manipulation, manipulation in step families, step families
Marriage, Parenting

Manipulation in Step Families

You are probably not crazy! Since I don’t know you, I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out, but whether you are or not, as a stepparent there are times when you might stop and think to yourself, “Am I the one who is crazy?”

Manipulation in stepfamilies appears to be quite common, even if it’s not necessarily intentional. In a more extreme form, it is called gas-lighting. The Google definition is as follows:

                “manipulating (someone) by psychological means into questioning their own sanity.”

I don’t know about the psychological part, but keep in mind that it is likely that no one in your family realizes they are doing this to you when it is happening. Kids manipulate all the time, but guess who trained them to do it? The parents! Baby’s train parents to give them food by crying when they are hungry. They cry, and the bottle quickly shows up. Parents that negotiate with their kids on consequences will always have a negotiation begin when they attempt to enforce a consequence. We train them to manipulate us using the tactics that work for them!

As stepparents, we sometimes get to the point where we feel like we are living in someone else’s home. We get frustrated when we are treated like the outsider. When your spouse supports the kids’ point of view, it compounds the problem! Feeling crazy is just one of the results of living with people that treat you like you are different than them. Just so you don’t feel alone in this, according to other stepparents I’ve talked to, it appears to be a typical development in a blended family.

How This Played Out In Our Family

As an example, a typical day in our house is that I work a long day and come home around 10 pm to find a dirty kitchen with unrinsed dishes sitting in the sink and on the counters, and no one around to clean up because they have been gaming for hours. If I call for them and say that I want the kitchen cleaned and that it was inconsiderate for them to leave the mess while using an irritable “tone” (I hear a lot about my tone), I’m a crazy person! Commence the eye-rolling and “she’s crazy” looks between the kids and my husband, “there she goes again”, “she’s on one again”, etc.  And this is without yelling, ranting, etc. This is a very typical thing for any mom to feel and react to, but a stepparent is viewed differently.

As another example, I value hard work and independence. I have taught these values to my own kids their whole life, so this is no big deal for them. They both moved out at 18 and started supporting themselves. I have tried to teach these values to my stepkids, but they have had a different upbringing and while they have developed many wonderful values, they struggle with these. With each kid, I have pushed for them to get a job when they become teenagers. Each day that I asked the kids if they put in any applications, they would roll their eyes and tell me they didn’t have time to (really?!). There was always a general response of “leave me/them alone,” “what is your problem?” and “stop talking crazy talk!” Even my husband was making me feel crazy as I complained that they spent all of their time gaming and should start paying for some of their own expenses. My husband and I would fight about it to the point of me leaving and staying the night with my son’s family. He would defend the adults in their twenties living in our basement because they had him convinced that I was being unreasonable. The escalation from my initial conversation to the fight only reinforced everyone else’s attitude about me. I was pushed to the point of looking unreasonable when I was ignored, mocked, and basically told that I didn’t have a say in the matter, both by the kids and my husband. I felt like the crazy one, all while trying to reason in my head that most parents wouldn’t be okay with their adult children living in the basement and gaming instead of working full time jobs or going to school. (I should probably say here that they no longer live in our basement, so we have come a long way.)

I will never forget the pain I felt one day when after voicing my annoyance that my stepdaughter hadn’t taken care of something I asked her to do multiple times, I turned around and caught my husband giving the kids in the room a look like I was crazy. The kids had again convinced him that I was unreasonable! I shut down from the family again.  I stayed away from my husband and kids, didn’t talk to them for days, stayed at work, and began to wonder if I was really was crazy or at the very least, unreasonable. It felt like they were just waiting for opportunities to react to everything I did as though I was a crazy person.

When I confided in some of my friends that were stepparents, it was interesting to find that they had experienced similar situations. Can you relate to any of these scenarios? Have you ever been in situations like these where you did start to question your own sanity? I have just a few suggestions that I’m hopeful can provide some guidance and improve your situation:

My Advice For Your Blended Family

  1. Counseling: Counselors can give you an outlet and a resource in a private setting. They provide ideas on how to handle certain situations that repeatedly come up.  A counselor will also give perspective on whether you are overreacting to something due to other trauma in your life. I actually found some things in my past that were causing me to overreact to certain situations because I was connecting them to whether those people loved me, causing an overreaction and unnecessary pain.
  2. Friends and extended family: Consider reaching out to trusted friends and family. You will likely find that any parent would react similarly to most situations that you have found problematic in your family. I would caution you here about who you share information with and how much detail you give them.  Complaining about your family can sometimes lead you down a hole of negativity which will not improve your situation.
  3. Written communication: This is double-edged sword. My husband hates when I text the kids because he feels like they take the texts the wrong way. Apparently, I’m supposed to add emojis and exclamations to make it sound happy! On the other side of it, there are times when I was able to be very careful in how I worded my texts while the kids were responding irrationally with profanities, etc. Showing my husband those texts helped him to see my perspective of what was happening in certain situations and showed him that I wasn’t the unreasonable one. It helped open his eyes to what I was dealing with. I keep texts to substantiate conversation. I know, it’s sad that I have to, but it works.
  4. Talk to your spouse: Timing of this conversation is everything.  You should talk about it when everything is going well between you.  It is easier to keep the anger and frustration out of the conversation and honestly communicate the pain that you feel and ask them to give you more support when you can discuss it in a loving way.  I do recognize that spouses can be very defensive, so you will need to avoid triggers and comments that will take a turn for the worse with your own spouse.
  5. Your own kids:  There are times where I was really struggling and had conversations with my own kids as they got older. They were able to make me feel better about my parenting and even though they were close to their stepsiblings, they reinforced what they saw happening and validated my feelings about it.  They would also give me other perspectives and ideas in dealing with the situation that I found very helpful. Again, avoid complaining and negativity! Always try to use an approach of learning and improving.
  6. Stop reacting: I realize this is easier said than done! Sometimes, we just have to stop reacting for a while so that we aren’t constantly receiving the message that we are crazy. A lot of emotional preparation is required for this.  I do this by lowering my expectations so much that I appreciate when things were handled the way they should have been.  As an example, I prepare on my late drive home to walk into a dirty kitchen and clean it up before I go to bed. Then, I plan to walk into the kids’ rooms and lovingly tell them that I cleaned up their brownie mess so they wouldn’t have to, tell them I love them, and say good night. The response is better when they thank me and say they were going to do it. My response is “I know.” Yes, even if I know they had no intention of doing it!

If nothing else, there are other stepparents, like me, that have a very good understanding of what you might be experiencing. I understand how hard it is to feel like you are living in someone else’s home and treated like the one that doesn’t belong.  I do believe that in most situations it is not an intentional development. If it is, you may need some family counseling or you may just be in an unhealthy situation. That isn’t for me to determine, but I truly hope that the information I’ve provided can help you navigate this very difficult part of stepparenting.

FAQ

What is a blended family?

According to Your Dictionary, “A blended family is defined as a family made of two parents and their children from previous marriages. An example of a blended family is a woman with two children from a previous marriage who marries a man with three children from a previous marriage.”

What are common problems and challenges for blended families?

Common problems for blended families include children not feeling loved or feeling left out, sibling rivalry, children manipulating parents, ex-spouses, dreading holidays, vacations, marital problems, finances and discipline (or lack thereof).

Can blended families be successful?

Although many stepfamilies seem doomed for failure, it is absolutely possible for a blended family to be successful.  While some situations are unhealthy for everyone involved, many families can be saved if there is a desire to work through the problems

How common are blended families?

Blended families are becoming more common. According to Pew Research 62% of children in the U.S. live in two-parent households and 15% of those are living with parents in a remarriage.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *