Parenting an Angry Child in Your Stepfamily
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Daniel Huerta, MSW, LCSWDanny Huerta, Focus on the Family’s Vice President of Parenting and Youth, is a bilingual, licensed clinical social worker who has counseled families for more than two decades. His passion is equipping parents to disciple and mentor the next generation so that they can thrive in Christ. Danny and his wife are the parents of two teenagers.
How do you help a lost or angry child who battles against the family? Ron Deal speaks with psychologist Danny Huerta on troubled kids in a stepfamily.
Parenting an Angry Child in Your Stepfamily
Danny: Give yourself grace—but pause and try to notice—put pause buttons all over your house, and that will just remind you: “Oh, I just need to look at my child’s face,” “I need to look in their eyes,” “I need to visit their city; I can’t just be focused on my own city. I’ve got to go into their city and see what is going on.”
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife—
I can’t imagine what my stepmom was probably thinking of me when she married my dad; and now, she has a son.
Dave: You know me; I was not happy.
Ann: You were not happy at all.
Dave: I wasn’t happy about the arrangement. She was an incredible woman; but initially, I didn’t want her in my life. It became a difficult transition for all of us. I think that’s pretty common for most blended families.
We’re going to talk about that today. We’ve got Ron Deal with us in the studio. Ron is the director of FamilyLife Blended®. Ron, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Ron: It’s always great to be back with you guys. Thanks for having me.
Dave: Yes; and so what you just heard me say is pretty common. I know you talk about this on your FamilyLife Blended podcast, which is part of the FamilyLife network of podcasts. Is that pretty common?
Ron: Absolutely, it is. I mean, figuring out how you are going to work together and agree; and sometimes, you disagree. That was the topic of conversation that I had with Danny Huerta for the FamilyLife Blended podcast.
You know, one of the things I’m thinking about is—you may not be part of a blended family, at least in your home—but you may be connected to somebody in your extended family who is. So listen for them/for how you can encourage them.
But here is the other thing: the principles that we talked about with Danny, really, apply to all marriages and families. So many times, I was talking with Danny, and I was thinking, “Wow; Nan and I could have used this when our kids were younger.” Feel free to apply the principles to your life and your circumstances.
Dave: We’re going to get to listen to your conversation. Tell us a little about Danny. I know he is with Focus on the Family; right?
Ron: That’s right. Danny is Vice President of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family. He oversees their initiatives to equip moms and dads with biblical principles for raising healthy, resilient children. He is a bilingual—I should mention—licensed, clinical social worker. He is a great guy, good friend; really enjoyed my time with him. He and Heather have two children together, and the book that we talked a little bit about is called 7 Traits of Effective Parenting.
[Previous Interview from FamilyLife Blended]
Ron: There are parental influences, whether it be a grandparent or a co-parent in the other household, or a new stepparent in the new household. There are people who are influencing this child that is adding confusion to their world, and the child is acting out of all that confusion. Here we are: trying to shape, and mold, and come alongside and deal with consequences from the past, from the child’s actions, or somebody else’s actions. Man, it just can feel overwhelming at times.
Just right off the bat—let’s just deal with that—“What does a parent or stepparent do with that overwhelming feeling?”
Danny: You want to step back and figure out the real estate that you actually own in that as far as emotionally and in decisions that you make. That is so important to realize. I use this analogy, Ron, over and over again in my practice; it is the analogy of cities. We may talk about that a little later again; but it’s the idea that a mom is her own city, and a dad is his own city, and they have been built over time. Each one has their own museum, their own history. Sometimes, we let people into our museum to know our past; and sometimes, we don’t. Sometimes, we just don’t want to have anyone know a certain part of the museum.
And then, we’ve got certain parts of our city that people enter into—rough parts; maybe, fun parts; maybe, some mundane—but just creatively thinking of that. Then you have two spouses that, over time, built highways to one another and influenced one another. Then, all of a sudden, it is cut off; but at the same time, they are still influencing the little cities that are called their kids.
