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Kim and I were recently having a discussion about unconditional love in a group of fellow step-couples.  I asked Kim, "Back when we first got together…did you expect me to quickly have unconditional love for Annika?" (her bio-daughter)

She thought about my question for a minute…"Yes, I did", was her reply.

I followed up with another question, "…did you expect Annika to have unconditional love for me?"

Without hesitation she replied, "No…of course not."

Wow!  Talk about a double standard.  But here's the thing, when couples get really honest with us — we find they've struggled with the same kind of confusing expectations.

Is it really about expectations?

Every step-couple wrestles with expectations around love.  Some are spoken and some are unspoken.  Some of our expectations are about each other and others are about the kids.

It's not just about the expectations we have about other members of our family, but what about the ones we have for ourselves?

As a step-dad, I wanted to "get it right".  When things weren't going well, I was often frustrated with myself…feeling like I was getting it all wrong.

And the problem is, too many of our expectations are unrealistic…and that sets us up for disappointment.

That all leads me to wonder what kind of expectations we should have about love in stepfamilies.  Or, if we should have any expectations at all!

Maybe unconditional love isn't about expecting a specific result…maybe it's more about the process along the way.

Focus on the Process — Not the Result

If you're like most people, you're focused on results.  

You want your kids to connect with your new spouse…that's a result.  You want your new spouse to love spending time with your kids…that's a result.  You want your teenage step-child to be respectful all the time…that's a result.  You want everyone to love each other unconditionally…that's a big result.

And if you're honest with yourself, what you really want is all of these results — TODAY. 

The problem is that respect, connection and unconditional love are all things that take time.  And every day that goes by where you don't feel you're getting results — when you don't feel respected, connected or loved — you might begin to feel resentful. 

I've been there. 

When I felt rejected by my step-daughter (and sometimes by Kim), I found myself stuck wanting connection…but not wanting to actually connect.  I was hurt and angry and the last thing I wanted to do was try to connect with either of them.  The hope of unconditional love was lost in that moment.

Over the years, I've realized that the more I focused on the results I wasn't getting — the less energy I put into getting those same results that I really wanted.  (Read that sentence again…you may need to think about that for a minute)

Finally, a trusted coach in my life spoke some truth to me.  He called me out — told me to get my head out of my you-know-what and start putting the work into getting what I really wanted.

Here's what I learned…

3 Steps to Focusing on the Process

So, could unconditional love be a reality for your stepfamily?  Here's three steps you can take that may move you a little closer to experiencing it…

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Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... Picture the Future

The goals — the wants — you have are good.  Experiencing respect, connection and love in your stepfamily should be priorities.

If you're not experiencing them yet, then decide how you're going to accept that reality.  For some that's a simple mindset shift.  Others may need to process with a trusted friend, coach or counselor.

And you're not just accepting your reality so you can stay stuck.  You're actually releasing those resentments and freeing yourself up to picture your future.  

Imagine what it will be like to enjoy time with your step-child.  Imagine how you'll feel when you realize your spouse has made you a priority.  Imagine how great it will be when you see your kids and your spouse having fun together.

Here's the most important part of this step:  you're crystal clear that this is the goal for tomorrow, not an expectation for today. 

Purposefully Act

Now it's time for you to take action.  It's that old saying "Be the Change You Want to See".

If connection is what you're after, then it's time to find new ways to connect with your spouse.  If respect is a big problem, then it's time to be absolutely sure you're speaking respectfully to your step-son. 

If it's unconditional love you want to experience, then it's time to learn how you'll be loving even when your step-daughter feels unlovable.  (again…I've been there)

Purposefully acting in these ways is hard.  It takes forethought and a ton of self-control. 

Yet, it's the key to keeping yourself focused on the process of reaching that future you picture rather than staying stuck focused on the results you're NOT getting…yet.

Persevere

This one speaks for itself.  It's all about keeping your expectations around the timeline realistic.  You're probably not going to get the respect, connection and unconditional love you're after right this moment.

However, when you persevere with a clear picture of your future and purposefully act every day you'll eventually get there. 

We've mentioned lots of times the research that shows it takes an average of 7 years for a stepfamily to fully integrate.  That means persevering isn't about the next few weeks…it's likely about the next several years.

It's Worth the Effort

We're 18 years into marriage and for us, that 7 year mark was not a point of integration…we were closer to destruction. 

I used to think unconditional love just couldn't exist in our stepfamily.  That's when my trusted coach got through to me. 

I started the hard work of letting go of my unrealistic expectations and started focusing on the process of getting our family where we really needed to be.

I still felt hurt, angry and rejected at times along the way.  But today I am free to let my guard down and still feel loved.  And I'm getting better at allowing Kim and the kids let their guard down too — without passing judgement on them.

I'd say that's the essence of unconditional love.

It's taken a lot of effort get here…and it's definitely been worth it!

QUESTION:  What's one purposeful action you can take today to move closer to the future you really want?  Leave a comment below…

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"Who's side am I supposed to be on?"

"Who should I agree with…Mom or Dad?" 

"Who needs me more?"

These are questions that many kids ask when they're moving back and forth between two separate homes.  They are also questions we wish our kids didn't have to wrestle with. But many kids feel they must make these tough choices.

Stepfamily expert, Ron Deal says that kids are stuck in the dilemma of 'Parental Allegiance' when they feel the tension of having to align with one parent or the other — the perception of having to choose between Mom or Dad…

Stuck in the Middle

The simple truth is that kids want to be connected to the people they love — just like we do.  They want to be able to enjoy their relationships without any strings attached.   And as they move between two homes, they often feel stuck in the middle — unsure how to respond to the building tension they're experiencing. 

Many children simply don't know how to navigate all the complex parental relationships that divorce and remarriage creates.  (These dynamics are challenging for us as adults to manage too)  And when kids are struggling, that's when Parental Allegiances can form.

My daughter, Annika was stuck in the middle when she was growing up.  Her experience was a clear case of Parental Alienation.  She just wanted to enjoy spending time in both homes, but her dad said and did things that communicated "strings" were attached to his love and acceptance.  She felt she had to reject me in order to be loved by him.  In the long-run, all this was detrimental to Annika's development and it caused much heart-break along the way.

All of this created a harsh reality for her.  She had to carry the burden of appeasing her dad mixed with grief over the distance in her relationship with me.  Ultimately she felt lost and struggled to know where she really fit in.

How Adults Influence Parental Allegiances

Annika's story is on the extreme end of the Parental Allegiance scale.  Yet it illustrates how a child's sense of allegiance towards one parent or another can be inadvertently encouraged.  Here are a few subtle ways that parents unintentionally create Parental Allegiances:

  • Invading the other parent's time with excessive calls or text messages to the kids

  • Casting blame on the other household for financial pressures or emotional pain — "Well, we could afford to go to the movies if your mom didn't have to have her support check every month."

  • Making the children feel guilty for enjoying time in the other home — "Oh…glad you had fun at your dad's, I just sat here all by myself feeling bored most of the weekend."

  • Sharing inappropriate information with kids, such as over-sharing your own personal and emotional struggles that should be processed with another trusted adult.

  • Judging or criticizing the other homes rules, routines or parenting style in front of the children.

