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Happiness At Home newsletter: Managing Today's Stepfamily

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Friday, March 10, 2017

If you are a member of a stepfamily, you know how difficult it can be to integrate all of the new members and adjust to the new boundaries and rules. The following ideas may help you make a successful transition during this challenging process.

Have patience. Establishing new families takes time. Just because you love your new partner, it is unrealistic to think that you will automatically love his or her children. It is equally unrealistic to expect that your new partner’s children will instantly love you. It can be difficult to accept that even though you wish to have a relationship with your stepchildren, they may not be ready for a relationship with you.

Expect to adjust. With proper help and guidance, children can recover from family disruption. All children experience a difficult adjustment period following a divorce or remarriage. It takes time, patience, and perhaps some professional assistance, but most children are able to regain their emotional bearings. It is critical that the adults manage their own emotional recovery in order to help the children adjust without trauma.

If you are part of a part-time stepfamily, you may need a longer adjustment period. All relationships take time to grow and develop. When stepchildren see you less often, you have less time to get to know each other. This is why it may take a part-time stepfamily longer to move through the adjustment process.

Don’t expect your new family to be like your first family. If you expect that your stepfamily will be just like the family of your first marriage, you are setting yourself up for frustration. Your new family will have its own unique identity and will evolve in its own special way.

Expect confusion. Forming a stepfamily is a confusing time for everyone. Think about how confusing it is for a child to become part of two new families. All of the family members—parents and children—must learn to understand the new structure and learn to navigate the boundaries.

Allow time for grieving. Stepfamilies begin with an experience of loss, and everyone needs to grieve. The adults’ losses are not the same as those of the children, and both must be respected. Adults grieve the following losses:

•  The loss of a partner

•  The loss of a marriage relationship

•  Lost dreams of the way they thought it would be

•  They must adjust to changes that result from the divorce or death (moving to a new house, starting a new job, adjusting to changes in lifestyle, etc.)

Children grieve, too. Their losses are usually different from those of their parents:

•  They may now be living with one parent instead of two.

•  They may have less time with one or both parents during times of dating and remarriage.

•  There may be less stability in their homes.

•  They must adjust to changes that result from the divorce or death. (They may have a new place to live and go to a new school; they may have lost friends in this process.)

•  They have lost the fantasy of how they wanted their family to be.

Children have an especially difficult time resolving their grief when their parents are hostile with one another, when one or both of their parents remarry, and if they have trouble accepting their new stepparents.

Acknowledge the absent parent. When one of the original parents is absent, the children need a special kind of understanding. An absent parent (who has died or who lives elsewhere and doesn’t visit) is part of a child’s past. The child must be allowed to have memories of this parent. The children who have access to both of their parents are those who adjust the best to divorce. They should be allowed to regularly speak with, visit, and write to their noncustodial parent.

Help the kids fit in. Children of stepfamilies belong to two households. It is understandable that they have questions about where they fit in. They are usually able to adjust to having two sets of rules as long as they are not asked to choose which is better.

Be clear about the rules. Ideally, both sets of parents should discuss the family rules and what will happen if rules are broken. When the adults agree on the rules, they should explain them to the children. Most successful stepfamilies have learned that the rules should be decided together in the beginning, and that the biological parent should do the explaining and disciplining. The stepparent may have more involvement after the relationships with the stepchildren have been established. All of this works best when the parents can agree to be flexible and cooperative with one another. This may be difficult immediately following a divorce or remarriage, but it is important to work toward this objective.

Educate yourselves and seek emotional support. Read books about managing stepfamilies, attend classes, and participate in stepfamily support groups. Seek the help of an experienced mental health professional to help you through the rough spots.

Give the kids their own space. Make physical space available for the children who don’t live with you. Children need a sense of belonging. Creating a room or section of a room for visiting children will help them feel like part of your family.

Expect them to think it’s temporary. Accept the fact that your children may expect you and their other parent to reconcile. They may fantasize that your new relationship with your partner is only temporary. This is especially true in the beginning. Find a time to sit down with the children and explain that when two people are unable to live together anymore, it doesn’t mean they love their children any less. This is especially important for the parent who has moved away, since the children will inevitably feel a sense of rejection.

Expect resentment. No matter how good a parent you are, you will never be the biological parent of your stepchildren. It is natural for a stepchild to feel some resentment for you, especially when you are setting limits for their behavior.

Show the children love. Sometimes children need love the most at a time when it is the most difficult to give it to them. While bad behavior should never be rewarded, always acknowledge children when they are making an effort, and encourage them to do their best.

