Discipline: A Stepmother’s Story

When I promised to write a blog about discipline, I didn’t realize all the feelings it would stir up. The memories of some very ugly years surfaced and while I have grown so far away from that woman I once was, it is still a difficult chapter of my life to revisit.

I am a custodial childless stepmom. I have grown no children inside of me. But I am a mother all the time. I raise an 8 year old boy as my own full time. It’s not been easy. For a long while now, his biological mother has struggled greatly in her life, and has no part in his. They do not visit, she doesn’t come around, in fact I don’t even know where she is at the moment. She quickly faded out of his life once the story of her struggles began to unravel in court.

His father and I have climbed many mountains and seen many things in our time together. As Bear is now 8, it’s been 5 years since we started this journey together.

It was a rocky situation at best.

When I became a stepmother, my Bear was 3. He lived equally with both parents. Before that he was with mom full time and dad had visitation.

He could barely speak because no one was giving their undivided attention to developing his speech.

The Bear was a tyrant; screaming, crying, hiding, kicking, and modeling behavior of his much older brother diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome (according to mom).

He almost never heard ‘no’, and the only one to really kick it into high gear with telling him no and redirecting him, was me.

Along the way we learned that safety equaled security. That although I was byfar the toughest adult on him in his life, he clung to me most. He felt safe with me. My lines were clear. The boundaries were not movable. Ever. To say I was rigid and demanded greatness from him is an understatement. If you’re currently trying to raise a child with a co-parent who seems to be on another planet, I sympathize. I was there. It seemed that mom would systematically undo all of my work in a matter of days, even hours at times. He would return back to our home a complete wreck. Each time more defeating for me than the last. He struggled in school, he struggled socially and his behavior was out of control. At that time, knowing nothing about parenting other than what was modeled to me growing up, and knowing even less about myself, I was really winging it. Because there was a custody battle in place from the time he was 6 months old, both of his biological parents fell victim to the Disneyland mentality. No one wanted to discipline for fear of it being brought up in court. No one wanted to say ‘no’ for fear of losing the popularity contest.

When I arrived on the scene, codependent, immature, unhealthy and ill-equipped to handle such a situation, my instincts took over. Well behaved children grow into great adults, I believed, so come hell or high water I will create an environment in which this child behaves well and does as he is told. On one hand, it was entirely necessary. Having little discipline before me and being bounced back and forth from two ASTRONOMICALLY different homes, he needed a steady consistent force to discipline him. I do not regret that time in our story, as painful as some of it was. When teachers are calling your office to ask you to retrieve the child because he is out of control, if you have no skills to draw from, your reaction is often yell, correct, punish, threaten and do not budge ever. That was me.

This dance went on for some time. And while my high expectations eventually straightened out his bad habits, it didn’t do much for his spirit and it certainly wasn’t helping me in my misery. I was so weighed down by the fact that I believed his every move was an extension of me, that although I’d send a seemingly well behaved and responsible boy to school, the love component, the peace, and the healthy fluid changes that occur within the most functional of families was missing. Something had to give.

I started the long journey of therapy. Nearly 4 years now I’ve been actively involved in my growth and recovery. I’ve had to search DEEPLY within my own childhood, the patterns I fell victim to, and the insecurities that clouded my movement in the right direction. Determined to be a better wife and mother, I searched and searched. But even more important than the role of wife and mother, was the role of a peaceful me. It’s easy to blame your misery on others. If they change, you’ll be okay. Except, change begins within.

I’d like to outline for you some of the things that have helped me most as I have weathered the journey of disciplining and raising this once very difficult child.

 

He is not me.
It literally has taken me years to accept the fact that his behaviors are sometimes just his behaviors. I think we all know that kids are smart, and kids can be entirely manipulative. They are very intelligent small humans. Certainly an argument can be made that he wishes to do things JUST to get under my skin or JUST to be rude or JUST to be hurtful. But I was once obsessed with his every move thinking that it was a reflection of me. I was terrified thinking everyone was watching me, everyone was judging me. If he slipped up, I slipped up. One of my insecurities lies in failure. I was a walking anxiety attack for longer than I’d care to admit because I believed that if he messed up, I was messing up. But that is not the truth. He is not me. He is him. He is his own person with his own wants, his own needs, his own thoughts and this was always hard for me because I believe strongly it IS a parent’s job to take responsibility for their kids. We are dealing with many generations of entitled children now. It’s become a serious issue and it’s one that I do not take lightly. But I know I won’t be the parent who lets him have anything he wants or allows him to be a hot mess without my intervention. I needed to stop making that a concern. My only job is to guide him with what I know, not make him me, or wear his every mistake like a scarlet letter.