These are not things we consciously say or do, but what's underneath it all is often our way of minimizing the pain of our own wounds.  Sometimes we feel justified when our kids seem to align with us or appear to "love" us more.

Sure, it can feel affirming — but it puts our kids in a very difficult position.  Rather than simply enjoying their time with both parents, the kids are focused on making their parents feel better about themselves.

3 Ways to Ease Parental Allegiances

Dr. Richard Warshak, author of the book Divorce Poison makes this statement:   "Children have the right to give and receive love from two parents".  To help your kids experience this more, here's three things you can start doing today:

 1. Minimize the Tension

For most kids feeling stuck between their two homes is unavoidable.  But, you can minimize their tensions and free them from the burden by providing the emotional safety and space they need to enjoy ALL their parental relationships. 

Allow your kids to share openly about enjoyable experiences in the other home.  I know this can be difficult to hear sometimes, but keep in mind that it's good for your kids to have positive relationships in both homes.  Be willing to put your own emotions aside and simply listen when your child wants to share what they've experienced with the other parent or step-parent.

Ready for a step-by-step process to create more CONNECTION, ORDER & PEACE in your home?

Get your FREE copy of our 4-Part Plan today…

Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... 2. Send the Right Message  

Be intentional and consistent about sending your kids a clear message:  "It's okay for you to love both your parents and enjoy spending time in both homes".  Every chance you get, affirm this message to your kids — both verbally and through your actions and reactions. 

In first grade my daughter was given an assignment to draw a picture of her home and family, which the teacher displayed on the wall for parents night.  With its two houses, two dads and two moms — Annika's drawing was very different than the other kids' artwork.

Mike & I (and my Ex and his wife) had to make a choice — to show validation and support of her family expression OR allow an awkward moment to dictate our attitudes as other parents (and their kids) scrutinized her drawing in comparison.  Fortunately, we were all able to respond with encouragement in that moment and  celebrate her honest expression of stepfamily life.

Let your kids know it's okay for them to acknowledge and appreciate their "blended family tree"!

3. Coach Kids Through Their Emotions 

When you sense that you child might be struggling with the tensions that come with a Parental Allegiance, ask how they're feeling.  Take an approach of curiosity towards the child's reality of living in stepfamily dynamics. 

A few open-ended questions like these may lead to new insight and opportunities to help them process through troubling emotions.

  • "Do you ever feel like you're in a tug-of-war between our home and your other home?"

  • "Why do you think it feels that way sometimes?"

  • "What might we do to make it easier for you?" 

Your kids need their feelings to be affirmed and a safe space for sharing.  When they experience this they'll feel comforted and see you as a confidante who understands them.  This alone can help relieve much of their tension.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is this:  kids want and need to be connected to everyone they love and when they experience this they will thrive! 

When you minimize their tension, consistently send the right message and coach them through the emotions they'll avoid staying stuck in Parental Allegiances.   

QUESTION:  What's one thing you can do — or one thing you can stop doing that will help your kids enjoy both of their homes more?  Leave a comment below…

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Does the mere thought of negotiating schedule changes with an Ex make your head hurt?

You're not alone!  Coordinating calendars between two homes is a common frustration for countless stepfamilies.  Everything from medical appointments to extracurricular activities can create conflict.

It's not just the conflict that can create headaches…you might also experience feelings of guilt when your kids end up missing out on a fun activity because of conflicting schedules that just couldn't be worked out.  That can even turn into tension between you and your kids — making you feel even worse.

And sometimes the biggest scheduling challenges seem to be centered around the fun stuff — like vacations.  And right now the summer vacation season is coming up quick!

You might be asking, "Really?  Isn't it a bit early to be talking about Summer Vacations?".  If you've got some negotiating to do with an Ex, it's never too early…

…every parent can reduce the tension around scheduling adjustments if they plan early and follow these simple tips:

5 Tips for Stepfamily Scheduling
  1. Resist the urge to procrastinate.  If you're like me, you'll put off the dreaded task of approaching this subject altogether — especially if you've been met with hostility and resistance in the past.  Nonetheless…the sooner the better!  Last minute requests have the appearance of disrespect and can add pressure to the situation.

  2. Attitude is everything!  Consider how you would like to be approached with a scheduling issue.  You don't want your Ex to come at you with an entitled or demanding tone, so do your best to keep yourself in check.  A respectful request along with ample time to consider and respond will make your appeal easier to swallow (and ultimately it fosters a peaceful co-parenting relationship).

  3. Avoid unnecessary changes whenever possible.  Most kids feel secure when routines are predictable and uninterrupted.  For their sake, do your best to schedule your vacation plans in a way that makes the smallest impact to their visitation schedule.  This one isn't about appeasing or accommodating the Ex…it's about providing stability for your kids.

  4. Always have agreement with an Ex before sharing your plans with the kids.  Telling Johnny you're planning a camping trip or a Disney adventure before you've worked out the details with their other parent could easily backfire.  This will help you avoid disappointing Johnny if it just doesn't work out and it will help minimize the conflict between you and your Ex.

  5. Learn to graciously accept a "No" without evoking a dispute.  There are times you just won't get your way.  So rather than allowing hostility and resentment to ensue — choose to let it go.  You also have the freedom to say no to scheduling changes when you need to.  But keep in mind that an Ex will most likely be flexible only to the extent that you are.  

Despite your best efforts, there will probably be times when your kids end up missing out on something you've planned.  That will often come with feeling guilty and may even lead to anger in the kids…

When Kids Miss Out On Fun Stuff

It's hurtful and frustrating when we've done everything we can to make sure our kids can be present for the fun stuff we plan for our family.  But it doesn't always work out…so, what's helpful when all this creates some heartache?

Following the 5 A's of navigating heartache:

  • Acknowledge your child's feelings and listen with empathy to their perspective — but avoid going into 'fix-it' mode

  • Assure your child that you're doing your best to include them whenever possible

  • Abstain from placing blame the other home or badmouthing them in front of your child

  • Accept that the circumstances are difficult and sometimes disappointing.  But keep yourself focused on moving forward

  • Avoid getting stuck in negativity.  Process your feelings with a trusted adult — not your child

Managing your family's schedule while respecting the other home can be challenging to say the least!  Compromising will always be necessary.

But you can make meaningful progress as you work  towards peaceful solutions that meet everyone's needs! 

Don't procrastinate.  Get started on making your summer plans today!

QUESTION:  What stresses you out the most when it comes to negotiating plans with an Ex?  Leave a comment below…

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I will never forget that moment of shock when upon my daughter's return, her hair had been cut!  And it wasn't just a haircut…it was her FIRST haircut.  Annika had long beautiful curls that everyone adored.   But, her new step-mom — who was a beautician — decided that my 4 year old needed a new look, one without her stunning ringlets.

I couldn't believe it!  I missed my child's first hair cut!  And not only that, but I was actually grieving her sweet curls.  She looked so different now.  How could this have happened? 

Unbelievably, my daughter's step-mom didn't even seem to be aware of how this might impact me.  She was excited about Annika's new look and thought that I'd be thrilled.  But I was experiencing disappointment on two levels:  First, I missed out on a milestone event and second, I wasn't even considered in the decision to cut my own daughter's hair! 

