us on the broadcast.
I've got a question for you. You've been ministering to stepfamilies for more than a decade now. What's been the most difficult question you've ever been asked?
Ron: There are a lot of questions that come to mind that are very, very difficult situations and circumstances that people find themselves in. I think one of the ones that touches my heart and is one of the most significant questions that I hear, all over the country—and it's plainly this, “Can I be redeemed by God?” “Am I acceptable to Him?” “Am I a second-rate Christian?”
My answer, purely and simply, is, “You are not a second-rate Christian because there's no such thing as a first-rate Christian. We are all people in need of a cross. At the foot of the cross, it's level playing field. No matter what your past, no matter where you've been, God is waiting, with open arms.” It pains me that people even have to ask themselves whether that's true or not.
It pains me that churches are not standing up and communicating a message to our community that says to them, "There's good news for you. You may have found yourself in some difficult circumstances; we want to help. God does care. His redemption is for all. He forgives imperfect people in stepfamilies, just like he forgives imperfect people in biological families.”
Dennis: And you know what I want you to do right now—because there is, undoubtedly, a stepmom, a stepdad, who is listening—they're going, "That's me." Would you pray for that person right now?
Ron: I will. “God, we approach You today on behalf of all of those who find themselves wandering—wandering in the wilderness of stepfamily life. They are there with good intentions. God, they are seeking You. We hope that they're seeking You. At the same time, they are wondering if they are unworthy. They are wondering if their voice will ever reach Your ears.
“So, God, we pray for them today because I know that You are listening. I know that You can lead them through the wilderness. I know that there is a Promised Land, but they have to trust You. They have to be faithful, and they have to rely upon Your promises. Today, God, we ask You to touch their heart, their life—to remind them of Your presence, to confirm to them the love that You have for them, and that hope is available through Jesus Christ.
“God, we pray for all stepfamilies. We pray that they will come back to You if they've been away—that they will remain faithful if they're close to You. We pray that they will reach out and gather resources and tools—that they will talk with other people, form support groups, and reach out to their community because there is so much ministry that needs to be done.
“We pray, God, that You will do a mighty work and that You will rescue stepfamilies, all over this country. I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.”
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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