Thursday, December 20, 2012

Tips for Helping Your Stepchild Discover Independence

Teaching your kid to be just like you:

  • I guess you would like them more if they're just like you.
  • You relate on more things.
  • No surprises?
  • Unwillingness to try new things outside of what you've allowed them to do.
  • Your faults and hang-ups are now their's, as well.
  • Might end up living in your home for-ev-er.

Many of my readers have seen the movie Stepmom. I've realized that it's sort of a holiday movie. I think we might have to watch it this weekend. That being said, it provides a good example of a mom wanting her children to share her emotions. Interestingly, the filmmakers made it very subtle, which it so often is. The youngest child (around 5?) picks up on it and specifically informs his mom that he will hate his stepmom if she wants him to. The older child automatically knows she's in a loyalty bind and doesn't even ask, though. Her demeanor towards her stepmom reflects this.

We have a case of this, though it's much more overt. In hostile custody situations, it seems that the primary parent severely wants their children to be just like them, and that includes instilling a fear of the new, or anything that (usually) Mom does not permit or has done herself. For us, it's not fears of things that their mom has done and therefore has concerns about. It's also not fears of things because their mom is simply afraid of things.'s the purposeful of instilling distrust or judgement on anything that 1) mom has no interest in, 2) does not want her children to do without her, or 3) she has not every done herself.

If you have this situation, I do have some tips. Although we still deal with it on a weekly basis, we have fought a lot of it. 

