Photo courtesy of Jamie Street
A Therapist’s Tools for Stepparenting with Compassion
A Therapist’s Tools for
Stepparenting with Compassion
There is no one way to be a parent. The very nature of family is that it is as individual as DNA and as unique as a fingerprint. And despite the fact that blended families are increasingly common, we don’t talk much about stepparenting beyond narrow archetypes and cautionary fairy tales.
But there isn’t a rule book on how to blend a family seamlessly, says family therapist Ashley Graber, who sees a lot of parents and stepparents struggling with this delicate process in her Santa Monica practice. “Adults in these situations can be really hard on themselves,” Graber says. “We need to allow for a breakdown of perfectionism. We’re human, and we’re going to make mistakes, and that’s okay.”
With that in mind, we asked Graber for the advice she gives her clients on how to navigate the world of stepparenting, which ultimately is apt advice for being a good parent—or a good adult for that matter.
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A Q&A with Ashley Graber, LMFT
I like to use the term “bonus” instead of “step.” I find that it’s much more useful, and helps us better frame everything that comes with it.
Bonus parents who come to me often have anxiety first and foremost about not knowing their position. It can feel very uncontained when you don’t know what your role is. And that’s one of the biggest challenges: What am I supposed to be doing and not doing? What role do I have? How much say do I have and what exactly am I supposed to be doing in this child’s life? And who am I in this child’s life? It’s a skill to be able to tolerate the unknown. It’s also important to talk about it with your partner.
The second biggest challenge is how much patience is required for the process. When you’re in the daily grind of being a parent and things aren’t going smoothly or don’t always feel good, it can feel like time has been multiplied by a million.
Another big challenge is learning how to not be reactive. For example, when a child has had a bad day at school and they come home and freak out at their parents or bonus parents, you need tools to figure out what’s going on underneath an emotional outburst or anger. Especially with small children. As a bonus parent, you may come into that child’s life and not know them very well or not know the things that cause them the most struggle. What happens so often, and I hear this all the time, is people will say, “They’re manipulating me.” Of course that’s not what’s going on. But it can feel like it. They don’t have the language or the emotional intelligence quite yet to be able to say, “Hey bonus parent, someone teased me at school and it felt really bad.” So you need to have the tools to take a step back and be an investigator and figure out what’s thrown them off.
It’s really difficult. And so often as a bonus parent, you have to be able to say, “This isn’t about me.”
It’s really easy to take it personally when the children go to their parent and not you or if the parent, your partner, wants to spend time with their children without you. But you can’t take it personally when a kid is struggling with the fact that they don’t get to see their mom or dad and that bums them out.
All of this is challenging because often to be a good bonus parent—or a good parent—you need to do a lot of your own psychological work first. If I don’t know what sets me off, I’m not going to understand how somebody else’s actions are going to do that, and how interactions between me and somebody else are going to do that.
It’s helpful to have a practice of being able to grab onto a tool that helps us to pause, take a step back, and broaden our perspective. So that it’s not about “This kid doesn’t like me.” I can widen my perspective and say, “Oh, they’re hurting because their family was ripped apart, and there’s a new person in the mix that they didn’t ask for. And they don’t know how to tell me that because they don’t have the language for it.” Kids don’t know how to say things like “I really want to try to like you, but I feel like if I like you, then I’m not loving my mother as much.”
When I’m helping parents navigate this, I remind them that it’s important to choose love over everything. Which means often asking yourself, “Do I want to have happiness and connection, or do I want to be right?” and “Can I choose love not only for them but also for myself?”
The bigger picture is that handling situations like these, adeptly, takes a lot of practice. But if a bonus parent has a child who’s sort of flipping out and they don’t know really what’s happening and it feels very personal, the most important thing—no matter who is dealing with whom—is to pause.
Nobody can hear anything when emotions are high. When we’re highly emotional, we don’t actually have the connection to the part of our brain that helps us to be reasonable. Our prefrontal cortex has gone offline. What’s really important for adults to remember that if you try to teach in those moments, you might as well teach a wall because nobody can hear it.