I felt cheated and hurt!  And at that point, I really didn't trust this new woman in my daughter's life.  Over the years, as she continued to cross milestone boundaries, my resentments grew and this negatively impacted our ability to communicate and cooperate.

Milestones Matter

In most cases, step-parents are simply trying to connect with their step-child when they inadvertently cross a milestone boundary — it's not intentional and their heart is usually in the right place. 

But if you truly want to develop a good, cooperative relationship with your child's other home, then you MUST take the time to mindfully consider milestones and be willing to respect this important boundary.

The significance of most milestones is that they only happen once.  For a bio-parent, a "milestone" will typically represent one of three things:   Something they've been looking forward to, something they've been planning or something they care about deeply. 

Here are a few examples:

  • First childhood experiences (attending a parade, movie, live production, sporting event, concert, etc.)

  • Chaperoning a special school outing or event

  • Shopping for a special occasion (child's first dance, the prom, a special performance, holidays)

  • Rites of Passage activities (teaching a child to ride a bike, shave, drive a car or shopping for first bra)

  • Altering a child's appearance (a haircut/color, makeup, piercing, unusual clothing)

  • Engaging in sensitive conversations (around puberty, dating, sexuality, spirituality)

Even if the bio-parent in your home (your partner) gives you the go-ahead, that doesn't necessarily give you carte blanche to commandeer a milestone.  Again, a little mindfulness goes a long way…and will pay off in the long run!

Strategies for Step-parents

To avoid unnecessary conflict and work toward building trust and cooperation with the other home, here are some tips that will help:

1. Ask yourself some crucial questions: 

"If the roles were reversed and this was MY biological child, would I really be okay with a step-parent taking over this role and sharing this milestone with my child?  How would I feel if I missed out on this milestone?  Would I be hurt if my feelings or opinions were overlooked or disregarded?  How would this impact my relationship with the step-parent?"

If you're able to put yourself into the bio-parent's shoes, you'll gain a deeper understanding of how your actions might create a problem which could lead to distrust, resentment and tension between the two of you.

2. Check your motives.  

If the questions above made you a little uncomfortable, you may need to do a gut-check.  If your motive is to do what's best for the child AND respectfully consider the bio-parent, that's great!  But if your motive is a bit shady…(you know what I mean)…then choose to stop, think it through and seek some sound advice.  One-upping a bio-parent or attempting to claim their role will surely backfire and create conflict for everyone.

Ready for a step-by-step process that will build CONNECTION, ORDER & PEACE in your home?

Get your FREE copy of our 4-Part Plan today…

Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... 3. Ask Before You Act. 

Depending on the situation and all the relationships, you and your partner need to consider the best approach.  It could be you or your partner that communicates with the bio-parent and asks for their input.  Be respectful and have an attitude of curiosity.  What are they comfortable with and where are the boundaries?  Maybe they're okay that you'd like to take the child to their first professional baseball game, but they'd like to be the one taking him to his first concert. 

Even if it's something minor, but you just aren't sure — asking first for some clarity is a great way to cultivate trust and ease concerns for both you and the bio-parent. 

Several years ago, while Annika was at our house, she wanted to experience her first haunted house for Halloween.  Mike really wanted to take her (he loves that stuff), but he realized this could cross a milestone boundary with her dad.  Mike called to talk it over with her dad and they ended up taking Annika together.  What an amazing memory for her to experience her first haunted house with both of them!

4. Own Your Oversights. 

If you unintentionally cross a milestone boundary, take responsibility and offer a genuine apology.  You might be surprised if something you thought was insignificant,  turns out to be a problem for the bio-parent. 

That's normal!  Try not to take it personally or react with defensiveness.  Instead, do your best to give them some grace and understanding - it's hard to be separated from your child and have to share them with a step-parent.  Choose to take ownership of your actions and simply move on.  

Strategies for Bio-Parents 

A cooperative relationship requires both parties to take responsibility for themselves and strive for understanding and unity.  If you’re a bio-parent, it's in your best interest (and your child's) to establish a cooperative relationship with everyone in the other home.

Here are some helpful tips when you feel that your milestone boundaries are being threatened:

1. Be Upfront and Honest. 

It's okay to calmly share with a step-parent those things that you're looking forward to, planning for and care deeply about.  You really can't assume that a step-parent will be able to respect your milestone boundaries if they're unclear about where the boundary is. 

If you've been looking forward to dress shopping with your daughter for her first big dance and you realize it's coming up soon, contact the other home and let them know that you're planning to take your daughter shopping for the big event.  Tell them why it's important to you and thank them for respecting the boundary.

2. Be Inclusive. 

Whenever possible, include the step-parent and help them to feel needed and appreciated.  Step-parenting is a really tough job, so be kind and encourage their efforts — they likely want good things for your child too!  Maybe you'll be the one taking your daughter to pick out the dress, but then include the step-parent by asking if they'll take her shopping for shoes or jewelry.  Be willing to open your heart and accept all the positive support that a step-parent has to offer.  And don't forget to thank them for their contributions!

3. Be Gracious and Forgiving. 

Expect that a step-parent WILL mistakenly cross milestone boundaries. There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect step-parent!  But rather than jumping to negative conclusions about their motives, give them the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand. Calmly let them know they've crossed a boundary and tell them why this milestone was important to you. Be sure to use good communication skills and don't play the blame game. 

Once you've respectfully communicated directly with the step-parent, then move toward forgiveness.  This isn't easy (believe me…I know), but holding onto anger and resentment is really unproductive and toxic for everyone.  Take time to grieve your lost milestone and do what you can to reclaim it (I have a picture on our fridge of my daughter at 4 years old — with her lovely locks — and it makes me smile).  Be willing to let it go and accept that things won't always work out the way we expect them to.

Almost everything about stepfamily life points to dynamics that are delicate, tricky and awkward.  Milestone mishaps often happen between the two bio-parents as well.  Sometimes we just aren't sure how to respond or what to think.  It can get complicated and confusing very quickly!  But don't lose hope!  You can work together (even when it's messy) to build cooperative relationships and a supportive environment that's respectful to all!

QUESTION:  What's one milestone you see coming up in your child / step-child's life that you need to prepare for?  Leave a comment below…

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Kim and I started dating in September of 2000.  We were engaged by Christmas and walking down the aisle on March 16, 2001!

Yes…today is our 18-Year Anniversary! (unless you're reading this someday long after it posts :-)

But, this story isn't really about us.  It's about Annika.

Annika was just turning 5 years old when we began dating.  I look back now and realize just how much change she had to adjust to in a very short period of time.  The span of time between her meeting me and me marrying her mom was just a little over 6 months!  That's a lot of change for a 5-year-old!

We were lucky though…for the most part she seemed to be able to roll with all the changes.  When we told her we were getting married, she seemed genuinely excited.  As we made all the plans, she was involved and typically happy.

But announcing our engagement wasn't the only "Big News" Annika has heard over the years.  She's had to move multiple times, we added two more kids to the family in the first 5 years of our marriage…the list goes on. 