Happiness At Home Newsletter: You Can Build Your People Skills

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Thursday, December 01, 2016
How would you like to get along even better with others in your personal relationships and in the workplace? Getting along well with people sounds kind of general and is difficult to do much about, so let’s break it down into some manageable and specific skills. By building the following skills, you will get along well with others:

1.  Build others’ self-esteem.

2.  Show empathy for others.

3.  Encourage people to cooperate with each other.

4.  Communicate assertively.

5.  Ask productive questions and demonstrate listening skills.

6.  Respond productively to emotional statements.

People skills (which are also known as emotional intelligence) can be thought of as six specific skills. Let’s take a brief look at each one.

  1.  Build others’ self-esteem. When you are in a situation where you are made to feel good about yourself, you feel good. You can do the same with others by doing the following kinds of things:

  • Make eye contact with others.
  • Call others by their names.
  • Ask others their opinions.
  • Compliment others’ work.
  • Tell people how much you appreciate them.
  • Write notes of thanks when someone does something worthwhile.
  • Make people feel welcome when they come to your home or workplace.
  • Pay attention to what is going on in people’s lives. Acknowledge milestones and express concern about difficult life situations such as illness, deaths, and accidents.
  • Introduce your family members to acquaintances when you meet them in public.
  • Encourage your loved ones to explore their talents and interests.
  • Share people’s excitement when they accomplish something.
  • Honor people’s needs and wants.
  • Take responsibility for your choices and actions, and expect others to do the same.
  • Take responsibility for the quality of your communications.

  2.  Show empathy for others. Empathy means recognizing emotions in others. It is the capacity to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand how they view their reality and how they feel about things.

Being aware of our emotions and how they affect our actions is a fundamental ability in today’s people-intense workplaces. People who are cut off from their emotions are unable to connect with people. It’s like they are emotionally tone-deaf.

No one wants to work with such people because they have no idea how they affect others. You have probably met a few people who fit this description.

  3.  Encourage people to cooperate with each other. Whether you are managing a family or a work group, there are some specific things you can do to create an environment where others work together well:

  • Don’t play favorites. Treat everyone the same. Otherwise, some people will not trust you.
  • Don’t talk about people behind their backs.
  • Ask for others’ ideas. Participation increases commitment.
  • Follow up on suggestions, requests, and comments, even if you are unable to carry out a request.
  • Check for understanding when you make a statement or announcement. Don’t assume everyone is with you.
  • Make sure people have clear instructions for tasks to be completed. Ask people to describe what they plan to do.
  • Reinforce cooperative behavior. Don’t take it for granted.

  4.  Communicate assertively. Assertive communication is a constructive way of expressing feelings and opinions. People are not born assertive; their behavior is a combination of learned skills. Assertive behavior enables you to:

  • Act in your own best interests.
  • Stand up for yourself without becoming anxious.
  • Express your honest feelings.
  • Assert your personal rights without denying the rights of others.

Assertive behavior is different from passive or aggressive behavior in that it is:

  • Self-expressive
  • Honest
  •  Direct
  • Self-enhancing
  • Constructive, not destructive

Assertive behavior includes both what you say and how you say it.

  5.  Ask productive questions and demonstrate listening skills. Listening skills help you show that you are hearing and understanding another person and are interested in what he or she has to say.

  6.  Respond productively to emotional statements. A communication skill called active listening is especially useful in emotional situations because it enables you to demonstrate that you understand what the other person is saying and how he or she is feeling about it. Active listening means restating, in your own words, what the other person has said. It’s a check of whether your understanding is correct. This demonstrates that you are listening and that you are interested and concerned.

Active listening responses have two components:

a.  Naming the feeling that the other person is conveying

b. Stating the reason for the feeling

Here are some examples of active listening statements:

“Sounds like you’re upset about what happened at work.”

“You’re annoyed by my lateness, aren’t you?”

“You sound really stumped about how to solve this problem.”

“It makes you angry when you find errors on Joe’s paperwork.”

“Sounds like you’re really worried about Wendy.”

“I get the feeling you’re awfully busy right now.”

Actively listening is not the same as agreement. It is a way of demonstrating that you intend to hear and understand another’s point of view.

The ability to get along well with people in your personal relationships and in the workplace is a set of learned skills. No one is born knowing how to build others’ self-esteem, show empathy, encourage cooperation, communicate assertively, ask productive questions, or respond productively to emotional statements. These skills can be learned and developed with some practice. By taking the time to develop these skills, you will be able to build better relationships at home and at work.

