Unidentified Stepfamily Zones - Discoveries Made at a Stepfamily Conference
- By Kelly Kirkendoll Shafer
Originally Published in the July/August, 2004 Issue of Your Stepfamily
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
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
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?
AN AHA! MOMENT
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
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.
OPEN THE INNER CIRCLE
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 www.mendworkshops.com 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 StepfamiliesWork.com 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
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
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
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
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 www.rodalestore.com.
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
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.
For more information, please visit www.writtenvoices.com.
Children articles index
- Brains on Fire: The Multimodality of Gifted Thinkers - By Brock Eide
- laying Baby Computer Games ? The New Parent-Child Tradition? - By Emma
- Book Excerpt: Einstein Never Used Flash Cards - By Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph
- Putting Fun Into Parenting - By David Stoepker, Psy.D., & Erin Brown Con
- Preparing Your Child for a High-Tech Future - By Sue Sato
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - Predominantly Inattentive
- Abandonment - By Sonya Green
- Explaining Suicide to Children - by Tracy Pierson
- Our Children`s Needs - by Robert Elias Najemy
- How to Develop Self-Esteem in Children - By J. Bailey Molineux, Ph.D.
- Helping Children Overcome Stress and Fear - By Debbie Milam
- Do you Shout at YOUR children? - By James Middleton
- Book Excerpt: Helping Children with Autism Learn - By Bryna Siegel,
- SPEED SPELLING: Another way to use speed reading skills for "schoolwork&q
- Children and Stress - By Laura Silva Quesada
- Boundaries- Why Are They Needed? - by Derek Randel & Gail Randel M.D.
- Juggling Home
- Explaining World tragedy to Children - By Chick Moorman and Thomas Ha
- Children and Pessimism - By Carol Tuttle
- Loving Yourself, Loving Your Children - By Margaret Paul, Ph.D.
- Social Manners for Children - By Susan Dunn, The EQ Coach
- The Sexual Abuse of Children - By J. Bailey Molineux
- A Few Simple Truths About ADHD and Stimulant Drugs - By Steve Edelman1,
- DYSLEXICS and A.D.D. KIDS BECOME GIFTED SPEED READERS - by George Stanc
- Using Feng Shui for Better Behaved Children - By Kathryn Weber
- Book Excerpt: Helping Children with Autism Learn - By Bryna Siegel,
- Five Keys to Raising Nonviolent Children - By Tammy Cox, LMSW
- The Best Way to Reduce Stress: Start Young - By Zach Brull
- Your Child?s Self-Esteem is in The Cards - By Susan Howson
- Calming Tips for Hyperactive Children - By Jeannine Virtue
- What is ADHD? - By Jeannine Virtue
- Talking to Your Children About Sex - By Jan Andersen
- How Our Children Really Learn And Why They Need To Play More And Memo
- HOW DO WE PROTECT OUR CHILDREN FROM PREDATORS? - By Linda J Alexander,
- Teach Children Positive Self-Image Through Fitness - By Lynn Bode
- No Invitation Needed -- Part 3 of 3 Sacred Children Series - By Skye T
- Helping Our Children Feel Good About Themselves - By Dr.Barbara Becker Hol
- Unidentified Stepfamily Zones - Discoveries Made at a Stepfamily Confer
- Divorce and Children: Things To Consider When You`re Staying Married
- Six facts you should know to empower your teaching. - By Emmanuel
- Are You in an Abusive Situation? - by Colin Gabriel Hatcher & Randall
- The Divorce Revolution Has Failed - By J. Bailey Molineux
- Is Your Child Well-Mannered? - By Mary Jesse
- Jesus` Birthday -- Part 2 of 3 Sacred Children Series - By Skye T
- Empty Nesters: What Should You Do Once the Children Leave? - By Mary Guar
- We should celebrate the diversity of children and adults - By Robyn M
- How to Cope with Back to School Stress - By Debbie Mandel
- HIS KIDS: BECOMING A W.O.W. STEPMOTHER - by Julie Donner Andersen
- ADD / ADHD Children : Being Your Child`s Best Friend - By Kate Hufst