Let me list the number of things my skids were interested in but were then given fears, or very strong negative opinions about, before they returned to us:
  • Snow
  • Karate
  • Guitar
  • Singing
  • Soccer
  • Ice skating
  • Hiking (yes, which is effectively walking...fear of walking in a new place, really)
  • A large number of restaurants
  • Places, including places their extended family resides
  • Zoos
  • Church
  • Theme parks other than Disneyland
  • Horseback riding
  • Museums
  • Lakes
  • Waves in the ocean
  • Rollerblading and skateboarding
  • Watching hockey (yes, just watching it...)
  • Watching football
  • New foods, including but not limited to, potatoes
  • People that love them (family members, mostly)
  • I know I'm forgetting a ton of things- So just know that for a long time, nearly everything caused some level of panic in my stepkids if it was not mom-approved.
Here's what we learned and what worked:
  1. Do not tell them about activities, no matter how fun or benign, ahead of time. Even a day ahead of time can be an issue if they're going to see their mom or talk to her on the phone. One phone call can ruin all of your plans. 
    1. If they have to pack or get ready for a particular activity, make it a fun game where they don't know what they're doing but you describe what they need to be prepared for. 
    2. Although you'd think kids would not like doing what I just stated above, they get very excited without even knowing what it is they will be doing or where they're going. And as older kids, they know accept it and prepare quickly so they can get back to watching Glee on TV.
  2. Make it a surprise. We've thrown surprise parties, taken them to theme parks as a surprise, and done a number of activities as surprises. This cuts out the doubts, concerns, worry, and most of all- mom's opinion. It also causes a lot of in-the-moment excitement when you arrive at the fun place, and that seems to override the worry or any things that could be stressful at home, in private. 
    1. Case in point: Things would often turn for the worst if my youngest stepdaughter, when she was little, had to put some sort of odd thing on. If the activity includes a helmet, a jacket, a hat, gloves, pads, cleats...Worry and panic would start. Any new thing going physically "on" her would trigger "I must not be safe if I have to have this" type of concern, though it was voiced as "But it feeeeels weird!" (in tears). So, each time she started a new sport, it was quite difficult to get her into her required gear- which weirdly happened at our house both times...Strange how that happened. BUT if we were already at a fun new place, and there's excitement and popcorn and candy and all that, she was much more willing to put on any necessary gear in order to participate in the activity. She would still voice discomfort, but seeing other kids do it too was much more effective.
    2. Sometimes it may seem like it's hard to make something a surprise. Trust me- Anything can be. My parents were really good at it, which is why I came up with this strategy in the first place. Parents can really define the art of "leaving things out" of what you say. It's a part of your role. Not giving the kids the whole picture is fairly normal, so don't get hung up on what they "should" know. Why is it that they need to know that "breakfast with family" also includes a new theme park? They don't- and they'll love it. 
    3. Kids can handle mom's opinion, dislike, and even anger (most common in our case) afterwards. At that point, after they've already experienced it themselves, they know that an activity was fun, safe, worthwhile, or just plain normal. They're not swayed by the emotions when it's already happened, and they also get to tell their mom about how it actually wasn't so bad, after all. 
      1. This has always worked. The only post-event manipulative statements we've heard from them following exposure to a new activity was along the lines of justification of the previous opinion. Occasionally we'll hear something like "well, it was OK that we did it that way, but otherwise it's not OK if [throw in random, illogical thing here]."
  3. If you have the time, which we barely do and have therefore not been that successful with this, introduce your kids to things you hope they'll try out later. Plant some seeds of interest (and familiarity) by taking them to various sports activities at local colleges, high schools, fields, parks, or even pro games. If possible, connect the experience with friends or family they know and like, which sends a subliminal message of it being something that others do in fact do. If you hope they aren't afraid of musical activities in the future, whatever they may be, take them to plays, concerts, musicals, local band competitions, whatever. Find a friend that will teach them how to play an instrument during your custodial times- someone who isn't upset by suddenly changed plans and massive attitude problems, preferably. When they're young, buy them kid versions of whatever they're unfamiliar with- like kid tennis rackets, cute hiking shoes, a kid guitar. Let them play with them at parks or home, or take them out to specifically play with those toys. Exposure is key- whatever way you want to go about it. Your goal is simply normalizing activities and options outside of mom's specific experiences.
  4. Travel. Let them know that new places are not scary, but can be fun. Simply taking them to new places encourages a bit of exploration and confidence that they can be or try new places. In general, it's very good for them. Exposure to new is the theme!
    1. Tied to this is specifically visiting or stopping in college towns. Visit colleges. Make a point of walking through them, pointing them out, or making rest stops in college towns. Hit the bookstore or a local store and buy them small souvenirs or a shirt or sweatshirt with the college name and mascot on it. This exposure helps kids feel comfortable about going to college one day and relates positive, normal experiences with those locations. College becomes less a place that you move away to, and more a place that they've been before.
      1. This has so many positive possibilities. We know that introducing them to multiple colleges in multiple locations means that they'll be more comfortable with 1) moving away one day, 2) which means moving away from mom and a higher likelihood of adult independence, 3) choosing a college of their own, rather than choosing a college based on what mom says she likes (already happening...), 4) and simply, interest in going to college, or the concept of it being normal and a part of life.