 

Set Consistent Expectations. Don’t Waiver. Make it Their Responsibility to Follow Them or Face the Consequences.
We learned early on in therapy that Bear had to earn his privileges every day. That meant that instead of having an all out meltdown because he was misbehaving, we made it his choice to earn his privileges every day. We put the owness entirely on him. If he chose to misbehave he lost something he valued that day; cartoons, bike riding, etc. There were many boring nights where he did nothing but sit in his room. But when a kid is kicking teachers, we were running out of options. Eventually he understood that we weren’t messing around, that he wasn’t getting out of it and that we expected his behavior to be at a certain standard.

The Rule of 5 “No’s”.
I believe every parent is entitled to parent as they wish. But I do not agree with parents who never tell their kids “no”. This idea that kids can go through life without having to ever experience rejection or how to deal with someone telling them no seems crazy to me. But there is another side to this. I told him “no” or corrected him nearly every time he moved in the wrong direction. Like a toy soldier, I’d put my hands up to move him back to the perfectly straight path. One day my therapist suggested I could only tell him “no” or correct him 5 times in a day. She suggested it would make each “no” or correction more valuable and I would use them more wisely. Instead of correcting the things that weren’t a big deal, I would save them for things that were. Nowadays 5 seems like a high number, but at one time, it was a real struggle for me.

Encouragement.
My parents did the best they could with what they had. As I’ve worked my way through my own personal issues, I am now at peace with my childhood. But my father struggled with alcoholism and I believe often his own anxieties and troubles cast a shadow over his ability to encourage. Also, he was not encouraged growing up. It did not come naturally, sarcasm did. My mother was often so focused on my father that although she tried to offer encouraging words, it too would be lost at sea with the disease. So what did I learn growing up? Encouragement is uncomfortable and sarcastic comments disguised as praise are enough. Except, it isn’t. Recently, The Hands Free Mama summed this up best – I’d encourage you to read it, she hit me right in the heart with this one: www.handsfreemama.com/2014/05/20/to-build-or-break-a-childs-spirit/
It is hard to give that which you do not have. I did not join this party equipped to give healthy encouragement. I’ve had to find those skills on my own. This is an ongoing process. Perhaps you can relate. But I know for SURE that my boy does better by encouragement than discouragement, plain and simple.

Kids Are Feeding Off The Adults.
When you’re stressed, they’re stressed. Although their stress probably looks different from yours. Theirs looks like them bouncing off the walls, or whining about eating their peas, or rolling their eyes when you ask them to complete a task, or screaming/crying/yelling/pouting or anything else that you, as a parent would describe as “off”. If they are “off” stop first and look at you. Are you “off”? I’m not blaming you for their behavior, but they aren’t always equipped to express their anxiety or frustration, and you are all they’ve got for a stable force. If they think you’re upset, they are uncomfortable, so they get upset. Also, they end up modeling everything you do. I said earlier that I was a walking anxiety attack because everything he did would get me worked up. Let’s couple that with the fact that we had a LONG battle for custody, a LONG battle of just getting him to a place of normalcy and that pressure was ALWAYS evident in my marriage. But my husband and I being stressed and becoming walking anxiety attacks? That turned into him being a walking anxiety attack and everything his peers did got him worked up. If one parent is acting out, they are watching, they are following and they are going to be trouble. You can’t control the other adults in the situation but you can control yourself and help them manage their emotions. Which leads me to my next point.