Positive Parenting Works!

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Researchers from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a meta-analysis of the current research literature on parent training programs, in order to identify what elements of the programs are associated with better parent and child outcomes. The findings showed that teaching the following parenting skills had the greatest impact: emotional communication, positive parent-child interaction, consistent responses to child behaviour, and correct use of timeout.

The parts of parent-training programs found to have the least useful effects?  Teaching parents how to problem solve about children’s behaviour, and teaching parents how to promote children’s academic, cognitive, and social skills.

What can we as parents learn from this?  Focusing on improving our communication with our kids, aiming to make more of our interactions with our kids positive (like devoting some time for just having fun together), and being consistent in how we respond to them, are all things that are going to help develop those traits we hope our kids will have: resilience, strong emotional regulation, and good mental health.  If you’re struggling in some of these areas, or just don’t know how to turn this research into practical strategies in your own home, call me.  Let’s work on a plan together.

The full report, entitled Parent Training Programs: Insight for Practitioners (2009), is available here.

Are The Inmates Running The Asylum?

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, November 08, 2016

When parents learn some of the basic principles of Democratic Parenting, those with a background in more traditional "do as you're told" parenting styles often think it sounds like I'm advocating that they give up complete control and let the kids do whatever they please.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  As adults, we know that the world is filled with rules, and painful consequences for not following those rules.  Our role as parents is to prepare our kids for adulthood and help them to grow into the best possible versions of themselves.  So how does control and coercive parenting fit into this equation?

Ironically, research demonstrates that punitive parenting styles are related to more aggression in kids, not less.  So the idea that hitting or punishing our kids will get their  attention and teach them not to do what they've been doing, is actually misguided.  If we're honest with ourselves, it's usually a response that we have to hurt back when our kids have pushed our buttons.  Punishment usually just teaches kids to avoid punishment and that their parents are mean.  If you think back to your own childhood, when you were sent to your room to "think about what you'd done", did you actually think about what you'd done?  Or did you stew over how unfair and awful your parents were, and justify your actions in your own mind by thinking about all the bad stuff they had done?  Kids today are no different. 

Discipline is about teaching and about developing a sense of integrity -- knowing the difference between right and wrong, and doing what's right, even if no one's watching.  Coercive, punitive discipline tactics are not generally effective in teaching that message.  So even though it may feel a little like the inmates are running the asylum when you consider more democratic approaches, remember that true democratic parenting finds a balance between the needs of everyone in the house, is respectful of everyone, and allows for the true message you are trying to share to be heard and understood.

The Truth About Effective Parenting

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, November 01, 2016

When I'm working with parents, as we're discussing some possible responses to kids' misbehaviour, they will often sigh and tell me just how hard it is, or how much work it is, to keep calm, not get angry, and think big picture about the situation.  I wish I could disagree with them.  It is hard and often thankless to keep your eye on the prize of the long-term goal, not just an immediate end to the troublesome behaviour.

When I was a kid, I saw a notepad on my aunt and uncle's fridge that read "If raising kids was meant to be easy, it wouldn't start with something called labour".  I often tell people this little story when we're working together, because it gets a laugh and helps us to keep things in perspective.  We all knew that raising kids was going to be challenging -- the problem is, we couldn’t appreciate just how challenging it was going to be.  And sometimes, oh my, it would be nice if something about it was a little less taxing than it actually is.

The thing about democratic parenting and logical consequences in particular, is that they may be disruptive to you, too -- as disruptive as they are to your child.  The root of the word "discipline" means "to teach", and any teacher will agree that it requires forethought, planning, flexibility, creativity, and patience to communicate the lesson at hand.  Effective parenting is labour intensive for everyone involved, and it is going to require some hard work on your part, no doubt about it.  Just don't feel that you're "doing it wrong" or that there must be an easier way if you feel like you're as affected by the consequence as your child is.  When it comes to raising great kids, you're both in it together.

"What Do I Want Them To Learn?"

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The truth of parenting is that every interaction with your children is an opportunity for them to learn.  Kids are like little sponges, picking up bits and pieces and putting them together in their own minds to make sense of their worlds.  They are learning from us constantly, which in addition to being a bit intimidating, can also be a great opportunity.  It means that every time we interact with our kids, we have a new opportunity to teach them something important and to be a good role model.  And as Scarlett said, tomorrow is another day, meaning that even if we don't meet our own expectations today, we always have a chance to put our best foot forward again tomorrow.

