Encouraging Self-Awareness and Responsibility in Stepchildren

by childless stepparent

Being a childless stepparent can be a thankless job. Even when it comes in an unexpected way, realizing that we have an impact is a good thing. Today brought one of those unexpected realizations.

This morning, my husband got a call from his former wife. He dropped off his daughter yesterday after a week of winter vacation with us. His former wife told him that their daughter complained about her time with us, saying that she had to spend most of her time in her room watching t.v. because her dad was working and I was writing my book.

While it’s true that my husband and I were both busy with work, it is NOT true that she watched t.v. all week.

She did lots of fun stuff. She also had lots of down time, which most kids like – getting to sleep in, play with their toys, do their own thing.

She chose to spend that time in her new bedroom, streaming her favorite t.v. shows. She could have set up her barbie house, taken the sled outside for a run down the hill, read a book, played with the many new toys she got for Christmas, spent time in our creative room painting or sewing or beading or playing the piano . . . she was free to do whatever she liked. But she chose to do nothing. That’s okay – she seemed to enjoy the down time.

The fact is: my husband’s daughter is not comfortable spending time by herself. She’s not good at initiating activities. She expects to be entertained. This is not her fault. It’s learned helplessness. It’s common in only children. It’s also common in children of divorce. Guilt-ridden parents often coddle their children in a misguided attempt to make up for the pain of the divorce.

A child must know that she is safe, cared for, and loved unconditionally – but to allow her to think she’s the center of her parents’ lives? That a huge disservice to the child.

My husband is determined to help his daughter down a different path.

I agree completely, and I recognize that I was part of the problem. I used to emulate the frantic pace of my stepdaughter’s time with her mom – organizing constant activity and entertainment – but this past week I made a conscious choice not to do that. Instead, I made time for myself. While I was away, my husband went about things much the same as he always has – he spent his days working in our home office and was available whenever his daughter needed him.

Obviously, my stepping back made an impact on my husband’s daughter.

It’s clear that without my constant engagement, she was bored. She felt alone because she wasn’t catered to every moment. Realizing that I impact her in this way is a good thing because I can work with my husband to make that impact as positive as possible. It will take some time, but I trust that my new approach – one that supports my husband’s balanced way of doing things – will benefit her.

My husband’s daughter doesn’t realize how lucky she is to have such a present dad. She doesn’t know what a luxury it is that her dad picks her up from school every day, takes her to her piano lesson every week, goes to all her soccer games, etc, etc. While I was working in town, he was home with her every day last week, working to prepare for an overseas business trip. He made sure his daughter had sleepovers and playdates with her friends, took her to the neighborhood ice rink for skating, spent the day with her at the art museum, walked to town with her to play chess, worked with her on a genealogy project, researching the history of her family.

My husband believes that last week was a great balance of fun activity and chill time for his daughter. He supports my decision to make more time for myself. He intends to continue helping his daughter grow – upward and inward.

He wants his daughter to enjoy the gift of time with herself. He’s committed to her becoming more self-aware and learning to take responsibility for herself. When she’s back with us next week, he will talk with her about some new expectations:

  • When she’s not happy with something at her dad’s house, she should talk with her dad. He will always listen and try to help.
  • She must take initiative to do things she’s interested in doing. Her dad and I are not her “fun activity directors.”
  • From now on, only one episode of t.v. a week at her dad’s house. She will need to find other ways to spend her free time.
  • Part of navigating two homes is realizing that there will be differences and that she can appreciate both ways of doing things.

Manifesto #1 | I am a childless stepparent. My stepchild has two involved parents. I don’t need to take on a parenting role.

Manifesto #6 | I will be kind to my stepchild. I will support my husband in his role as her dad. I will contribute – on my own terms.

EDIT: Reading this post several days later I realize that while encouraging “self time” for my stepchild is a good thing, I need to be more gentle in my assessment of her. It’s possible that she was happy with her down time with us, but when she mentioned watching a new fashion t.v. show to her mom, she perceived disapproval (her mom doesn’t allow her to watch t.v. and doesn’t support activities that she herself isn’t involved in). My husband’s daughter may have then complained about her time with us in order to appease. She is an intuitive child and knows on some level that criticizing her dad pleases her mom, who then has a reason to contact him. It’s common for children to “work” their parents in this way; even more common in children of divorce. I feel great compassion for my stepdaughter as I know navigating things with her mom must be very difficult. But whatever is going on at her mom’s, my husband’s daughter must know that lying like not okay with us. It’s also good to remind her that her mom and dad communicate openly so this kind of manipulation won’t work. If she’s doing it to please her mom, she needs to know that it has repercussions with her dad.