  5. Just sign them up. Depending on how your custody is set-up, don't ask the kids whether they want to do something. You're the parent. Just sign them up and tell them they're trying it out. There might be some blow back, but it's a lot more likely they'll try something and either enjoy it or learn something from it, rather than simply discussing it for YEARS, with you and your husband trying to undo whatever negative things they were told (which stick like super glue, we've noticed). Kids do not have critical thinking skills, so whatever inane thing they're given to not try a new thing sticks with them for many years. It will take you a lot longer to convince them that they will enjoy it than it would be to just sign them up. 
    1. Amusingly, we'll try for years to convince the skids that something is not that horrible, and then suddenly one day they'll appear and will exclaim that they have been signed up for something they told us they didn't want to do for years...Suddenly very excited, because mom has just signed them up. (Yeah, this just happened, again, this past week. It's amazing.) The only other way we've seen this reversal happen is when one of their close friends does said activity or invited them, and then all negative opinions seem to dissipate- not even remembered at all. 
  6. Speaking of signing up the kids, if you see the kids for holiday breaks or summers, sign them up for day camps where they can specifically try out new activities with other kids. 
    1. This is one of the best strategies. If there's unreasonable fear about some sort of sport or other activity, sign them up for a half day local camp during one of your summer weeks. In all but ONE of the times we've done this, they were nervous the first day, but then made friends, had a ton of fun, and learned a lot. It has helped them decide they like- no, LOVE- a number of activities. My husband still reels at how quickly the skids refer to kids they just met at camp as "my friend." 
    2. We also added overnight camps in for my oldest skid. This helps immensely because now she knows that going away can be fun, being away from mom is possible, and she has more of an idea of what independence is. We know that this will translate into more confidence in other experiences, such as choosing to go on a school trip, moving away for college, or just simply actually moving out and away to be on her own finally.
    3. If you're concerned about it looking like you're "getting rid of" your child or cutting out your time....Yes, you will get accused of that if their mom never signs them up for camps, including morning-only day camps or day care or after school care, and especially if she never attended any type of camp at all. You will be accused of ditching your children in "babysitting", not wanting to see them, and hurting them by making them do such things with strange new kids rather than just letting them watch TV at home all summer with nearly no supervision or attention. 
      1. So given that you will be accused of being a horrible parent by signing your kids up for any type of camp, the courts/mediators will not see it like that if you participate, take them to and from, and encourage the activities they learn in general. Take pictures of them doing the activities they learned at camp, record the last day of camp "show" or game/tournament. Take pictures of or keep the crafts they made. And, feel free to ask them to write what they learned and liked about camp, so that next year you can look at it together and remember how much they liked it. We did summer journals some years because they forgot every fun activity they did with us so easily. Each year, their memories of the events were so twisted by the time the next summer came around, if they even remembered what we did at all. All the good just washes away.
      2. After the first year or two, the kids will have no qualms about camp. They always get a little nervous before a new camp, but will nearly always love it. Make it a normal expectation of summer activities. If they didn't like a particular camp, accept that as feedback and find a different one for next year or even the next week of camp. I always tell them, "well, maybe next year we can try ____" and they always receive that positively. (I also ask them each spring which ones they're interested in and not interested in, from all of the various camp offerings- Making it not an option to "go to camp" but an option of "which one is for you?")
        1. Our primary problem has actually been that if we sign them up for a more expensive, really awesome camp- They leave the last day saying, "Next year, when I come back...." And we're thinking "uh-oh...We don't want to pay that much next year..." There's only been one camp that one didn't want to return to. They've done sports camps, horseback riding camps, regular camps, karate camps, overnight campus in the mountains, YMCA....
      3. And if you're not someone who ever went to camps and are therefore nervous about it, I still encourage you to look at the options. A lot of camps are only half-day and allow your child to meeting new people, make new friends, and have more adult role-models in their lives. It's a huge social-skill builder, and gives them so much confidence in trying new things. It makes other life situations easier transitions, including moving away one day or having a strange, new roommate. They no longer fear camps but know that it will likely be fun, they will definitely make new friends, and they'll learn new things. Also, they'll learn camp songs or chants that they seem to never forget....
  7. Ask a family member or friend to expose them to the new thing, and it takes away the "Dad" or "Stepmom made me do this" element. It's accepted almost immediately.
  8. One more to add: An important way to get your stepkids into the real world and out of their one-opinion one is by exposing them to cultural events and festivals. Very easy to do, though you will need to keep your thumb on area news. Greek Festival? Chinese New Year? Kwanza? Latin, Swedish, German, and Irish festivals up the wazoo? Take the kids. They'll get some snacks, sugary cultural treats of some sort, see some dancing, hear some music that isn't on the Top 40 station, and even see people who "look different". Despite how culturally diverse our region is, its very easy for kids to come up with opinions that keep them from appreciating diversity, which also permeates their life views. Judgmental attitudes run rampant and deep, very easily, with very little commentary from adults in their lives. So one way to undercut judgmental attitudes overall is to open their minds to how different all people are, and the good in those who are different. Not to mention, many cultural fairs and parades have specific offerings, like games and bounce houses, for kids. They get to experience a bit of external culture and associate it with positive things. But, be warned: The first cultural fair/festival we took them to, we came home with a new pet goldfish...
We've done and tried it all, I think...but if you have any strategies that you've tried, feel free to share!
And good luck over the holiday break with your skids. Safe travels, and I wish you access to much wine, or martinis. 

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