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Beware the Green Eyed Monster: How Jealousy Can Impact Your Blended Family

Categories: Marriage,Parenting

Beware the Green Eyed Monster: How Jealousy Can Impact Your Blended Family

 

I tiptoed up to the topic, believing that most of us are pretty sensitive about it: “Sometimes step parents feel…I don’t want to call it jealousy, but…” at which point Kelly, eight years into her step mom experience, interrupted, “Oh, you can call it jealous! I was definitely jealous!—of a six year old, no less!”

We were talking about what can often become a defining dynamic between children and step parents, and consequently, a divisive issue for a biological parent and their spouse. It’s not an emotion many of us are willing to cop to, especially if the trigger is two to three decades younger than you. Everyone understands if a child acts out when their parent seems preoccupied by a new partner, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot? Is it ever justified?

Horror stories of bad stepchild behaviors abound. One step mother tells me of a child who repeatedly fantasized publicly about the death of the step mom, relishing the inevitable reunion of her father and her biological mother. Another describes a teen aged step daughter who made it a habit of physically separating her father from his new wife, plunking herself down between them on the couch, sitting on his lap whenever he sat down, and calling his cell repeatedly during their rare nights out. A father recounts the memory of his young stepson cutting off the sleeves of all of his work shirts and suits. While each of these behaviors can be explained as a child expressing their anger, pain, and fear over the loss of their nuclear family, what is most critical is what the natural parent does or does not do in response to these actions.

In my experience, the appearance of the green eyed monster is dependent on one of three key situational factors: 1) a lack of clear expectations and accountability concerning the treatment of the step parent; 2) a lack of understanding and/or acceptance on the part of the step parent about what parenting actually involves, and what their parenting role will be; and, 3) guilt.

Regardless of who instigates the split, divorced parents worry incessantly about how the experience is affecting their children. Even in my situation, where the motivating factor for leaving was the poor example of love and marriage we were setting for our daughter, the guilt was overwhelming. Was I doing the right thing? Once I remarried, it only got worse. I had brought her into this new household believing that everything would be better; instead, within six months, you could cut the tension with a knife. My husband, new to the parenting game, had very different ideas on what, how and when to discipline, and he had not yet learned how to manage it in a loving and respectful manner. As the misunderstandings multiplied, I began to feel as though she needed protecting. We divided into two camps, with him on one side, and she and I on the other. In a relatively short period of time, I went from a highly disciplined parent, with clear expectations and consequences, to a mess of indecision. I was questioning every parenting choice, and my formerly well-behaved daughter, clever girl that she is, took full advantage of the situation.

Enter manipulation. Once a parent has abdicated their authority, consciously or not, children will sense the shift and begin to work it in their favor. I am fond of saying, to anyone who will listen, that children feel safest and most secure when they know the parameters of their lives— what is expected of them, and what will happen if they don’t comply. Boundaries that keep shifting will not only create insecurity, but result in erratic behavior as the child continues to test the limits of their environment. As my guilt over our living situation escalated, my parenting approach was vacillating, swinging from parent to bunker-mate, and back to parent. Expectations and consequences blurred. She was no longer 100% sure of what was expected, and so did what she wanted. My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t certain if he was supposed to be a father figure or an outsider; implementing the values he had been raised to respect wasn’t working for any of us, and we hadn’t ever decided what his role would be. We had ourselves a prime setting for jealousy to flourish.

What I heard from the step parents I interviewed were many different stories, all sharing a similar theme: feeling left out, with attendant feelings of isolation, loneliness, and powerlessness. One stepfather says that he felt like he was the last one on his wife’s priority list; it wasn’t only her child who trumped him, but her siblings and parents. A step mom told me that she felt like she was married to two different people, the one who spent time alone with her, and the one who was a father and ex-husband. She was effectively barred from participation in that part of his life, and ended up feeling like she had been abandoned herself. A veteran step parent shared the ongoing struggle she has had to convince her husband that they need to put their relationship first. To this day, they all continue to battle their own jealousy at the time and attention their spouse’s children require and receive. In addition to the erosion of their faith in the marriage, the danger of viewing life through that lens is that you can end up embracing the role of victim. And while that’s tempting, playing that role also absolves you of the responsibility you share in creating and maintaining this dynamic in your marriage.

So how do you correct or prevent your family from succumbing to the ravages of jealousy? I go back to the key situational factors of clarity around expectations, parenting and step parenting roles, and the damage unrestrained guilt can do to your efforts.

*As a family, create a set of house rules defining how you will treat one another, and post them in the busiest room in the house. It is not advisable to demand that everyone love one another, but respect and civility are valid and doable. Include rules about how you will communicate, deal with conflict, and make decisions regarding the children, and refer to them frequently. Consensus is the key; let everyone take some responsibility for making this family work.

*Support your spouse when they come to you with complaints regarding the behavior of your children. This is not the time to be defensive; listen and validate their feelings and concerns. While you risk setting your children against your spouse if you punish for acts perpetuated in your absence, keep a sharp eye out for transgressions on your watch, and deal with them decisively and quickly. Be very clear about how important your spouse is to you, and that he/she is here to stay; demonstrate this with actions as well as words.

 

* Step parents must understand that parenting is a 24/7 job. Just because it’s not your weekend doesn’t mean that there won’t be parenting duties to attend to, like sporting events, back-to-school nights, the holiday performance, or emergencies. Be flexible and accepting of your spouse’s need and desire to parent. That said, it’s crucial that you set aside sacred time to spend alone with each other.

 

*Regardless of how manipulative they seem, children really are just children. Their motivations will be simple—fear, anger, insecurity, jealousy, and loss. While it’s tempting to assume that you know their intentions (to hurt you and drive a wedge between you and their parent), you cannot take their comments and behaviors personally. Regardless of who their parent married, they would be acting out in exactly the same way. This isn’t about you; try to be patient and kind, and do not take their behavior to heart.

 

*Put down your guilt.

 

Talk about your wasted emotion; guilt will only serve to undermine your health and confidence. You are human; you are doing the best you can. Accept that you are not perfect; admit it to your children. You can apologize for hurting them, but do not allow them to play you. They will not appreciate it, even if it looks like that’s exactly what they want.

 

*Be the parent, especially when it’s hard.

 

Your children are not your friends. They need and want to know that you are there for them as a loving and respectful authority figure. It is essential to maintain consistent expectations and follow through, especially when the rest of their world has been turned upside down. This is not the time to be the Disneyland Dad/Mom.

The challenges of step parenting are many, and often the only solution is time. Issues that feel so relevant and insurmountable now will soften with age, and sometimes disappear. Asked to what he attributed his success with his step daughter, one step father responded, “She moved out of the house!” He was only half joking; most of their tribulations could be attributed to close daily living. Once she went away to college, he was able to gain some perspective, and as she has grown into a responsible young adult, she has a new appreciation for the gifts he has brought to her life. So have faith, and practice patience. Your time, too, will come.

By I tiptoed up to the topic, believing that most of us are pretty sensitive about it: “Sometimes step parents feel…I don’t want to call it jealousy, but…” at which point Kelly, eight years into her step mom experience, interrupted, “Oh, you can call it jealous! I was definitely jealous!—of a six year old, no less!”

We were talking about what can often become a defining dynamic between children and step parents, and consequently, a divisive issue for a biological parent and their spouse. It’s not an emotion many of us are willing to cop to, especially if the trigger is two to three decades younger than you. Everyone understands if a child acts out when their parent seems preoccupied by a new partner, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot? Is it ever justified?

Horror stories of bad stepchild behaviors abound. One step mother tells me of a child who repeatedly fantasized publicly about the death of the step mom, relishing the inevitable reunion of her father and her biological mother. Another describes a teen aged step daughter who made it a habit of physically separating her father from his new wife, plunking herself down between them on the couch, sitting on his lap whenever he sat down, and calling his cell repeatedly during their rare nights out. A father recounts the memory of his young stepson cutting off the sleeves of all of his work shirts and suits. While each of these behaviors can be explained as a child expressing their anger, pain, and fear over the loss of their nuclear family, what is most critical is what the natural parent does or does not do in response to these actions.