Not Always a Happy Story

We're grateful for Annika's ability to handle big news over the years.  But the more we connect with step-couples, the more realize that's not everyone's story. 

Sometimes big news is met with tears, screaming, silence or panic.  Other times the response is laughter, sarcasm or simply denial.

And here's the thing…you're probably not done delivering "Big News"…

…because it doesn't end with announcing an engagement.  Kids are impacted by all kinds of news in stepfamily life and you might be blindsided by their reaction. 

Different kids will react to different things, but every step-couple can minimize negative reactions by doing a little bit of prep work before the conversation.

4 Prep-Steps for Delivering Big NewsPrepare yourself

Don't get caught off guard by an emotional "explosion".   Even if you think your child will take the news you're delivering well, be prepared for the opposite.

Whether it's a wedding announcement or a new baby on the way, for kids things just aren't real until they're REAL.  They likely have no idea that the next big thing is coming and that can catch them off guard.

If they freak out…you don't have to freak out. 

Most likely they're responding to some kind of fear or insecurity.  It's probably not a personal attack against you or your partner.  They just need your help processing difficult emotions.

In that moment, don't jump in to "fix it" mode or try to convince them to feel differently than they do.  Instead, listen to their worries and do your best to reassure them of your love and commitment to them.

Ready for a step-by-step process that will build CONNECTION, ORDER & PEACE in your home?

Get your FREE copy of our 4-Part Plan today…

Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... Acknowledge What's Changing…and What's Not

Your kids need to know that you empathize with the changes they have to navigate. 

Gaining a new step-parent, moving to a new neighborhood, changing schools, living with step-siblings, experiencing new holiday traditions….the list of things that kids have to adjust to can go on and on.  These adjustments are "Big News" for kids, even if they feel like little things to us.

Helping kids understand what will be changing and being clear on what WON'T change can help them accept the news much easier.

"I want you to know that we're getting married…but you and I are still going to have our Sunday morning breakfast just like we always have."

"We're moving to a new house, but you're still going to have your own bedroom and you won't have to change schools."

When you have Big News to share with your kids, make sure to think through as many things as you can that won't change and share them right away.  This will help them feel a sense of stability and security which may minimize negative reactions.

Honor Their Other Loyalties

When big news comes, kids quickly begin to work out how the changes will impact other relationships that are important to them.  How will the change impact time with their parent in the other home?  How will it impact access to friends?  How will it impact their time around extended family members?

You may be surprised by the relationships they worry about when they hear your big news.  In that moment, do your best to stay focused on honoring those relationships (even if it's about your Ex!)

If you believe they'll still have the same access to those people…tell them exactly why you believe that.  If you realize that something will have to change, then focus on how they can stay connected to those relationships and what you're willing to do to support that.

Telling kids things like "you'll make new friends" or "you'll still be able to FaceTime with Dad any time you want" might be true, but it won't help them process in the moment.

Instead, focus on statements like, "you've got some great friends here…how do you think you can stay connected with them?" or "I'm glad you and your dad are close…let's talk about ways you can connect with him even though we'll be farther apart".

Hanging in there with these conversations will help your kids discover that they can still be connected to the relationships they feel loyal to.

Don't Assume it's "One and Done"

Big news can take a while for kids to process.  So, plan ahead for multiple conversations.

Remember that you've been thinking about your "Big News" for a while…but it may take them time to catch up.

Keep an ongoing dialog with the kids throughout the changes they're experiencing.  They may have a delayed "explosion" or just need a little extra reassurance along the way.

Be intentional about checking in with them often to see how they're feeling.  Remind them of the things that WON'T be changing to help them maintain a sense of stability.  Plan with them the time and place they'll connect with those people they feel loyalty to.

Don't try to "Wing It"

Those times when I'm caught off-guard by our kid's reactions are the times I'm at my worst.  I respond with words and attitudes that don't really help.  And usually when I look back on those moments, I realize that just a little forethought would have gone a long way.

When you have "Big News" to share with your kids, don't just wing it…take the time to think through how the news will impact them and how you think they'll react.  Be prepared to reassure them and be patient as they work through their worries and fears. 

Approaching "Big News" with these 4 Prep-Steps will help you minimize those negative reactions!

QUESTION:  What are some other ways you prepare yourself to deliver "Big News" to your kids?  Leave a comment below…

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Do you secretly have a favorite child in your stepfamily?  You know…the one that's easy to connect with and just melts your heart with that adorable smile.

It's common for us to gravitate more easily toward one particular child — this is true even in first family dynamics.  But in a stepfamily it's the biological connections that more naturally hold a special place in our hearts.  But what does that say about the step-relationships?  How does this play out in our daily lives of juggling responsibilities, disciplining and prioritizing our time?

Mine and Ours 

I'll never forget how proud Mike was when our daughter Phoebe was born.  It was his first biological child and he was over the moon. 

I wondered how my 7 year old daughter Annika (his step-daughter) was feeling as Mike showed off Phoebe to family and friends, delighting in every little detail of her being.  Did she feel displaced or jealous…did she feel like she had to compete for his love and favor

Only 17 months later our son Jacob was born.  How would these two "ours" kids impact Annika and her relationship with Mike?  I wondered if he would favor our mutual children or if he would treat all the kids in the same way.

Love vs Favor

The question we wrestle with is this:  Should step-parents be expected to love a step-child the same way they love their bio-child? 

We really can't expect love to magically happen in step relationships - it takes time for connection to grow.  You may love your spouse madly and therefore 'love' their child because they're a part of your spouse…but that doesn't guarantee that genuine affection for a step-child will automatically become a reality.  There really is no such thing as 'instant love' when it comes to blending two families.

The truth is, showing favor is different than love…and favor is a double-edged sword.  It can be relatively easy for a step-parent to favor a step-child — behave friendly, supportive and kind toward them.  But when bio-children are part of the dynamic, this can become something else altogether.  Favor tends to look more like preferential treatment or favoritism toward those with biological ties.

While love is an emotion that grows over time, showing favor is a behavior that we choose.

Honest Communication

Soon after our mutual children arrived, Mike honestly shared his conflicting emotions with me.  He'd grown to love Annika, but his love for her was different than his love for Phoebe and Jacob. 

I understood this, but it also hurt my heart a little bit.  I didn't want his unique connection to our mutual kids to hinder his growing affection for Annika.  I also felt protective and concerned for her — I didn't want her to feel 'less than' or 'left out' if Mike showed favoritism toward the other kids.

This was a touchy topic, but the more we communicated about the realities of our dynamic and expressed our feelings and fears, the easier it became.  Continual communication helped us to make better decisions when those awkward situations came along.   This wasn't always easy, but it was well worth the effort. 

I'm grateful Mike realized that the difference he felt in his affection for Annika compared to the younger kids should not translate into inequity in the way he treated all of them.  We stayed connected and worked as a team to openly consider how our decisions and behaviors were impacting all the kids.

We took notice of how each child responded to certain situations where favoritism might become an issue.  Sibling rivalry is a predictable outcome of parental favoritism, so we were vigilant in watching for signs that there could be a problem.  We didn't always get it perfect, but we did our best to show equality for all the kids. 