Kids Need Tools For Expressing Themselves.
From a young age Bear struggled with living in utter chaos with his mother and her ‘disabled’ children (as described to us by her, I’ve never really known their true medical diagnoses), along with her unhealthy habits. In order to be heard, he had to be loud. He had hearing loss, and could barely talk. He modeled the behavior of his much older ‘disabled’ brothers. I can not begin to explain how difficult it was to get him anywhere NEAR a normal upbringing. I once believed that being a drill sergeant would keep him in line, and it did, temporarily. But the truth is that Bear had very few skills for expressing himself. In fact, I was always on such high alert from his previous bad behavior that I was often guilty of giving a “life sentence for stealing candy from the store”- meaning I would not always allow the punishment to fit the crime. Worse than that, I didn’t learn until later that what he needed wasn’t an empty scolding, what he needed was to learn what was appropriate. THEN it was okay for him to get punished because he chose that behavior knowing there were other options. We often fly off the handle at these kids because they JUST KEEP DOING THE SAME THING AND THEY KNOW IT IS WRONG. It took a very long time, but I started showing him what was RIGHT and expecting that instead. Much different results.kid-couple-hand-heart-sunset

Overcoming Manipulation.
They will do it. Bear has pitted my husband and I against each other many times. When his biomother was present he would do the same with her. Rule #1- believe them, but know that their word is not Gospel. Be discerning enough to know that not everything they say is absolute fact and THINK before you react. The only guard against manipulation is not allowing it to work. Don’t belittle, don’t yell, don’t make it into a huge mess. Simply don’t let it work. This isn’t always easy if another party is involved, and they wont get on the same page as you. But YOU can choose not to let it affect you, or to let it work against you.

Communication Is Not Optional It’s Required
Kids already know when you’re upset. We take that as an excuse not to communicate with them, which is actually most damaging. Instead, you should calmly relay your feelings on their level. I am frustrated because ____. I am tired. I am having a hard time with ______. Since they are expertat modeling, if you don’t like your weaknesses being mirrored back to you, it’s time to brush up on your weaknesses. One of mine was communication. I believed he was to simply do as I said, because that’s how I was raised. In reality, he is a person who wants to feel like a valued and respected member of the family. If you don’t respect them, they won’t respect you.

Show Your Emotions, But Know Your Emotions.
This is on the same line as communication. I don’t believe kids should never see you angry or sad or frustrated. But they do FAR better when you can explain why you feel that way. It took me SO long to be able to say statements about my feelings because not only did I not even know what they were, but I felt it a sign of weakness for me to apologize for them or have to explain them. This was a misconception from my childhood as well. I hear often about parents who are just simply spent, they are drained, they are overwhelmed, so they don’t give of themselves to their families. This is understandable but kids don’t get that. Instead of making them feel bad about being alive, or feel like they’re pestering you, just be honest, on their level. Know where your frustrations lie, and communicate them.

Yelling Does Nothing.
It’s been said to never yell unless the house is on fire. I used to think that was quite a crock. I yelled alot. It got his attention, and he knew if I was angry, I meant business. This was because that is how I was raised. My dad is very commanding. When he yelled, you better believe we listened. But it didn’t guide us or brighten our spirits, it instilled fear. I still lose my temper, but I am quicker to apologize and take another path. At this point, yelling at him doesn’t help. He will listen and he knows he is in trouble, but it’s MUCH more effective for us to let him own his own consequences, give extra time instead of getting mad that he’s going so slow, or model him different reactions. If the only thing he knows is max volume, max anger, there was no in between. Plus no kid wants to be yelled at, it’s scary and it hurts their self esteem. Instead I try hard to express what it is I want and give him time to react. I once was so impatient with him he lived in a hurry, just like me. What a miserable existence. I’m working hard on this now.

Take Their Stories/Wants/Ideas Seriously.
If they are sharing it with you, it’s important to them. LISTEN. They may not always want to talk to you for fear that you’ll get mad, or tell their mom, or judge them, or whatever. This is a matter of trust. Don’t beat yourself up if they don’t come running to you with every little thing. But do your best to make yourself available, and neutral, for when they do.

