Often, if our partner has several kids, we can find that one of them in particular will really call on a lot of our attention. And not in a good way.
Anger, acting out, resentful and disrespectful behaviour, symptoms of Parental Alienation, being a paid-up cheer squad member of Team Mummy; all these can mean that we stepmothers and, even more noticeably, our partners, concentrate lots of extra attention on the child experiencing the biggest problems.
This might be controversial, but today I want to ask:
What is this intense focus teaching a child who is behaving badly?
Is it teaching them to communicate their needs, or that if they want attention they should just act out until they get it?
Is it teaching them responsibility for their own happiness, or that it’s the job of everyone else in their world to rearrange life, the universe and everything to make them happy?
Is it teaching them to work on feeling good, or that there is a secondary gain to being depressed and angry?
Is it showing him or her self-control and that other people’s feelings are worthy of respect, or that the way to get what he or she wants is to throw a fit, and if that tactic doesn’t work first time to just keep ramping up the emotional volume until it does?
Is it teaching them to value relationships, or that playing on their Dad’s guilt about their post-divorce pain is a good way to score well materially?
Positive psychology tells us that it’s important to focus on the strengths in our lives.
While of course an unhappy or angry child needs to feel heard and have his or her needs lovingly considered and addressed, perhaps even with professional assistance, making our relationship focus all about that child’s “issues” is sending a message that may not have the outcome we hope for.
Ditto for our partners, who can sometimes feel so driven by the dreaded “Daddy guilts” that they push everything aside to act as 24/7 rescue squad for their acting-out child.
It can be easy, too, for any other kids who are behaving better and working towards acceptance of the new realities in their families to end up being deprived of their fair share of attention from the significant adults in their lives.
Maybe, underneath their compliant behaviour, these less “difficult” kids have needs that aren’t getting met in the sprint to focus on their more obviously troubled sibling. A case of the squeaky wheel getting the oil, perhaps.
So today, I’m wondering if it might be worthwhile to spend some time focusing on the quiet achievers amongst our stepkids, on the kids who might be struggling inside but are giving it their best, and on nurturing our relationships with those who more willingly accept us, rather than bashing our heads against the wall of those who reject us and enjoy it.
My beloved sister, a stepmum herself, said to me once,
B, if one of the boys loves you and one kind of likes you and one doesn’t like you, I’d call that a victory.
I think she’s right, so I’m going to make an effort to focus on the victories and let the most draining, depleting and frustrating relationships take a backseat. For a while, anyway.
(For more about positive psychology, I can thoroughly recommend The Happiness Hypothesis as a practical handbook, as well as The Happiness Institute, which has lots of fantastic (and free) resources for identifying and nurturing the strengths in our lives and relationships.)