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Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... Favoritism Traps

In his article Playing Favorites Can Wreak Havoc in a Stepfamily, expert Ron Deal reveals four areas where stepfamilies tend to struggle with favoritism.  Here are some helpful tips to help all of us avoid favoritism traps:

1. Gift Giving -  From You or Others 

You don't have to spend the exact same amount of money on each child for birthdays or special occasions.  How much you spend will be influenced by the age of the child, their likes, interests and developmental maturity.  Regardless of the dollar amount, you can still be equitable in your giving.

If you've purposed in your heart to treat all the kids fairly, then over time it will all balance out because you aren't overtly favoring one child over another.  If necessary, you can even request that grandparents or extended family to generally spend the same amount of money on all the children.

2. Prioritizing Your Time 

One-on-one time between bio-parents and their kids is important; however, it should be balanced with focused time for everyone in the family.  You need to communicate your commitment to your kids and step-kids.  So, adjust your schedule and look for opportunities to make a personal connection with every child in your stepfamily — even if it's something small.

3. Disciplining or Extending Leniency

Strive to be objective and fair.  You'll need to discuss and agree how behavioral issues in your home will be handled so that disciplinary decisions are balanced and consistent for all.  Also be careful about positioning parental authority — this is a common challenge for step-couples.  

4. Chores and Responsibilities

Don't burden some children more than others.  Make the expectations clear to all the kids and follow through when they aren't met.  Even kids who are only in your home part-time need to learn life skills and responsibility, so everyone should be given age appropriate jobs around the house.

Take Action

The complex dynamics in stepfamilies often lead to certain vulnerabilities.  Favoritism is one that can wreak havoc and cause a lot of pain.  But you don't have to fall into these traps.  

I encourage you to talk openly as a couple — even if it's hard to admit you've got a "favorite".  The different feelings you may have for each child doesn't mean those feelings are about 'better' or 'worse'.  It just means the emotions you're experiencing are different — and that's okay. 

Choose to communicate with each other and make wise decisions that are equitable for everyone.

QUESTION:  Which of the 4 Favoritism Traps might your stepfamily be experiencing? Leave a comment below…

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Take a second to recall that season when you began falling in love. 

Remember how you used to talk for hours without getting bored?  Remember how easy it was to clear your calendar just to spend a little more time together?  Remember how much you laughed together?

I remember all kinds of things from our dating days and to be honest, I kinda miss them.

As a guy, it's hard to admit that I'm a hopeless romantic…but I am.  I want to re-live those early relationship experiences.  I crave the thrill of shirking responsibilities just spend time with Kim.  I want the fun of discovering new things about each other. 

But stepfamily life doesn't always give us the time, energy or resources to keep that early romance alive.  Some days I feel like our flame has just died out.

Those are the days I can feel rejected and resentful.  I sometimes try to manufacture those old thrills, but it just falls flat and I wonder why our connection isn't turning out like I thought it would. 

And worse, I start to believe Kim just doesn't care…even though I know that's not actually true.  The stories in my head build up and resentments start to set in.  But the truth is after 18 years of marriage (or even 18 months), it's unrealistic to expect the same thrills to keep coming.

But, that's not to say we can't still experience a little fun and excitement along the way.

Eventually, most couples experience this kind of thing at some level.  If you've ever felt even a little like I have, then it's time you talk about what to Release and what to Reclaim.

The Key is to Release and Reclaim

There are some things you'll never get back no matter how hard you try.  That might be hard to accept, but the sooner you do the sooner you'll move forward.  Releasing things you really desire is hard, but the more you try to cling to what's unrealistic the more resentments you risk building.

And then there are those things that MUST remain alive in your relationship.  The little bricks of intimacy that build a solid foundation for you to build your marriage on.  Reclaiming these little things that may have been neglected over the past few months or even years are vital for your future.  They're vital for your whole family's future.

To start discovering what you need to release and reclaim, think about these four areas of your relationship:

Time

Early on it probably seemed like you could always find time for each other.  Maybe it was going for a walk, grabbing dinner together or even those long phone calls after each of your kids were down for the night.

It's funny how often step-couples struggle to find time to spend together.  They still both have the same jobs…the same number of kids they had when they were dating…generally the same commitments they had prior to getting everyone under one roof.  But for some reason just a few months in, it can feel impossible to find time for a date night!

You'll probably never experience the same quantity of time to build your romance as you did when you were first dating.  If you're trying to do that and it keeps failing, then it's time to release that expectation.

Instead, focus on the time you can reclaim.  Can you agree to a date night once a week or even twice a month?  Talk about what time you CAN reclaim and then get it on the calendar!  I know, I know, scheduling doesn't always feel romantic.  But most stepfamilies seem to be a "time vortex" and if you don't intentionally protect your time together it will easily get sucked away.

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Yes! Get My Free Copy Now... Attention

Alright, so now you've reclaimed some time together…what about your attention?

There's a little café that Kim and I really like.  It's small, generally quiet and a bit romantic.  Across the dining room is the bar and above the bar is a TV…you see where I'm going with this.  Now, I'm not even much of a sports guy…but the amount of times my eyes wander to that glowing beacon of an unimportant game can be sickening.

When we were dating, the focused attention we gave each other was incredible.  We were learning about each other.  We were sharing ourselves and discovering how much we connected.  Paying attention was just easy.  And sometimes I still want that…well a lot of the time!

You might want that too, but you probably need to re-evaluate that expectation.  There are going to be times when you want some attention, but you're not going to get it.  There are everyday distractions, just like that stupid TV in the café that will pull you away from each other.  So, release those high expectations.

And here's what you can reclaim:  intentionality.  I sometimes sit with my back to that TV just so I can stay focused on Kim.  It's an intentional decision that I have to really think about.

What is it that's distracting you…social media…work…dealing with the Ex?

Whatever it might be reclaim some of the attention you both need by being intentional about turning your back to those distractions for just a little while.

Words

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me - remember that one?  It's a big fat lie.

When you were dating, I'm betting you chose your words carefully.  Think back to that first time you really got mad at your partner…you probably even chose your words carefully in that moment. 

As months and years go by it's easy to get reckless with words.  They're just a little more cutting or maybe even filled with explosive profanity.  And when those reckless words work their way into your conflicts, they tear down your intimacy. 

It takes a lot of sincerely kind words to recover from just one cutting remark.  You might need to release some things in your vocabulary today.  And it may take some work. 

Kim and I spent several years throwing verbal daggers at each other whenever we had a conflict.  It's been hard for both of us to break that habit.  But as we've released those cutting comments, we've been able to reclaim the respectful, loving words we spoke so easily 18 years ago.

What words have been hurting your intimacy lately?  Talk to each other and work toward releasing them so that you can reclaim the love in your conversation that you're really after.

Laughter

When Kim and I first met, we were working together.  As we started dating she had this funny little bendable guy on her desk with magnetic hands and feet.  My day started earlier than hers, so I would move him around, dress him up with sticky notes, position him doing stupid stuff and sometimes add funny captions.  I did this every day for months…I do have to say my creative genius was pretty incredible. :-)

That little guy always brought a smile to Kim's face and we typically had a giggle about it.  No matter what kind of morning she had, she still got a moment to laugh right when she got to the office.