So the next time you need to discipline or respond to something your child has done, take a deep breath and ask yourself, "What do I want my child to learn from this experience?  How I can best share that message?"  This isn't about over-thinking situations or not reacting.  It's about being thoughtful and mindful in our interactions with our kids, thinking about the bigger picture rather than simply reacting to the immediate situation.  It takes a bit of a shift to start thinking this way, but you'll find that your relationships with your kids improve and you'll have an overarching principle ("what do I want my kids to learn from this situation?") that will inform and guide all of your interactions with your children, making those interactions consistent and meaningful.

Asking Once

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Is it reasonable to expect your kids to listen to you and follow your instructions the first time you tell them?

Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  Kids don't feel the same sense of urgency that we as parents do about things like chores or homework, and frankly, their priorities are different.  It may be very important to us that they keep their rooms clean, but not such a big deal to them.  Or timelines may be different: when you ask your teenager to take out the garbage, what you mean is "within the next 60-90 seconds".  When he says he will, he means "sometime before I go to bed in 12 hours". 

But at the same time, repeating ourselves over and over not only makes us feel like a nag, but it also trains our kids to not listen to us the first time we ask them to do something.  If they know that we’ll keep harping on it, and that things won't get serious until we start to yell, why would they bother to listen the first time?  Maybe you'll just get frustrated and do it yourself, they think.  (Being a kid is all about playing the odds when it comes to things like this!)

So while the goal is a response from our kids after being told the first time, we need to prepare ourselves that it probably won't happen that way all the time.  This is where logical and natural consequences come in.  If our kids know ahead of time what the consequence for not listening will be, then they can make an informed choice about reacting right away or accepting the consequences.  As a parent, our job is to train ourselves to only ask one time, then be prepared to quietly and consistently follow through with the consequence that has already been agreed upon between us and our kids.  When our kids realize that we'll follow through on our part of the equation, they will be more motivated to take action right away.  Will it work all the time?  No.  But sometimes it's possible to do the right thing as a parent and not get the result we expect -- we just have to keep looking to the bigger picture and keep doing what we know is right.

No More Pity Parties

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Nobody likes to see their kids get hurt.  Every parent would like to think that it's possible for them to help their child make it through life with no hardships, no disappointments, and no failures.  We know, of course, that it isn't true, but sometimes we still act as though it is possible.

Bad things happen to good people...even our own kids.  But when they do, one of the worst things we can do for them (or to them) is to feel sorry for them.  Even when it's logical, it doesn't make things better, and can actually make things worse for our kids in the long run.

Kids are very attuned to our emotions.  With their little radars, they pick up signals that we may not even know we're sending.  If they sense that we feel sorry for them, then they think that's the right attitude, that they should feel sorry for themselves.  Instead of acknowledging how he's feeling, then doing some problem solving to consider his options and courageously taking a step forward, he's more likely to get stuck in a pity party for himself.  And the more a person focus on what's wrong and what's not working and what's not fair, the more consumed by all of these things that person becomes.  It can then be a huge mountain to climb to get back to a place of neutrality and optimism.  This attitude can carry far beyond childhood too - as Rudolph Dreikurs says in Children: The Challenge, "He can become convinced that the world owes him something in recompense for what he misses.  Instead of doing when he can, he counts on what others will do for him." 

I saw a woman on t.v. years ago, who was born without arms.  She was a young woman, and a mom herself, and there was footage of her diapering and feeding her kids with her feet.  She said that her own mother made a decision when this woman was born, that she would not pity her or do for her what she could do for herself -- that the greatest gift she could give her was the gift of competence.  And this young lady said that her mom admitted that sometimes it was excruciating for her to watch her daughter struggle when she could so easily help her, but she knew that she would be doing her daughter no favours if she taught her to rely on the assistance and pity of others, when, with practice and perseverance, she did have the ability to take care of herself.

A perfect example of courage and encouragement in action.

Kids can learn to not only cope with, but also overcome, disappointment and adversity if we show them that we believe they can.  Our pity can handicap their success later in life.  Encouragement and support all contribute to a happy life for our kids, much more than our feeling sorry for them does.

Talking to Our Daughters About Sex

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, October 04, 2016

You may or may not have already had "the talk" with your kids, your daughters in particular.  You may be avoiding it like the plague, you may feel that there's no need because if your daughter needs information she'll come to you, or you may be confident that you've got the kind of relationship with your daughter that's open and healthy, and not much slips by you. 