Then a new city comes in and does things different—their culture is different; brand-new museum—they are coming in and starting to build dirt roads to these kids, both ways; right? This is a blended family of these roads.
Danny: Then you add extended family to that—other cities that are influencing—it becomes very overwhelming. A lot of times, there are disagreement between the two cities that used to be—the parents—of the original kids. Then you have still influence coming behind there; and you have a city that is divided—which is the child—so they start to act out in certain ways.
So owning your own real estate: “How can I love my child well?” “What do I have control over?”—and recognizing that my child, or my children, need me all-in, loving them and guiding them in a loving way to learn how to love both parents in an encouraging way.
Ron: If the bridge is out to one of the other major cities, we’ve got to try to repair that.
Danny: Yes; from a biblical perspective, that makes perfect sense. You build that, and it’s healthy for the child. It may feel like you lose a little bit of love from your child; and maybe, you are wanting that control. You have to figure out in your own city: “Why are you needing so much of your child’s love? Why is that? What is going on in your city that you are trying to repair, through your children, that you’ve lost from your spouse potentially?” That’s where you need to go get the help you need; and surround yourself with people, who can help you repair within your city; so you’re not relying so much on the input from your kids and not able to encourage their connectedness with a spouse.
Now, there are certain situations—right, Ron?—
Danny: —where that other spouse is in a really bad spot. Then you don’t necessarily want to encourage that connection.
Ron: Right; right.
Danny, one of the things I hear people do sometimes, when they talk about blended families, is talk about all the bad news; and they throw out stats, and they just leave the stats sitting there. I’ve got to tell you: if you are a parent or a stepparent in that situation, you would feel hopeless. Now, this is true; but we are going to get underneath about why it is true. That’s what is going to be important here.
Kids in blended families have higher rates of aggression, and depression, and behavioral problems; and do a little more poorly in school, academically, on the whole in general compared to kids growing up in a biological, nuclear family. We just leave that there as if to say, “This is all kids. This is why blended families are bad,”—you know, all those judgmental messages that come through—that are inappropriate and wrong.
The quality of the relationships in any home—single parent home, biological home, adoptive family home, foster family home, blended family home—the quality of relationships, at the end of the day, has more to do with why we see some of those things in children. It’s not the structure of the home that is going to equal: “Well, you are going to have a messed-up kid.” I think that is an inappropriate use of those stats.
But what I think is more important to do is to get underneath it and go, “Okay, so sometimes, kids in blended families have a reason to be a little more depressed than the average teenage kid.” And I think it is related to the kinds of hurt that they have experienced, the kinds of transition that has created some instability in their world in their life, a parent who is not as involved or engaged as a result of parental divorce for example, and just the sadness and the hurt that comes along with those changes—transitions—unwanted transitions.
We’ve got to get inside of that. I think it is easy for a stepparent, who is kind of new on the scene, to look at their spouse’s kid, going, “Man, you’ve got a messed-up child right there.” No, let’s get underneath it: “Why is that kid hurting? What is going on? What’s the backstory?” and “Then, what do we do with that?” Okay, just react to that, Danny. Is that fitting? Is that a good place for us to start?
Danny: Oh, it is. I call those: “That wasn’t supposed to happen” moments; it wasn’t designed that way. Think about: “That wasn’t supposed to happen” moments as parents, just a regular day.
Danny: You have a reactiveness to it. When you have a “That wasn’t supposed to happen” moment that is so big, it really creates a big reaction in a child’s life when their life is lived off of emotions rather than experience. They don’t have much experience to draw from, and they assume that life is always going to be this way. They think in terms of: “I wonder if my parents are ever going to get back together. I wish they would get back together,” “I wonder if my dad still loves me, because he’s gone,” or “I wonder if my mom still loves me.” They are wondering these things, behind the scenes, and interpreting life from those questions.
Ron: Right; right.