I don't do that anymore…it's just one of those things you can't re-create.  We've both had to release that fun little ritual.

And the truth is, sometimes we outgrow things we used to think were funny.  But sometimes the stress and pressure of stepfamily life just saps our joy and laughter seems elusive.

If you've noticed a big lack of laughter in your relationship it might be time to reclaim what's funny to you today.  Next time you go to the movies, pick a comedy.  Search for that funny Hallmark card that will make him/her laugh. 

Don't give up on making each other laugh…it will grow your intimacy and feed the soul of your marriage.

Connect This Week

Sometime this week take the time to share with each other what you need to release and reclaim.  Maybe schedule a date night just to talk through these 4 areas and how you can build deeper intimacy in each of them.

QUESTION:  What's one thing you need to reclaim in your relationship today? Leave a comment below…

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I struggled for years to master basic parenting skills.  I wanted my kids to learn how to behave responsibly, but as most parents quickly realize…this isn't as easy as it sounds. 

Kids don't just wake up one day and decide to change their poor behaviors.  It's really up to us — the parents — to set behavioral expectations, hold kids accountable and then make the necessary corrections when they inevitable make yet another poor choice. 

I can exhaust myself just thinking about the dedication and consistency it takes to raise responsible kids!

Of course sometimes we experience those sweet moments of victory when it all comes together and we actually get to reward our kids for good behavior — that's the fun part of parenting!  But for me - and every other parent I know - the majority of the time we're responding to poor behavior and struggling to get our kids to change bad habits, learn life skills and develop solid character traits.

But how can we do this effectively…we can try punishing, yelling, spanking and stern talks that start to sound like a broken record.  But how do kids truly internalize and accept the lessons they need to learn?  And what methods lead to set-backs and actually keep kids from taking responsibility for themselves?

These are questions I've asked myself…and thankfully I found an excellent resource that answered these questions and helped me become a more effective and loving parent.  The resource is Parenting with Love & Logic and one of the most valuable things I've learned is around the impact of using empathy with consequences when teaching kids to take responsibility for their behavior.

Power and Control

Whether we want to admit it or not, our kids have a lot of power and control. 

They know that their behavior has power.  It can destroy a household or ruin an outing and cause a parent to explode in frustration.  And there are many things that parents simple can't control.  You really can't make your child do the right things.  But every child needs to learn self-control and the importance of healthy boundaries.

When kids misuse their power or cross the boundaries — and we know they will — unwise parents become angry and lose control themselves.  They might resort to bribery, threats or worse. 

But wise parents allow consequences to do the teaching.  And the key is empathy!

Empathy with Consequences

According to Love & Logic:  "Letting the consequences do the teaching isn't enough.  As parents we must show our empathy — our sincere, loving concern — when the consequences hit.  That's what drives the lesson home with our children without making them feel as though we're not 'on their side'." 

Put yourself in your child's shoes and imagine how each of these contrasting statements might make them feel — about themselves and about you:

Emma acts out and refuses to eat dinner with the family, then complains at bedtime about being hungry:

ANGRY WORDS:  "Of course you're hungry now...I told you to eat your dinner, but you wouldn't listen."

EMPATHETIC WORDS:  "Bummer - I know how that feels.  I get hungry too when I miss a meal…in the morning we'll have a nice big breakfast".

Johnny gets a low math grade on his report card:

ANGRY WORDS:  "Well since you don't do your homework of course you're gonna flunk math"

EMPATHETIC WORDS:  "Oh, how awful…I remember how that feels — sometimes I got poor grades too when I was a kid because I didn't apply myself.  What do you think you can do about it?"

Instead of putting ourselves up against our kids, lashing out in anger or engaging in a power struggle, it's more effective for parents to stay focused on offering empathy when kids make mistakes. 

Punishment vs Consequences 

Listen to what Love & Logic says about punishments:  "When we punish our children, we provide them with a great escape valve, an escape from the consequences of their action.  They never have to think when they're punished.  They don't have to change their behavior.  They think, I'm being punished for what I did.  I'm doing my time.  And their anger is directed toward the punisher:  us." (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 100)

But appropriate consequences lead to self-examination and thought.  When kids experience a consequence for their poor choice — and a big dose of empathy — they are forced to ask themselves, Why am I hurting like this?  Their only answer is, because of my own choice.    

When parents give empathy, then allow the consequences to do the teaching — they don't have to waste time with long lectures, on-the-spot punishments or demeaning 'I told you so' messages.  These inevitably shift the focus from the child's behavior to relational tensions with their parent. 

In essence…the parent chooses not to take on their child's behavioral problem and instead allows the child to take responsibility for it themselves.

Do you want to get more united as a couple around parenting?

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Learn more How Consequences Build Responsibility

The truth is…responsibility cannot be taught.

Telling our kids to be responsible just doesn't cut it!  Responsibility must be caught and internalized.  This doesn't happen until kids experience opportunities in which they are held responsible for their own behaviors.

"Parents who raise responsible kids spend very little time and energy worrying about their kids' responsibilities; they worry more about how to let their children encounter significant learning opportunities for their irresponsibility" (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 34 )

Naturally Occurring Consequences

Some consequences will occur naturally:  Emma experiences hunger pains in bed because she refused to eat her dinner. 

But this can be uncomfortable for a parent who may feel tempted to rescue the child by offering a bedtime snack.  If we want the consequence to do the teaching we must allow the child to experience them.

By allowing kids to feel the painful consequences of their actions we're subtly sending this message:  "I'm sure you'll make a better choice next time…but if you don't, you'll surely learn something from the experience".  This helps kids understand that they're capable of solving their own problems.  Parents show empathy, but they don't jump in to solve the problem or rescue their kids from the natural consequences.      

Imposing Consequences

Other times parents will need to impose appropriate consequences:  Johnny has to get his homework done before he can play video games because he chose to neglect his school work.

Imposed consequences need to be enforceable, they should "fit the crime" and be administered firmly — in a loving and empathetic way.  "It's such a bummer that you can't log onto your game yet…but I'm sure you'll do a good job managing your time and still be able to play video games". 

The parent stays supportive and commiserates, while holding the boundaries.  This is the only way for the consequences to benefit the child.  They'll have nobody to be angry with but themselves when we show sadness for their predicament.

Imposed consequences sometimes look like punishments, but when imposed without anger and threats they're received very differently.  They are most effective when presented in a way that the connection between the child's poor choice and the consequence they receive is very clear. 

Johnny's new protocol of homework before game time is not a punishment for getting a poor grade, instead he's experiencing a consequence for choosing to mismanage his time and neglect homework.  This allows the burden of responsibility to rest firmly on Johnny — where it needs be.

Knowing the Difference Makes a Big Difference

I'll leave you with one last excerpt from Love & Logic that (for me), really hits the nail on the head: 

"Allowing consequences while showing empathy is tough.  Anger is such an appealing emotion, especially when we use it on our children.  Punishment makes us feel so powerful.  It makes us think we're in control.  Anger and punishment, put in concert with each other provide a deadly duo of counter-productive parenting.