Here's the problem: regardless of how you would describe your experience or expectations in this area, there's a good chance a lot is going on that you don't know about.

Here are some facts to consider, from a survey conducted within the past few years:

  • "Only 22 percent of mothers think their daughters are uncomfortable talking to them about sex, while 61 percent of girls say that, in fact, they are."
  • "...the actual number of 15- to 18-year-olds in our survey having oral sex (30 percent) is double the number mothers know about, or even suspect..."
  • "...46 percent of girls that age who've had intercourse didn't tell their moms."
  • "Seventy-eight percent of surveyed girls who are no longer virgins say they've had sex without using a condom, and 65 percent of them admit they lied about or hid it from their mothers."
  • "...a sobering 56 percent of girls who are no longer virgins have had sex without any form of birth control: Sixty-six percent of these girls have kept that a secret from Mom."
  • "Even among the few girls who had an abortion, many didn't tell."
  • "...only 4 percent of girls say their moms are the biggest influence on their attitudes toward sex."

Did anything there surprise you?

These statistics are direct quotes from an article by Liz Brody in O Magazine.  Here's a link to the full article (I definitely recommend reading the whole thing).  The survey referred to is one that was conducted jointly with O Magazine and Seventeen Magazine, in which 1000 girls ages 15-22,  and 1000 moms of girls those ages, were surveyed. 

The words I would use to describe my reaction to this survey are distressed, saddened, and re-energized.  It's time to take control of this topic within our own families, get educated ourselves, and open up a dialogue so that we can say with 100% confidence, that the results of this survey don't reflect what's happening with our kids.  Here are some resources from Oprah to get you started:

First of all, read the whole article.  Make sure you have accurate information in order to answer any questions she may have, learn from what's worked (and not) from the moms interviewed, and decide what approach you'll take with your daughter.

Here’s a four-point plan for improving your next sex talk with your daughter.  It's another great resource.

If you know that your daughter is thinking about having sex with her boyfriend, Dr Laura Berman, a sex therapist who had been a part of this discussion on Oprah's show, has a list of questions to ask your daughter and her boyfriend before they go ahead with their plan.  You can find the questions here.

Dr Berman has also prepared a handbook for parents to talk to their kids about sex, regardless of their age.  It's great -- get it here.  And on that same page is a set of visual aids that you can use in your own talk, as well as a video of Dr Berman coaching a mom through the talk with her daughter. 

Take a deep breath.  You can do it!

A Parent's Best Friend

Andrea Ramsay Speers - Tuesday, September 27, 2016

If there's only one tip that parents should take to heart, it's this: be consistent.  Regardless of what behaviour you're trying to change or what routine you're trying to get into, being consistent gives your kids the opportunity (as Dr Phil says) "to predict, with 100% accuracy, what the consequences of their behaviour will be".  Predicting what will happen if they make a certain choice over another gives our children the opportunity to make informed choices and develop new habits.

If you studied psychology, you may have learned about reinforcement schedules.  The basic explanation of a reinforcement schedule can be made by using an example.  A child learns that he gets a snack by begging and whining.  If he gets food every time he does this, that is a continuous schedule of reinforcement.  He learns that when he's hungry, he whines and complains, and presto -- problem solved.  When he tries this tactic and is not rewarded with a snack, however, our little test subject learns very quickly not to bother whining.  Why waste the effort when another strategy might be more effective?

If, however, he is rewarded sometimes when he is being a nuisance, he will knock himself out doing it over and over again, waiting for the unpredictable, desired result.  This kind of behaviour pattern is really challenging to change, because the child, correctly, figures out that it's a numbers game, and that if he keeps his efforts up, he'll get what he wants…eventually.  Maybe, he thinks, the magic number is 100 -- he has to press Mom's buttons 100 times before he is rewarded.  Maybe it's 1000.  Regardless, he's prepared to go the distance because he knows that persistency pays off and it does work.

This is why consistency is so important for parents.  No one is perfect, and we're going to have moments when we slide back into old habits, there's no doubt about it.  But the more often we can be consistent, the more quickly we will notice the ripple effect in our kids' behaviour.  Perfection isn't possible, but it is a worthy goal to make an effort to be as consistent as humanly possible.  (And then give yourself a break those other times!)

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Andrea Ramsay Speers • Psychotherapist & Parent Coach • Oakville Family Institute • 175 Glenashton Dr., Oakville ON • Tel.: 905-491-6949

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