Danny: They are looking for data; they are looking for information to help them with all of this interpreting that is going on. On top of that, they have the other pressures, and they notice the kids that have things intact—they don’t necessarily compare themselves with kids that have similar situations—they want that [intact family], but they usually notice how much better other people’s lives are.
They, unfortunately, don’t get as much of the bids for connection responded to the parents. They’ve bid for the connection; they are like, “Hey, pay attention to me; I’m hurting.” Over time, they have this helpless feeling that: “Yes, my mom/she is sad. I don’t want to upset her,” or “My dad/he is busy; I don’t want to bug him.” They don’t see their emotions as that important. They step back, and they start to try to deal with it in their own world. “That wasn’t supposed to happen” moments start to pile up.
Unfortunately, some kids, Ron, the one thing you didn’t mention there is that suicide rate is also higher.
Ron: Yes; right.
Danny: They think, “Okay, I don’t have any hope. It’s always going to be this way.” Then they hop out, and the parents, afterwards, saying, “I didn’t see this coming,”—whether it be drugs or other things. It’s because they were so involved in their own world that they missed what was happening in that child’s world.
Dave: We’re listening to a clip from our FamilyLife Blended podcast with Ron Deal. Ron, you’ve got something coming up that is pretty exciting.
Ron: Yes; you know, every year FamilyLife puts on the Blended & Blessed® livestream event. People can attend from around the world. It’s live in Houston, Texas. If you happen to live in that vicinity, we’d love to have you join us Saturday, April 2, 2022; but you can livestream it from anywhere: to your home or to your church. Churches gather people together and livestream it so that they can experience the day together: worship and praise and talking about the practicalities of blended family living.
By the way, the event is livestreamed into Spanish, again, this year; I’m so excited about that. Literally, around the world, people will be tuning in.
You know, Dave and Ann, it’s new every year. People ask me: “Is it the same as last year?” No, no, no—new theme, new speakers, new subject matter—and we’re trying to give people practical information to strengthen their blended family, much like we’re doing in this conversation with Danny.
Ann: Ron, Dave and I had the honor of being at a Blended & Blessed conference. I have to tell you: we were so impressed—not only by the speakers/the communicators—the authenticity—but the practicality and how you guys make this doable in our homes.
If you want to sign up for that, you can go to FamilyLifeToday.com.
[Previous Interview from FamilyLife Blended]
Ron: Bids for connection: for somebody, who is not familiar with that terminology, explain that a little bit.
Danny: Yes, a bid for connection is really what it sounds like—somebody bidding for connection with you/wanting a connection point with you—so it could be a smile that could be a bid for connection; it could be a wave; it could be a tug. Our new daughter—13—she has ADHD and some other things going on, and she’ll come and just stare at you. [Laughter] That’s a bid for connection, like, “I am here! Can you pay attention to me?” I have to literally stop, look at her, “Hey, what do you need from me right now?”
Ron: Yes, yes.
Danny: “I’d love to meet that if I can,” or “Hey, can you give me two minutes? I need to finish this, and then I’ll be in with you. I know you want to connect; you want to talk about something, clearly; so let’s talk.”
It’s a parent being aware enough; but I’ve noticed a lot of parents lose appetite. They are trying to navigate a job—a new job—and many hours of work. They are tired; they are exhausted. Then they have the emotional reality of the other spouse, potentially, doing some things; and then trying to connect with new kids/a new spouse. It’s so much; they say, “I miss those bids for connection. My child is giving me these hints, and I miss them.”
So, for you, it’s: “Give yourself grace, but pause and try to notice. Put pause buttons all over your house, and that will just remind you: “Oh, I need to look at my child’s face,” “I need to look in their eyes,” “I need to visit their city; I can’t just be focused on my own city. I’ve got to go into their city and see what’s going on.”
Ron: Driving by and waving at the city is not the same as entering the city, and going into the park, and sitting down, and going, “Hey, what’s going on?”—
Ron: —and connecting with. No, that is so good.