We are constantly giving messages to our kids, but the overriding message of all must be one telling them they're okay.  They may be having a hard time with their lives, they may have made a mistake and will have to live with the consequences, but we're in their corner and love them just the same.  Empathy about the consequences show our kids that kind of love.  It allows the logic of the consequences to do the teaching." (Parenting with Love & Logic, p. 108 )

QUESTION:  For you, what's the toughest part of raising responsible kids?  Leave a comment below…

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"I just want to be at my dad's…I don't want to live here anymore!"

These are devastating words that we heard from our daughter (Annika) when she was heading into her teen years.  And it seemed to come out of nowhere…

…Kim and her Ex had been co-parenting relatively peacefully for 10 years.  The majority of that decade Annika was 50/50 between the two homes.  She had never known any other way of life — she had been moving back and forth since she was 2 years old.

Kim was blindsided, hurt and confused.  I was hurt and confused as well.

We're Not Alone

This challenging piece of our story is one that we hear repeated over and over from other step-couples too…it's certainly not unique to us.

As kids grow and mature, it's typical for them to want to try different things.  You've probably seen them change everything from the friends they hang out with to their hairstyle over the years. 

For kids living in dual families, it's common for them to want to make changes in this area of life too.  Moving back and forth between homes is tough.  They want to make things "easier" for themselves, especially as they're headed toward their teen years…

…but they usually lack the maturity and forethought to consider all the ramifications of a major change like this.  Plus, many kids don't really care what the parenting plan says or what agreements you've made as parents.  They're more focused on what they want - in the moment.

If you're experiencing this with one of your kids…you're not alone!

3 Steps Forward

So, what can you do about all this?  We've found that to move forward effectively it's best to start with these three steps:

Step 1:  Regulate Your Own Emotions

When a child requests more time in the other home, it can be emotional for parents and step-parents.  Usually we feel rejected, hurt, fearful, angry, jealous or all of the above!

Most of those emotions are rooted in some sort of fear or insecurity.  It might be a fear that their request is an indicator that your bond is weakening.  Maybe it's a fear that the Ex is coaxing them away from you on purpose.  Or it could be an insecurity in you that makes you feel like you're not good enough.

Whatever your emotion is…it's most likely focused on you and not the child.

If you want to navigate this challenge with clarity, then you've got to regulate your own emotions.  You'll need to separate the emotions that are focused on your fears from the actions you take to best support your child.

This isn't always easy and you may need to seek some help.  Talk through it with your spouse or partner, a trusted friend who can be wise in situations like this…or maybe a skilled coach or counselor.  And when you reach out for help, make sure it's someone who understands the complexities of stepfamily life.

Once you've got your emotions in check…

Step 2:  Listen to Understand

According to Dr. Stephen Covey, the 5th habit of highly effective people are those who "Seek first to understand, then to be understood."

If we're really honest with ourselves — when it comes to our kids — most of us focus on getting them to understand us rather than the other way around.

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Learn more

When you're in the middle of a challenging conversation with one of your kids, focusing first on listening and fully understanding their perspective should be your priority.  When you do, you'll accomplish two things:

  1. You'll be validating their feelings which will help them to feel heard and make them more open to your input.

  2. You'll begin to uncover what is at the root of their desire for the change their requesting which will help you

You might be wondering exactly how to listen well in these difficult conversations…

…one powerful skill you can put to use is good question asking.  Not leading questions or pointed questions.  But questions based on genuine curiosity about what's happening in your child's heart.

The best questions in these situations usually start with "What…" or "Tell me more about…" - here's a few examples:

  • What would be better for you if you spent more time at your dad's?

  • Tell me more about how a change like this would impact our time together.

  • What's been happening here that is frustrating you?

  • Tell me more about what else could help you right now.

These kinds of questions spoken in a calm and curious manner can often draw out the emotions kids tend to keep bottled up inside.  They also allow you to have a meaningful conversation that helps them feel heard without you making any promises of change.

That leads us to step 3…

Step 3:  Co-Create One New Action Step

Kids in stepfamilies often feel like their whole life is out of their control.  Many times an attempt to change things like their visitation plan is really an attempt to gain a little control over their own circumstances. 

You can help them gain a sense of control without giving into their request if you help them come up with just one action step that they can really own. 

As you learn more about what's happening inside them by asking the questions from Step 2, you can then move the conversation toward action by saying something like, "Thank you for sharing this with me.  I can see you're having a hard time with all of it.  I hear that you want to make a change and am grateful that you trust me enough to tell me about it.  I'm wondering what one thing you might be able to do that would improve your situation…"

As a Life Coach, I've learned that the most effect action steps are the ones my clients have developed themselves.  You might wonder…"well then what do they need you for, Mike?"  Haha…I sometimes  wonder that myself! :-)

Just like me coaching a client, you're going to challenge your child to articulate just one thing they can do to make their situation better.  This method can work with just about any challenge they may be having…including their argument to change their visitation.

And if they push back by claiming that the change they want is the only way forward, you can simply respond with something like, "I can't commit to changing the plan right now, and want you to know that I hear you.  With that being said, what else might do to move forward?"

Hang in there even if they get frustrated with you.  Co-creating their action steps isn't about you giving them your ideas for changes…it's about your persistence in asking them what changes they might make.

Words Matter

As you navigate these conversations, consider 2 important words.  One to avoid and one to use…

Avoid "But" — it can be tempting to say things like, "I hear that you're frustrated, but…"  That little three letter word hits the brain and essentially erases whatever you said before it.  Replace "but" with "and"…like this, "I hear that you want to make a change right now, but and it's not something I can commit to at this point.  I'm wondering what else you might do…"

Use the word "Might" — we often ask others what they "can", "could" or "should" do.  These words have a tendency to put us into flight or fight mode.  But "might" means possibilities.  It's less of a commitment to come up with something you "might" do.

These may seem like minor details…just give them a try.  Do a little Googling to check out the research behind these words.  You might be surprised! 

Hang in There…

Kids living in dual stepfamilies often push the boundaries and make requests that are emotionally difficult for parents and step-parents alike.  You have what it takes to hold your ground AND be supportive as you lead them through these difficult conversations.

Think about how you'll approach your next challenging conversation using these 3 steps…and hang in there!

QUESTION:  What's the most challenging part about regulating your own emotions when your child says something hurtful?  Leave a comment below…

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We all want to raise kids that are able to manage their own behavior and respond to our instruction…but kids aren't always as compliant as we'd like.  I'll admit that on occasion (when I really want them to behave), I give my kids special treats - it seems to make things go a little easier and they love it.  But sometimes I wonder if it's really helping or hurting them in the long run…it feels like I'm bribing them and I question my own motives.  Am I reacting in the moment just to appease my kids and get them to do what I want…or am I effectively rewarding and teaching them how to manage their own behavior? 

This can be really confusing.

I recently discovered a parenting book called Reset Families that's helped me to gain a better understand of all this.  I've learned that when thoughtful rewards are used in the right way, they can be powerful in motivating kids toward making good behavioral choices.  But haphazardly offering bribes for good behavior is detrimental and usually backfiles, sending kids the wrong message.