In my experience, the appearance of the green eyed monster is dependent on one of three key situational factors: 1) a lack of clear expectations and accountability concerning the treatment of the step parent; 2) a lack of understanding and/or acceptance on the part of the step parent about what parenting actually involves, and what their parenting role will be; and, 3) guilt.

Regardless of who instigates the split, divorced parents worry incessantly about how the experience is affecting their children. Even in my situation, where the motivating factor for leaving was the poor example of love and marriage we were setting for our daughter, the guilt was overwhelming. Was I doing the right thing? Once I remarried, it only got worse. I had brought her into this new household believing that everything would be better; instead, within six months, you could cut the tension with a knife. My husband, new to the parenting game, had very different ideas on what, how and when to discipline, and he had not yet learned how to manage it in a loving and respectful manner. As the misunderstandings multiplied, I began to feel as though she needed protecting. We divided into two camps, with him on one side, and she and I on the other. In a relatively short period of time, I went from a highly disciplined parent, with clear expectations and consequences, to a mess of indecision. I was questioning every parenting choice, and my formerly well-behaved daughter, clever girl that she is, took full advantage of the situation.

Enter manipulation. Once a parent has abdicated their authority, consciously or not, children will sense the shift and begin to work it in their favor. I am fond of saying, to anyone who will listen, that children feel safest and most secure when they know the parameters of their lives— what is expected of them, and what will happen if they don’t comply. Boundaries that keep shifting will not only create insecurity, but result in erratic behavior as the child continues to test the limits of their environment. As my guilt over our living situation escalated, my parenting approach was vacillating, swinging from parent to bunker-mate, and back to parent. Expectations and consequences blurred. She was no longer 100% sure of what was expected, and so did what she wanted. My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t certain if he was supposed to be a father figure or an outsider; implementing the values he had been raised to respect wasn’t working for any of us, and we hadn’t ever decided what his role would be. We had ourselves a prime setting for jealousy to flourish.

What I heard from the step parents I interviewed were many different stories, all sharing a similar theme: feeling left out, with attendant feelings of isolation, loneliness, and powerlessness. One stepfather says that he felt like he was the last one on his wife’s priority list; it wasn’t only her child who trumped him, but her siblings and parents. A step mom told me that she felt like she was married to two different people, the one who spent time alone with her, and the one who was a father and ex-husband. She was effectively barred from participation in that part of his life, and ended up feeling like she had been abandoned herself. A veteran step parent shared the ongoing struggle she has had to convince her husband that they need to put their relationship first. To this day, they all continue to battle their own jealousy at the time and attention their spouse’s children require and receive. In addition to the erosion of their faith in the marriage, the danger of viewing life through that lens is that you can end up embracing the role of victim. And while that’s tempting, playing that role also absolves you of the responsibility you share in creating and maintaining this dynamic in your marriage.

So how do you correct or prevent your family from succumbing to the ravages of jealousy? I go back to the key situational factors of clarity around expectations, parenting and step parenting roles, and the damage unrestrained guilt can do to your efforts.

*As a family, create a set of house rules defining how you will treat one another, and post them in the busiest room in the house. It is not advisable to demand that everyone love one another, but respect and civility are valid and doable. Include rules about how you will communicate, deal with conflict, and make decisions regarding the children, and refer to them frequently. Consensus is the key; let everyone take some responsibility for making this family work.

*Support your spouse when they come to you with complaints regarding the behavior of your children. This is not the time to be defensive; listen and validate their feelings and concerns. While you risk setting your children against your spouse if you punish for acts perpetuated in your absence, keep a sharp eye out for transgressions on your watch, and deal with them decisively and quickly. Be very clear about how important your spouse is to you, and that he/she is here to stay; demonstrate this with actions as well as words.

* Step parents must understand that parenting is a 24/7 job. Just because it’s not your weekend doesn’t mean that there won’t be parenting duties to attend to, like sporting events, back-to-school nights, the holiday performance, or emergencies. Be flexible and accepting of your spouse’s need and desire to parent. That said, it’s crucial that you set aside sacred time to spend alone with each other.

