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Unidentified Stepfamily Zones - Discoveries Made at a Stepfamily Conference - By Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer

Originally Published in the July/August, 2004 Issue of Your Stepfamily Magazine

If you feel emotional pain and cannot easily put your finger on the cause, or you find yourself sitting in your driveway at the end of the day, wishing you didn?t have to go into your home, you could be experiencing The Outer Circle. The outer circle is an unidentified zone in most stepfamilies, an uncomfortable and painful place for both children and adults.

A year into our stepfamily life, my husband and I learned of a stepfamily conference in our area, with sessions for both children and adults. David and I weren?t strangers to helpful seminars. Each of us had attended divorce recovery workshops years earlier, where we addressed baggage and pain from past relationships. But at this conference, we?d have to deal with OUR issues.

At the time, I would have said our most significant challenges were 1.) his ex and 2.) my ex. I?d soon learn we had others ? others that fell within our realm of control and responsibility.


The stepfamily conference was the first of its kind in our area. It was held at a large church where we were not members but had attended a single-parenting workshop two years earlier. The presenting couple, Terrill and Dottie Williams, flew in from Colorado, where they lead MEND Workshops, a ministry devoted to helping stepfamilies.

Terrill and Dottie became a stepfamily late in life, with most of their children already grown and out of the home. Even though our situation was different (our collective children were 5-13 years old at the time), we were surprised and encouraged by how similar the Williams` struggles and victories were to our own.

Early in the day, they asked for volunteers to step forward and draw a diagram of a stepfamily, with all its various ?parts? (parents, stepparents, children, stepchildren, etc.). Squares, circles and lines appeared on the large white board before us, but all the volunteers found it surprisingly difficult. I tried to doodle my own version on the notebook in front of me but wasn?t sure where or how to represent everyone. I peeked at my husband?s notebook sitting next to mine. He seemed to be struggling too.

Then the leaders drew a diagram to reflect a traditional family. Simple. Two more appeared, reflecting the single parent homes most of the attendees had experienced before forming their stepfamilies. Still simple.

Next they drew circles inside of circles, and put each biological group in a different layer ? some on the inside track, some on the outside. Ouch! I didn?t like how those pre-existing families sat in separate rings and thought, We don?t look like that?do we?


Yes, I quickly realized, at times we did. When I was alone with David and his three kids, I often felt like a fifth wheel, part of the same car but riding in the trunk. When we had just spent some precious couple time alone, the pain was often worse - not only did I feel like an outsider, but I felt abandoned by David too.

Did my husband ever feel the same? I leaned into him and whispered, ?Have you ever felt that way??

He turned and looked me in the eye. ?Yes, many times.?

It really was a breakthrough moment for both of us. We had each felt the pain, and realized our children must have too, but we hadn?t been able to identify it. I knew I felt left out sometimes, but squashed my feelings, telling myself I was being childish and selfish. What a relief to realize that I was experiencing a perfectly normal stepfamily phenomenon!

The Inner Circle, we learned, is like an emotional force field that surrounds the biological relatives and excludes the new stepparent and/or stepsiblings. This force field is driven by strong attachments to biological children, past family history and shared pain from losses.


After attending the conference, David and I agreed to an action plan. First, we?d speak up with the code phrase ?I?m in the outer circle,? when these situations arose again (and they did). Second, we committed to steps to bring everyone into the inner circle.

One of those steps involved talking openly with our five children about what we had learned. When we did, their eyes lit up with recognition. Yes, they had felt it too! When? We wanted to know.

In some cases, we couldn?t fix it for them. My stepchildren, for example, felt left out when they were at their mom?s house and the rest of us went somewhere special together. We couldn?t change the fact that my children live with us almost full-time while my stepchildren live with us part-time, but we could listen, empathize and be more sensitive here.

In other cases, we found areas where we could help by making some adjustments:

- My son enjoyed playing with his stepdad after dinner almost every night, then felt pushed aside when his older stepbrother came over and David spent one-on-one time with his son. We listened to his pain, explained why David?s children still needed time alone with their dad, then worked out a compromise.

- My children also told me, ?Mommy, you used to talk to us a lot during dinner, but now you talk to David most the time instead.?

- And my youngest stepdaughter, who gets ousted from her ?baby? birth order position in our home by my youngest, felt the pain of the outer circle as she saw a strong bond forming between her daddy and her stepsister.


