Communication, containment and control
The heading sounds a bit control freakish, yes? A little bit authoritarian and heavy handed perchance? Well actually the reality is more about scene setting, providing positive courses of action and all that psycho-stuff. Steering, not shoving. Encouraging, not denying. Although denying may sometimes be required. Getting stepchildren to do their homework, and providing the tools for them to do so willingly. Taking an interest, showing approval, positive reinforcement and all that important parental stuff. Just because you aren’t their biological parent doesn’t mean they’re not your responsibility. You married their mother, you accepted this mission. This message will not self destruct but this is where you really start earning your corn, sunshine.
I mean there are degrees of influence here, and I’ve found a light, slightly devious touch is almost always best from the non-biological half of the partnership. Although with us the bargain was; “Mother proposes, Stepfather disposes.” Which is a very loose way of outlining the complex web of conditions and compromises that our relationship became. Mrs S and I would discuss stuff, often late into the night, sometimes we deliberately let the kids overhear.
Manipulative? Moi? But of course mon vieux. Sometimes it’s the only way.
When it comes to direct communication, I rarely bothered asking my new stepchildren direct questions, because at least in the early days I felt like I wasn’t getting honest answers. Like most people they told me what they thought I wanted to hear, or because they didn’t think I would understand, or wanted to obscure their motivation or protect someone, evaded the issue. No more no less, and it was no use getting cuddly in the vain hope that they’d reciprocate. Oh my goodness no. Unwanted physical contact? You child abuser you.
Yes, it’s that easy to get labelled, especially in the early days if your new charges have jealousy / loyalty issues. Which they will. I once had to step in fairly smartish when I overheard one of Youngest’s nastier little friends suggested calling a charity called ‘Childline’ and telling them I was ‘abusing’ her. Which most definitely wasn’t true. The very thought of causing children harm horrifies me. I took enough beatings as a child myself not to want to inflict it on others. My father thought the threat, open handed slap or tightly rolled up newspaper were often the only form of discipline. I disagree. Very strongly indeed.
In retrospect, what sparked it off was me telling Youngest off for letting the dog onto the sofa the day before, wagging an angry finger under her nose and saying a firm “No!” Which is as close as I have ever come to using physical force against my charges. However, upon hearing what was being said, my first move was not to challenge, but to listen carefully to what the evil little bitch on the other end of the call was suggesting before quietly calling in Mrs S, while I stood arms folded, foot tapping and a look of disapproval firmly riveted to my face in the doorway while my wife read Youngest the riot act. We laid on the guilt factor a bit thick, but it seemed to work.
As for physical discipline, if it has to be done, and it will, on hopefully very, very, rare occasions, and I’m talking once maybe in ten years here, remember one thing; as Stepfather it is not your job. The natural parent should always be the spanker when occasion demands. And those should be very sparing occasions when all else has failed. Your bond is fragile enough. and you should never be in the same room on the very rare occasion when such punishment is merited.
Here are my recommendations for discipline which have mostly worked for me;
For accidental breakages; Heavy sigh followed by “It’s just stuff.” And enlist their help with the clean up while feeding their natural guilt a little. This is also a useful ‘bonding’ stratagem.
For not so accidental breakages; Tell them to clear it up before natural parent sees it. Blackmail will also be your friend here. “You know that was Grandma’s (Or most loved blood relative) favourite, didn’t you?” If they’re deliberately vandalising stuff, as sometimes happens during strained emotional episodes, lock whatever away and deny their next request for money, sleepover, favourite TV programme with your own demand that they stop, citing their vandalism. In my case I always added “What did you expect? My undying gratitude?” Small, but very critical note here; kids can cope with being smacked, even abused, but what they really aren’t mentally equipped to handle is sarcasm. Especially when they know they’re in the wrong.
For open defiance;
Okay, I do have a specific example here in response to the “You’re not my father!” And slammed door gambit. As I recall, I’d put my foot down and refused to allow a certain little fiend, who I considered a bad influence (Parents going through a divorce, kids being used as weapons between the warring parties) over for a sleepover. This was the little fiend you understand, who I’d caught telling Youngest to report me to ‘Childline’ two days before.
I was working on a project report, dog curled up around my feet, when his tail began thumping to announce Youngest at the office door. She looked less than happy and said in aggrieved tones; “Mum told me I have to ask you about having Naomi for a sleepover.” Naomi being the pseudonym for the nasty little fiend referred to previously. The one who had been urging Youngest to make a false allegation of child abuse.
I stopped what I was doing, turned around slowly and looked at her very carefully. “No.” I said simply after a studied pause.
“Why?” She demanded. Actually she said “Why-er?” plaintively stretching the interrogative into two syllables.
“You know why.” The dog looked up at me accusingly. Was I refusing ‘Little Miss’? I glanced down at him with a ‘this is people stuff, pup, don’t get involved’. Well, that’s what my firm look and gentle scratch of his left ear was meant to convey. I don’t speak Dog very well, but he seemed to understand.
“But Naomi’s sor-ree.” Youngest protested. Could have been a lie, could have been the truth, but at that stage in our relationship I wasn’t going to take anyone’s word for anything.