You’re A Better Parent And You’re Just Waiting For The Other Fools To Catch Up?
I can relate, I was in the same boat. I was so angry that mom seemed to be completely lost on the basics. He doesn’t wear that size shirt. His coat smells like smoke, could youPLEASE not smoke on top of the child? He is too old to be wetting the bed, how hard is it to be consistent in potty training? He shouldn’t be drinking Mountain Dew. He needs more than 6 hours of sleep. That medicine is expired. Don’t let him watch Jerry Springer. He shouldn’t be saying ‘shit’. You had him for 3 days, no time for a SINGLE bath? This was the tip of the iceberg.  I will not dive further into the mess that we endured, but I will tell you this, it was EXHAUSTING. It shattered every ounce of strength I thought I had. I quickly became someone I hated, fighting that nonsense tooth and nail. But eventually I realized that all I can do is my personal best and at least he would have ONE strong home. One place where he was clean. One place where he got good sleep. One place where the rules never changed. And as incredibly hard as it was, it made a difference. Our story is unique because her lifestyle ended up overshadowing her parenting abilities by the standards of the court, and he has been in our sole custody for years. But at one time, I dealt with all of this too.

A House Divided Against Itself Will Not Stand.
You need to remember this starts INSIDE your home. A battle between two houses is tough, but if you aren’t on the same page in your own house, your success is unlikely, so start there. My husband and I have been like ships passing in the night when it came to parenting. We still are sometimes. The only thing that has ever brought my husband and I back to neutral ground has been communication. The finger-pointing has never helped. I know, because it’s been done so many times. Now we try to identify specific triggers. We find the parts that are our weakest, and try to come to some mutual agreement on it. When I know for a fact that Bear is going to do something that puts me through the roof and my husband is likely to blow it off, I try to remind him why it’s a problemand offer a solution. This has saved my marriage, and my sanity many times. But we have nearly split on numerous occasions due to discipline disagreements alone. It took a GREAT deal of trial and error in this department.

You Don’t Know Where You Fit Yet Somehow You’re Stepping On Toes.
You do your best to tread lightly. You support your husband. You ask opinions of mom. You try to offer suggestions. You try to be good to the kids. Nothing is ever good enough and nothing is ever right. How defeating. Teachers won’t talk to you, kids report back every evil stepmother rule that you impose. I get it, I was there. At some point you have to distinguish the difference between being confident and cocky. The reason stepmothers get a bad rap is because somewhere along the line some of them think they run the show and expect high praise for their efforts. Finding your fit in a disciplinarian role can feel IMPOSSIBLE. For me this was the biggest issue. No chance in HELL would I be raising a child as misguided as the Bear. When I showed up he was off his rocker and in horrible shape. I took it upon myself to straighten THAT mess out as quickly as possible. But the only reason that even worked was because mom was so wrapped up in her own chaos and dad had never seena mother step up like I did so everyone eventually went with it. Someone had to get this kid in order and I was the only one stepping up to the plate. In hindsight that was unhealthy, unwanted, and caused a great deal of stress on myself and my marriage. Looking back I can’t believe it all shook out the way it did, but even when I tried to tread lightly, somehow I pissed mom off. Somehow I was too tough for my husband’s tastes. I literally could not win. No one seemed to see things as I did, and it beat me down badly. But when you’re faced with this situation you need to do some serious soul searching. Take it from me and learn from my mistakes. I was not confident in the beginning so instead I made up with my insecurity by boldness. Believe in yourself, KNOW yourself, and trust yourself. BE HUMBLE. Be kind. And if you’re doing your best, be okay with that.

Check Your Ego.
I don’t have enough time to go through all the ways I changed this child’s life. All the hours I’ve spent investing in him. All the money I’ve given. All the tears I’ve cried. All the changes that I can attribute directly to my efforts and mine alone. I can say, with 100% confidence that this kid has a far better chance in life all because of me. I have given him more than he would EVER have gotten without me. But I find myself immediately resentful when I start looking for thanks. To this day I still get hot inside when I think of all that I’ve done for him and that I am not getting proper recognition. It’s easy to do, you’ve probably done it too. All those expectations translate into me being annoyed by the Bear, me lashing out at him, or me over-disciplining or disengaging at times. But the truth is I dove in and changed his entire life, not because I’m a saint, but because I was too unhealthy to knowany better. I can’t very well blame anyone else for that, or expect much thanks from the outside. At this point, I have to accept it as a truth that I know, and find peace with myself. You need to take some time to think about why you’re so invested. Because investing yourself in anything is only going to produce a beautiful ending if you have the right expectations. I was an over the top mother. I gave every last minute of my day, dime in my wallet, and ounce of my sanity to this child. I did it because I loved him, yes. But if I’m honest, I also did it because I wanted to feel better about myself. Because I wanted to shame his biomother for the hell she put us through. I wanted praise. I wanted thanks. I wanted vengeance for a shitty few years and I wanted power over the situation.