The key to dissolving the outer circles, we?ve found, is to recognize this phenomenon, acknowledge it candidly, and take steps to open the inner circle to all members of the stepfamily. It?s also important to remember that in addition to our efforts, this erosion will take time. We can?t expect overnight miracles.

And no matter how secure we all feel within the inner circle, we?ve learned to expect speed bumps, especially when we venture out to extended family gatherings like weddings, family reunions and holiday celebrations.

Today, we rarely bump into the outer circle, that previously unidentified stepfamily zone, but every once in a while we do. It comes with the territory.


MEND Workshops can be reached at or by calling 888.872.1293.

? 2004-2005 Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer

Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer is a mother of two/stepmother of three (ages 7-15), professional freelance writer, speaker and the author of 29 Ways to Make Your Stepfamily Work. She is a regular contributor to Your Stepfamily magazine, the official publication of the Stepfamily Association of America, and publishes the website and the Stepfamilies Work! monthly newsletter.

Einstein Never Used Flash cards - By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D.

Bringing the Lessons Home

How can we help children blossom socially and emotionally? Read on for some specific tips.

Look for opportunities to discuss other people`s feelings. By explaining how other people would feel if a particular act occurred, you teach your child to take the perspective of others. "If you hit Irving over the head with that truck, he will probably feel very bad and cry. Do you want that to happen?"

Creating a sensitive human being takes work! It often seems a lot easier to just stop vexing and dangerous toddler behavior without explaining what consequences would follow and why, and how someone would feel as a result. Of course, tomorrow someone will probably come out with a video that claims to teach your child how to work and play well with others. But that product would be a drop in the bucket compared with the power that comes from ongoing human relationships where both mind and heart are learning together. What fills the bucket is the interaction children and adults experience: a product of basic social need.

Watch your language. One way to bring up the perspectives of others is to ask your child about the characters in the stories you read together. Ask questions such as "How do you think this person (the character) feels? How would you feel if you were this person? What do you think the person`s friends could do to help him to feel better?"

In fact, many of the current social and emotional programs that teach children about how to be a good person use games in which children adopt different perspectives. One example is the Interpersonal Cognitive Problem Solving program for elementary school children, which was developed by Professor Myrna Shure of Drexel University in Philadelphia. After the adult shows the children pictures of scenes or verbally describes scenarios such as a fight in school or a moment of frustration, the children are asked, "How do you think this person felt in the story? How might you feel if you were that person? How would you want others to react to you?" At Pennsylvania State University, Professor Mark Greenberg created another program of this type called PATHS (Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies) that helps children talk about their feelings. These programs have been maximally effective in reducing aggressive behavior and are training children on how to understand others` minds. They are now used widely in school programs.

Explain to your child that there are causes for people`s feelings. Research by Professor Judy Dunn and her colleagues at Pennsylvania State University examined the conversations that fifty 33-month-old children had in their homes with their mothers about feelings and about what causes them. For example, a mother might say, "You broke my glass (the cause) and that makes me sad (the outcome)." Such conversations were just what Professor Dunn and her colleagues looked for in the parent-child dialogues.

She found that at 40 months, children differed widely in their appreciation of emotions and other minds. The results of this study tell us that talk about emotions and what causes emotions impacts children`s developing theory of mind. Hearing an explanation for others` behavior does at least two things. It may help stunt the natural anger that arises when you are thwarted so you can respond more constructively. It may also help you look for such mitigating explanations on your own in future altercations. And these differences, in turn, will influence how well children interact with their peers and teachers.

Stop bullying in its tracks. The extreme example of children who are not thinking of the welfare of others is the bully. If your child is frequently the target of bullies, it may be a sign that she is less socially competent and, therefore, has fewer friends and is seen as vulnerable. It turns out that children who are more socially competent and who have more friends are less likely to be bullied.

Researchers have determined that both the bullies and the bullied tend to have certain typical characteristics: The majority of victims, for instance, reinforce bullies by giving in to their demands, crying, assuming defensive postures, and failing to fight back. Victims tend to have a history of overly intrusive parenting, with parents who are controlling and overprotective. These parenting behaviors prompt anxiety, low self-esteem, and dependency, which combine to radiate vulnerability. Bullies often bank on their victim`s dependency and vulnerability; they know the other child won`t fight back. This makes the bully feel powerful. Of course, bullies have their own social deficits. They tend to come from families where there is little warmth or affection. The families also report trouble sharing their feelings. Sometimes parents of bullies have very punitive and rigid discipline styles. Finally, bullies feel less discomfort than average children at the thought of causing pain and suffering.