Every step-couple would benefit from the concepts in this book, and for the rest of this article, I'm going to share some of what I've learned directly from the book: 

Bribes vs Rewards

First, we need to look at the difference between a bribe and a reward.  Check out each of these descriptions from the Cambridge Dictionary:

A bribe is, "The act of giving someone money or something else of value…to persuade that person to do something you want."  A bribe doesn't have to be earned - it's an easy way to temporarily control someone's behavior. 

In contrast, a reward is defined as "Something given in recognition of one's service, effort or achievement."  A reward must be earned - it's an appropriate way to validate good behavior and encourage that same behavior to continue long-term.

Many parents (myself included) will resort to bribery in a moment of stress or frustration, when  feeling overwhelmed.  It's usually when we're faced with embarrassment or pressure - often in public and the child's behavior is creating an uncomfortable scene or maybe we're just too exhausted to do anything else. 

If you haven't personally experienced a grocery store meltdown with your kids, I'm sure you've witnessed other parents reacting to poor behavior by offering a quick bribe:  "If you stop crying you can have that candy bar". 

You know that you've slipped into using bribery when you've offered your child something that you had no previous intention of giving them — it's that spur-of-the-moment decision, made under duress that's used to change the child's behavior on the spot.  And…it puts the child in the driver's seat!

When bribery becomes a pattern it will reinforce poor behavior and ultimately lead to an attitude of entitlement.  Kids won't behave well without getting what they want first and they'll expect to get their 'prize' no matter what.  In other words, they've learned to act out in order to get what they want.

Bribes say:  "If you do___________ , I'll give you_______________"

Rewards say:  "Because you did________________, you'll get________________"

The effective use of rewards is different from bribery because the parent compensates the child for good choices and behavior — after the fact — rather than being manipulated in the moment.

3 Steps to Meaningful Rewards 

1. Communicate Expectations in Advance

Rewards are given in recognition of service or achievement.  They validate the child's efforts and motivate them to meet the expectations you've set for them. 

But to be effective, kids need to clearly understand the expectations in advance:   "Listen kids, we're going to the store to get groceries today not to buy candy and junk food so please don't ask for anything that's not on our list"  (Mike & I still have to do this with our teenagers!)

Attempting to give kids direction in the heat of the moment, (while they're acting out) is stressful and can lead to power struggles.  As a parent, you know when and where your kids will struggle to make good behavioral choices, so prepare for those times in advance by communicating your expectations…every time! 

This helps to keep expectations fresh in kids' minds and it's easier for you to intervene when you sense trouble brewing and need to redirect behavior:  "Honey, I see that you're touching that candy bar, but remember that we're only buying what's on our list today.  Please put the candy back and help me bag the groceries now".

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2. Plan Rewards and Praise Effort 

If you have a goal of training your kids to learn a new skill or develop better behavior, you'll want to start out by presenting the goal alongside the promise of a reward.  "When you choose to behave at the grocery store today, we can plan to serve something yummy for dessert after dinner". 

This may seem like a bribe, but it's very different.  Rather than offering a bribe in the heat of the moment — while kids are acting out — you're letting them know that when they choose to meet your expectation they'll be compensated.  This is a motivational reward that will help to keep kids on track while they're striving to meet the expectation and it gives you control over assigning the reward instead of the kids demanding whatever they want. 

Once you begin to see success with kids meeting expectations, you can transition into simply offering praise that acknowledges their good choices: "I'm really proud that you didn't ask for any candy at the store today.  I appreciate that so much — you're really growing up". 

Heartfelt and specific praise goes a long way in motivating kids to continue making good choices.  You can still offer tangible rewards (such as treats or special outings), but once kids are capable of meeting the expectation, they don't necessarily need to receive rewards every time.      

3. Stay Consistent and Follow Through

We are in the business of helping our kids gain the skills to manage their own behavior, and that takes time as well as our commitment and consistency — even when we're feeling frustrated, tired and impatient.

It's easy to give positive reinforcement when the behavioral expectations are met.  But what about when kids slip up, act out or make poor choices?  This is the time to stay strong!

Rewards are a powerful tool, but they can easily be misused — especially when parents struggle with follow through and consistency.  Kids who are given rewards even when they haven't met the expectation will be inadvertently rewarded for poor behavior.  As a result, the motivation to meet expectations and make efforts to reach goals will be undermined and poor behavior will continue. 

The objective of rewards is to encourage kids to keep working toward worthwhile goals and to make good behavioral choices.  You can do this by acknowledging their progress, even if it isn't perfect. 

However, the original reward promised must be withheld until kids are able to meet the expectation completely.  "I saw that you were trying really hard to make good choices today and you didn't ask to buy your favorite cookies, but tonight we'll be skipping dessert because you kept pestering me about buying that candy bar…I know you'll do better next time".

Rewards work best when you're able to achieve enough consistency that the kids can trust you'll follow through.  That's why it important to keep it as simple as possible — so you're able to follow through without getting overwhelmed. 

There's another element to parenting where follow though is vital and that's when consequences need to be given.  Missing out on the promised reward is a consequence, but if poor behaviors continue you'll need to elevate the training by using appropriate consequences as well.

Get Creative with Rewards

There are lots of ways to reward kids and validate good behaviors and habits.  Reset Families has suggestions for younger kids such as reward cards, point charts, stickers, coupons or money jars. 

Behavioral contracts are effective for older kids who are earning bigger rewards such as driving the family car.  The show 'Super Nanny' provides great examples and ideas on how to administer rewards too.  If you decide to set up a system to help your family track behaviors and earn rewards, here are some helpful tips:

  • Make it visual - it needs to be a reminder that you and the kids see throughout your daily routine (visit www.freeprintablebehaviorcharts.com for free printable charts to get you started)

  • Make it fun and positive - think about what your child loves most and use that for incentives

  • Make expectations attainable - to start, set kids up for success and don't overwhelm them. As they grow in competence gradually raise the expectations, but keep them realistic and concrete.

  • Don't expect perfection - Focus more on what kids are doing right than wrong.  Notice the positive behaviors and show empathy when kids are struggling. Avoid shaming and demeaning.

  • Be patient and consistent - The steps to your system might be simple, but kids are not.  It takes patience and consistency to train kids to manage their behaviors and build life skills.

It's helpful to think of rewards and consequences in terms of real life realities.  Employees who complete tasks and meet the expectations of their job will earn the tangible reward of a paycheck.  College students that choose to stay out all night with friends instead of studying for exams, will face the consequences of failing exams and getting poor grades.

As parents we need to be preparing our kids for real-life realities by equipping them to meet all the challenges ahead.  Understanding rewards and consequences is vital!

Stepfamily Considerations

For stepfamilies, everything we do around parenting needs to be handled strategically and carefully. 

Things that must be considered include:

  • Positioning parental authority appropriately so that step-relationships can thrive

  • Working as a united team to make decisions around what's most important

  • Setting up a code of conduct that builds connection, order and peace as you move your family forward. 

It may feel overwhelming and it's easy to get frustrated (we get it) that's why we're continuing to create tools to help you every step of the way. 

Click to get started on building your stepfamily tool box today!

QUESTION:  What's one bribe you're willing to admit you've offered your kids in the past few weeks? :-0  Leave a comment below…

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