“When she apologises to me in person I’ll think about it. Until then that’s my answer.” The dog put his head down, he could smell the tension, the big old softy.
“But I told you she’s sorry.”
“No, she’s not welcome. Not after what she told you to do.” I reiterated firmly.
Youngest’s face went pink. I kept a straight face even though inside I was cutting myself to ribbons. “B-but…” She stammered.
“When she’s apologised. To me. In person.” I said firmly. We ran a fairly relaxed regime but this was one of those times where I wasn’t going to be anyone’s doormat. Especially about getting falsely labelled a child abuser. No innocent person should have to tolerate that accusation without some sort of comeback.
“But…” Youngest got pinker still.
“That’s my final word.” I told her, still keeping my voice level.
Then the dam broke and she stormed off, feet thundering up the stairs with the parting shot of;
“You’re not my father!” Her bedroom door slammed shut behind her. I gave a heavy sigh and went into the TV room next door.
Mrs S looked up at me from watching the TV. She’d heard everything and didn’t have to say a word, so I knew this was my fence to mend. So I trudged leaden feet up unwelcoming stairs and knocked lightly on Youngest’s bedroom door. “Look, I know I’m not your Dad, but he’s not here and I am.” I said to the blank white painted panels. “I can’t just let people walk all over me. Even if they are your friends.” There was no answer, but I could tell by her breathing that she was listening. “But if people are truly sorry then I will forgive.” Memory is a bit hazy after fifteen plus years, but I think that was the gist of things. Hard to be sure, and I’m sure Youngest will have remembered it differently, but that’s as close as I can recall.
However, that evening the offending party was on our doorstep, full of contrition, and had the good grace to say sorry with her long suffering Mother acting as prompt. I held to my end of the bargain and accepted the apology. Then forgave and allowed that nights sleepover one more attendee. We never had to speak of the matter again. Well, the Police never turned up with social workers in tow, so phew, I think we all dodged a bullet there.
In some ways I was fortunate, or Eldest and Youngest were, that I have been trained in the devious ways of positive reinforcement and psychology. If you can handle a brain damaged nine year old who has to wear a padded helmet to stop them banging their head against a wall, teenagers aren’t all that bad. Also, Mrs S encouraged Youngest and Eldest to come to me for assistance with homework or tech stuff, and I overlooked the odd lapse and tried not to be pedantic, highlighting the good, and trying to show them how to do things just a little better where I could. If not, I’d ask them to walk me through their text books so we could learn together. Together being the most important part. These joint experiences didn’t happen often, but when they did they were useful.
“Hey, this is really good.” I’d often say, even if they could see what they’d written was not so great. Then I’d follow up with. “Hmm. Needs a little work. The ideas are okay, but they just need a bit of moving around.” And I would fix other stuff for them, no questions asked. Always trying for the light touch rather than forcing a total do-over. Must have done something right, as they’ve both done fairly well academically. Then again, my other half was always very firm about homework. It was to be done. They were It, their responsibility, with knobs on and no returns. So there. I’d do my part by making sure they got to their additional tutoring sessions, but we tried to make it clear that academic success was in their hands.
There’s another incident from memory from when Eldest took one of my kitchen knives out of the kitchen knife block and mimed stabbing me to my face. I was, I think, just going to make some toast, or begin the evening meal or some such, and she just began brandishing the blade. She was fourteen at the time. I simply stared her down. “Put it back.” I said flatly, turned around and walked away. Carefully watching her reflection in a nearby mirror as I did so. Of course if she’d come after me for real there were two options; first, she might have actually managed to stick my best Sabatier blade in me, which would have upset me because I don’t like the sight of my own blood, and also damaged the fine edge on a very expensive knife. Second I would probably have broken her wrist in a disarm, because they taught me in martial arts that you can’t stop halfway when someone is trying to stick a knife in you for real. I was always taught that when it comes to knife attacks, it’s either you or them, and my old Sensei would have spat on my grave if I’d let myself get murdered by some hormone fuelled fourteen year old girl. She never did it again, so I must have made the right choice.
Thinking about it, I don’t know who planted the idea in her head that it was okay to pull a knife on someone without obvious cause or argument beforehand, but I’d like them to know that it was a bloody stupid thing to do. Even scouring my memory I just couldn’t work out why she did it in the first place. We hadn’t had a row or anything like a disagreement for weeks. Well, it was early days and she’d just come back from staying with her biological father for a week, and I’ve observed that kids are always emotionally volatile at those times. I think the word is ‘conflicted’.
How they get into these states of mind is academic, as your job as a stepfather is to cool things down, not make them worse. Which is the really hard bit as they involve direct assaults on your psychic well-being. As well as any physical threat.
However, relations between Eldest and myself nowadays are quite cordial, and she grew up without ever threatening anyone else like that again. So I’ll cautiously tick that one incident off as being handled well and cast it into the mists of time where it belongs. As for made her think I was such a threat, well, I’ll try and handle that in the section; ‘Dealing with the Ex’. Because that’s another place you’ll sometimes find yourself in a war zone.
Or read further, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.