So what can be done for bullies and their victims? Preschools and kindergartens where peer socialization is integrated into the curriculum are good places to start helping them. Anxious, withdrawn children will benefit greatly from developing just one good friendship. And even when they have conflicts with their peers (yes, conflict is inevitable), they`ll be learning valuable lessons in how to interpret social cues accurately. But in addition to the teaching of social skills at school, it`s also important to evaluate the relationship you have with your child, especially if you suspect that he`s a bully. Remember: Bullies tend to come from families where there`s a lack of affection or little sharing of feelings. Take the time to ask your child how he`s feeling and to really listen to his answer. When he expresses anger or rage, work with him to help him regulate his negative emotions and find peaceful ways to resolve them. Finally, when he talks about problems he`s having with his peers, brainstorm with him t o come up with skillful ways he could resolve them.

Finally, children who are not bullies or victims have a powerful role to play in shaping the behavior of other children. Teach your children to speak up on behalf of children being bullied. "Don`t treat her that way; it`s not nice." "Hitting is not a good way to solve problems. Let`s find a teacher and talk about what happened." For more examples and role-play situations, check out Sherryll Kraizer`s The Safe Child Book.

Make space for social time. Children sometimes just need to hang out with others or to be by themselves. It might seem as if they are doing "nothing," but there`s a lot to learn from unscheduled time on their own or with other children. Children need to be able to be spontaneous -- to be able to just goof off! Creating playdates for our children helps them diversify their social world and develop additional social tools for dealing with a greater variety of social challenges. And social interactions give you opportunities for discussing emotional situations and others` perspectives. This cannot be obtained on the fly, in the car between activities, but only from real social interaction that you are present to observe and comment on and coach as the occasion arises.

If your child is in child care or preschool, be sure to build strong connections with your child`s caregiver or teacher. You want your child`s emotions taken seriously when he is not with you, too, and you want that emotional coaching going on whenever a conflict comes up. If you talk with the caregiver on a daily basis about how your child is doing and ask questions about how he gets along with his peers and how disagreements are handled, you`ll have a better sense of whether emotional coaching and mentoring is going on. Get in the habit of building strong ties to the people whom your child spends time with just as it makes a difference when children get consistent messages from their parents, it`s important that the messages they receive from their child care providers are consistent as well.

While there are many things we can do to foster social development, here are some general suggestions for helping your children to tune in to their own feelings.

Avoid ignoring or belittling your child`s feelings. Although often you`d wish such moments would just go away, times of emotional upset can be understood as key opportunities for teaching children how to avoid or resolve such situations, while also taking the feelings of others into consideration. View these times as opportunities to teach your children how to make lemonade out of lemons, while still allowing them to experience their feelings of hurt or disappointment. A versatile recipe for lemonade will be very useful for dealing with life`s inevitable frustrations.

Try to see the world through your children`s eyes. Once you do, you`ll recognize that the things that cause our children pain are often different from the things that cause us, as adults, pain. You don`t want to treat your children any differently than you would want to be treated when you express your emotions. How would you feel if you confided in a friend about something that bothered you and she made fun of you and laughed? Make a point of teaching your child that it`s okay to show negative emotion, such as sadness or fear. Likewise, try to demonstrate positive ways of coping with your own anger and negative feelings. Remember: Your children are watching you for lessons on regulating their emotions.

The bottom line is to talk to your children and invite them to talk to you. The more you try to understand how they feel and help them understand how an event happened, the more coping skills your child will develop. And, as we have documented, social skills are essential for doing well, both in school and in life.

Reprinted from: Einstein Never Used Flash cards: How Our Children Really Learn -- And Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., with Diane Eyer, Ph.D. ? 2003 by Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D. (September 2004; $13.95US/$19.95CAN; 1-59486-068-8) Permission granted by Rodale, Inc., Emmaus, PA 18098. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling (800) 848-4735 or visit their website at

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., is a member of the psychology department at Temple University, where she directs the Infant Language Laboratory and participated in one of the nation`s largest studies of the effects of child care. The mother of three sons, she also composes and performs children`s music.

Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, Ph.D., is the H. Rodney Sharp Professor in the School of Education at the University of Delaware, where she holds a joint appointment with the departments of linguistics and psychology and directs the Infant Language Project. She has also been a recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship and is the mother of a son and a daughter.

Together, the authors were featured on the PBS Human Language series and are the authors of How Babies Talk.

Diane Eyer, Ph.D., is a member of the psychology department at Temple University and author of Motherguilt and Mother-Infant Bonding.

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