Teaching and repairing do not have to happen in the heat of a conflict or emotional outburst: We want to model that we can allow ourselves to calm down, bring the prefrontal cortex back online, and then try to teach and/or repair with a child. The teaching and repairing can happen at any time afterward, so it’s best to do it when there’s no emotional reactivity, because everyone can connect to the reasoning part of their brain.
I remind parents and bonus parents about this because it’s really common to globalize small issues. Like, “Oh my god, my kid just did this, so it means they’re going to do this, which means they won’t go to college.” If you’ve become triggered, you have to pause, reel it in a little bit, recognize when you’re emotionally activated, and understand that when kids are highly activated they do what they do because they have less impulse control.
In a moment when they’re not highly activated, we can say, “Hey, I want to talk about what happened the other morning; that was hard on both of us.” Or couple hours after a reaction that’s raw and human, we’re going to go back and say, “Hey, you know what? That is not the way that I want to be in relationship with you, and I’m sorry. You know I lost it, and I do not want to be doing that with you, and I’m sorry. I’m an adult, and I am going to practice doing this a different way.” Repair at another time.
Kids remember what parents do. It becomes so important in those moments that the bonus parent says, “We just need to pause.” And that they can recognize: “We’re in it right now, and nothing good is going to come of this.” They see the bonus parent modeling the behavior, which is that they can’t handle this moment and that’s okay because they’re human. They’re going to pause, and we can all come back to this when we are capable of being rational.
Bonus parents really have to go at the pace of the child. Maybe their school changed, maybe their friends aren’t as close anymore. The most important thing for bonus parents is to not force themselves on children and to take more of a mentor-like position in the beginning. It’s like the concept of an aunt. They’re another person in the family, but they’re considered an aunt or an uncle whether or not they’re literally related to the parents.
So one of the things that can go sideways sometimes is that bonus parents want to spend time with the kids and really get to know them and show them how wonderful they are. But it needs to go a little slower than that. Dial it back and go slowly and allow the relationship to unfold naturally. There is no “normal”; there is just what feels right for you and your family.
I still tell clients to read Dan Siegel’s book Parenting from the Inside Out. The idea behind that book is that we have to understand ourselves first in order to not be reactionary to things that are happening. Basically it means: “If I don’t understand how the big T or little T traumas in my life affected me, I’m not going to understand why my behaviors are the way they are today.” It’s about understanding “How was I parented? Was that useful or not useful? Are there ways in which I get activated by things? I don’t quite understand but every time someone says this I go off in a rage.”
When you understand yourself, it becomes so much easier to have an emotional-regulation practice or use mindfulness tools, which can help you slow down and pause.
If you’ve ever been in your office and then all of a sudden your boss calls your name, and you’re immediately panicked. Like, “Oh my god, I’m in trouble.” When actually your boss may be calling you in to give you a raise or any number of things that don’t involve anything negative. If you don’t understand why that happens for you, you won’t be able to break out of that pattern.
One simple but useful mindfulness concept is what we call beginner’s mind. Which means that you put on metaphorical beginner’s mind glasses and try to view things through a lens with no history or baggage. You’re not listening to thoughts about anything that’s happened in the past, articles you’ve read the past few months or years, fears of what might happen in the future. You ground yourself in the present.
One of the ways we can be patient in the midst of a change is to be able to tune in to the little wins: Maybe you finally had a good conversation or a genuine moment of connection. Whatever it is, we can be present for that rather than thinking: Wow this is a bumpy road; it took two years to get to this place.
The ability to be present in small moments makes change wonderful. So often, the experience or the change isn’t the problem—it’s the story that we tell about it.
Ashley Graber is a licensed marriage and family therapist. She has her private psychotherapy and meditation and mindfulness practice at Yale Street Therapy and created the Mindfulness for Families Program at the Center for Mindful Living. Graber also co-owns Evenflow, a mindfulness company and meditation app. She is a public speaker and nationally syndicated columnist.