*Regardless of how manipulative they seem, children really are just children. Their motivations will be simple—fear, anger, insecurity, jealousy, and loss. While it’s tempting to assume that you know their intentions (to hurt you and drive a wedge between you and their parent), you cannot take their comments and behaviors personally. Regardless of who their parent married, they would be acting out in exactly the same way. This isn’t about you; try to be patient and kind, and do not take their behavior to heart.

*Put down your guilt. Talk about your wasted emotion; guilt will only serve to undermine your health and confidence. You are human; you are doing the best you can. Accept that you are not perfect; admit it to your children. You can apologize for hurting them, but do not allow them to play you. They will not appreciate it, even if it looks like that’s exactly what they want.

*Be the parent, especially when it’s hard. Your children are not your friends. They need and want to know that you are there for them as a loving and respectful authority figure. It is essential to maintain consistent expectations and follow through, especially when the rest of their world has been turned upside down. This is not the time to be the Disneyland Dad/Mom.

The challenges of step parenting are many, and often the only solution is time. Issues that feel so relevant and insurmountable now will soften with age, and sometimes disappear. Asked to what he attributed his success with his step daughter, one step father responded, “She moved out of the house!” He was only half joking; most of their tribulations could be attributed to close daily living. Once she went away to college, he was able to gain some perspective, and as she has grown into a responsible young adult, she has a new appreciation for the gifts he has brought to her life. So have faith, and practice patience. Your time, too, will come.

I tiptoed up to the topic, believing that most of us are pretty sensitive about it: “Sometimes step parents feel…I don’t want to call it jealousy, but…” at which point Kelly, eight years into her step mom experience, interrupted, “Oh, you can call it jealous! I was definitely jealous!—of a six year old, no less!”

We were talking about what can often become a defining dynamic between children and step parents, and consequently, a divisive issue for a biological parent and their spouse. It’s not an emotion many of us are willing to cop to, especially if the trigger is two to three decades younger than you. Everyone understands if a child acts out when their parent seems preoccupied by a new partner, but what about when the shoe is on the other foot? Is it ever justified?

Horror stories of bad stepchild behaviors abound. One step mother tells me of a child who repeatedly fantasized publicly about the death of the step mom, relishing the inevitable reunion of her father and her biological mother. Another describes a teen aged step daughter who made it a habit of physically separating her father from his new wife, plunking herself down between them on the couch, sitting on his lap whenever he sat down, and calling his cell repeatedly during their rare nights out. A father recounts the memory of his young stepson cutting off the sleeves of all of his work shirts and suits. While each of these behaviors can be explained as a child expressing their anger, pain, and fear over the loss of their nuclear family, what is most critical is what the natural parent does or does not do in response to these actions.

In my experience, the appearance of the green eyed monster is dependent on one of three key situational factors: 1) a lack of clear expectations and accountability concerning the treatment of the step parent; 2) a lack of understanding and/or acceptance on the part of the step parent about what parenting actually involves, and what their parenting role will be; and, 3) guilt.

Regardless of who instigates the split, divorced parents worry incessantly about how the experience is affecting their children. Even in my situation, where the motivating factor for leaving was the poor example of love and marriage we were setting for our daughter, the guilt was overwhelming. Was I doing the right thing? Once I remarried, it only got worse. I had brought her into this new household believing that everything would be better; instead, within six months, you could cut the tension with a knife. My husband, new to the parenting game, had very different ideas on what, how and when to discipline, and he had not yet learned how to manage it in a loving and respectful manner. As the misunderstandings multiplied, I began to feel as though she needed protecting. We divided into two camps, with him on one side, and she and I on the other. In a relatively short period of time, I went from a highly disciplined parent, with clear expectations and consequences, to a mess of indecision. I was questioning every parenting choice, and my formerly well-behaved daughter, clever girl that she is, took full advantage of the situation.