These are all horrible reasons to give of yourself. And they translate into every interaction you have with these kids. Bear didn’t ask for an unhealthy biomother who would eventually walk out of his life. And he sure as hell didn’t ask for a wired up stepmother to come in and fill the void. He is just a kid. He needs guidance, love and encouragement. And while I could easily give money, time, discipline and correction, those other things, were not my strong suit. And to this day I’m STILL working through them.

Get a A Wise Circle – STAT.
This one is tough. We are faced with our own beliefs about discipline, the beliefs of the bioparents, and of course, our ever faithful “you knew what you were getting into” crowd. These are constantly battling each other. I don’t recommend exhausting every mommy blog resource and listening to the same old tired advice or directives. Branch out. Seek. Explore. Follow your heart. If you believe your kids need something KEEP FIGHTING FOR THEM. I surround myself with people who constantly challenge me to grow bigger. They ask tough questions. They have seen me cry. They have prayed for me. They have pushed me. They have congratulated me. They have kept me humble. This is what you want. The catty crew of know it alls won’t teach. The misery committeewon’t encourage. You may be wrong. Find someone who will call you out. You may be right but your heart is scared to move. Find someone who will help bring back your boldness. A true wise circle is not a group of yes men. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Make sure your village isn’t burning down the block behind you.

And last but not least…..

Hindsight is 20/20, When You Know Better – Do Better, Trust The Process, And Other Cliche Ideas.
They are spoken for a reason. I no longer regret the mistakes I made with Bear, because I forgave myself. I did the best I could with what I had at the time but I NEVER settled on that. I don’t make excuses anymore, I make changes. I never trusted the process. In fact I fought the process every step of the way. Until one day I realized that life keeps moving no matter how hard you want it to stand still and you can either grow with it, or stay stuck. I chose to keep moving and learning and I still make that choice every day. I am not the same person I was when I met Bear. But I had to go through ALL the valleys to enjoy the peaks.

Today I am at a point where I am able to reflect upon my mistakes and turn them into lessons. I do not fear for the future, nor shame myself for the past. We are all doing our best, but our best includes growth. If you aren’t moving toward a better you, you are going to be miserable. Start today with what you have, and keep taking healthy steps. The alternative is to remain stuck, and if that’s not working for you, which I imagine it’s not, I encourage you today to try something new.

Our story was bleak at best when I started. I simply decided to alter the ending.

 

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4 thoughts on “Discipline: A Stepmother’s Story

  1. This was a wonderful article, thank you for sharing. I myself am a full-time step mom and a bio-mom to two others. I struggle to find balance in most situations but have come a very long way. I have enjoyed your post on face book and find this article very encouraging.

  2. You and I have had a very similar experience,expect I had to deal with two stepchildren and two biomoms. I wish I knew you then. Maybe it would have helped me keep my sanity. My husband and I have been married for almost 7 years and there were many times I though about leaving because of his kids. But I stuck it out and now both of his kids love me! It was not an easy road,but we made it and both kids are doing well.

  3. Pingback: Love Vs. Duty: A Stepmother’s Story | The Childless Stepmom

  4. Your article resonates with me completely. I am a childless stepmom to 2 wonderful boys. They are wonderful and it is unfortunate for the stuff their parents have put them through. I admit I have pity for them but instead of showing that I love them, I tend to enable them and try to shield them from the consequences of their actions to compensate. I followed your same path of discipline and rules and yet I lack a lot of it myself having not been shown that in childhood.

    I too have that misery and I’m a walking ball of sad. The kids see it and there’s nothing they can do about it. I walk around sad so I can get them to save me… I’m finding this coping mechanism never worked as long as I’ve used it yet it’s a comfy mechanism that I need to drop like a hot potato.

    I have bookmarked this page to review whenever I feel alone, wronged by my kids and frustrated. There are people with my same story, the same path and we come out ok because we will take the time to care for ourselves.

    Thank you again for this post. I’ll be reading it again soon.

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