Enter manipulation. Once a parent has abdicated their authority, consciously or not, children will sense the shift and begin to work it in their favor. I am fond of saying, to anyone who will listen, that children feel safest and most secure when they know the parameters of their lives— what is expected of them, and what will happen if they don’t comply. Boundaries that keep shifting will not only create insecurity, but result in erratic behavior as the child continues to test the limits of their environment. As my guilt over our living situation escalated, my parenting approach was vacillating, swinging from parent to bunker-mate, and back to parent. Expectations and consequences blurred. She was no longer 100% sure of what was expected, and so did what she wanted. My husband, on the other hand, wasn’t certain if he was supposed to be a father figure or an outsider; implementing the values he had been raised to respect wasn’t working for any of us, and we hadn’t ever decided what his role would be. We had ourselves a prime setting for jealousy to flourish.

What I heard from the step parents I interviewed were many different stories, all sharing a similar theme: feeling left out, with attendant feelings of isolation, loneliness, and powerlessness. One stepfather says that he felt like he was the last one on his wife’s priority list; it wasn’t only her child who trumped him, but her siblings and parents. A step mom told me that she felt like she was married to two different people, the one who spent time alone with her, and the one who was a father and ex-husband. She was effectively barred from participation in that part of his life, and ended up feeling like she had been abandoned herself. A veteran step parent shared the ongoing struggle she has had to convince her husband that they need to put their relationship first. To this day, they all continue to battle their own jealousy at the time and attention their spouse’s children require and receive. In addition to the erosion of their faith in the marriage, the danger of viewing life through that lens is that you can end up embracing the role of victim. And while that’s tempting, playing that role also absolves you of the responsibility you share in creating and maintaining this dynamic in your marriage.

So how do you correct or prevent your family from succumbing to the ravages of jealousy? I go back to the key situational factors of clarity around expectations, parenting and step parenting roles, and the damage unrestrained guilt can do to your efforts.

*As a family, create a set of house rules defining how you will treat one another, and post them in the busiest room in the house. It is not advisable to demand that everyone love one another, but respect and civility are valid and doable. Include rules about how you will communicate, deal with conflict, and make decisions regarding the children, and refer to them frequently. Consensus is the key; let everyone take some responsibility for making this family work.

*Support your spouse when they come to you with complaints regarding the behavior of your children. This is not the time to be defensive; listen and validate their feelings and concerns. While you risk setting your children against your spouse if you punish for acts perpetuated in your absence, keep a sharp eye out for transgressions on your watch, and deal with them decisively and quickly. Be very clear about how important your spouse is to you, and that he/she is here to stay; demonstrate this with actions as well as words.

* Step parents must understand that parenting is a 24/7 job. Just because it’s not your weekend doesn’t mean that there won’t be parenting duties to attend to, like sporting events, back-to-school nights, the holiday performance, or emergencies. Be flexible and accepting of your spouse’s need and desire to parent. That said, it’s crucial that you set aside sacred time to spend alone with each other.

*Regardless of how manipulative they seem, children really are just children. Their motivations will be simple—fear, anger, insecurity, jealousy, and loss. While it’s tempting to assume that you know their intentions (to hurt you and drive a wedge between you and their parent), you cannot take their comments and behaviors personally. Regardless of who their parent married, they would be acting out in exactly the same way. This isn’t about you; try to be patient and kind, and do not take their behavior to heart.

*Put down your guilt. Talk about your wasted emotion; guilt will only serve to undermine your health and confidence. You are human; you are doing the best you can. Accept that you are not perfect; admit it to your children. You can apologize for hurting them, but do not allow them to play you. They will not appreciate it, even if it looks like that’s exactly what they want.

*Be the parent, especially when it’s hard. Your children are not your friends. They need and want to know that you are there for them as a loving and respectful authority figure. It is essential to maintain consistent expectations and follow through, especially when the rest of their world has been turned upside down. This is not the time to be the Disneyland Dad/Mom.

The challenges of step parenting are many, and often the only solution is time. Issues that feel so relevant and insurmountable now will soften with age, and sometimes disappear. Asked to what he attributed his success with his step daughter, one step father responded, “She moved out of the house!” He was only half joking; most of their tribulations could be attributed to close daily living. Once she went away to college, he was able to gain some perspective, and as she has grown into a responsible young adult, she has a new appreciation for the gifts he has brought to her life. So have faith, and practice patience. Your time, too, will come.

By Mary Becket

Author: Father Matters