I think the other side of this, that parents need to understand, is that—in the midst of the confusion, and transition, and change—kids often, in my clinical experience, and I’m curious what yours is as well—kids of all ages: young, old, teenagers, even adults, recognize that: “Mom is under a lot of pressure,” “Mom is trying to figure this stuff out: Mom has got stuff at work; COVID is still in the air,” “Mom is trying to figure out how to be a stepmom to my stepsiblings now. I don’t want to burden her; I don’t want to bother her,” or “I’m concerned that she is already irritated with me; I don’t want to make it worse. So I don’t really make overt, easy to understand bids for connection. I either do nothing and hide it, and just get isolated and feel more alone; or I do a bid for connection in anger/something irritating.” Do you see that in the kids you work with?
Danny: Oh, yes; or acting out. I mean, it can be in school, acting out. They don’t know how to handle the fact that they are not able to bid for connection with somebody they love. Unfortunately, many teens—their bids for connection go to other friends and other places over time—and then a parent laments the fact they don’t have a very good connection with their teen; but that is where the bid for connection now comes, from the parent. You have to be persistent and steadfast in that, and not give up; because you already experienced rejection in a spouse,—
Danny: —potentially; right? That’s not all blended families; but in the case/that is a reality that some spouses are rejected. You may already experience those feelings of rejection, and then you are experiencing it with your teens or teen. Then you have to bid for connection, putting those fears of rejection aside because you are persistent, understanding that it is not personal. This child is just trying to find connectedness somewhere and stability; and maybe, he is finding it in friendships, which is totally normal—normal developmental stage—but you can really step in, intentionally, and have those bids with your child, planning some consistent things. Over time, your child will enjoy those; but you have to be patient with that.
Ron: I think what we are saying here is both “prevention” and “intervention.” Prevention—for those families, who are listening, going, “We don’t really have a kid, who is acting out,”—but moving toward your child, seeing their bids for connection, creating opportunities to connect with them, even when they don’t seem to be asking for it, is prevention because that is, at the end of the day, what our kids want most from us. They just want us sitting in the park with them, throwing the Frisbee®—being in their city—and being a part of them.
This is also intervention for families, who do have a kid they are struggling with. It’s always a good idea to move toward that child, emotionally/physically. Sometimes, they’ve got a stiff arm out, and they are really angry. They are not going to let you in, because of something that has happened; there is a repair that is needed. But in general, Danny, would you say this to someone, who is struggling with a child: “Always look for the opportunities to move toward them”?
Danny: Yes, yes; even when there is pushback—rejection, drug use, withdrawal, when they are bragging about everything they can brag about—they are, in their own different way and personality, they are looking and they desire, deep down—that pursuit, that connection, that affirmation—they are looking for a sense of belonging/a sense of competence that: “I’m good at something.”
Danny: Just recognize that, as a parent: figure out what your own triggers are. If you feel a certain emotion toward your child that disconnects you from him, figure out where that is coming from and maybe talk with a friend about it, or process it/journal about it.
Your role is to visit that city consistently—and go in, and ask questions, and have curiosity—and say, “I wonder what is going on in your thought bubbles. I’m seeing all these other things. What’s going on in your thought bubbles? I’d love to see them. I can’t see them; I have to rely on you telling me all about them. I’m sure there are a lot of them you are not telling me, and I’d love to hear about that whole thought world. Maybe, we can meet up at a train station. Our trains of thought can have a meeting somewhere. We can have an appointment; and at the train station of our trains of thought, we can meet up together. I’d love to hear what is going on in your thought world.”
Dave: We’ve been listening to Ron Deal interview Danny Huerta as they talk about, man, some really, really good stuff on the FamilyLife Blended podcast.
Ann: Well, Ron, Danny talked about these bids for connection that our children toss our way; but what keeps parents from hearing the bid and responding?
Ron: You know, that last comment he made was really about connecting: but it’s when we don’t hear the bid, where we don’t connect with our kids. They are looking for time and energy from us, and it happens. Sometimes, it just happens; because, I don’t know, we are busy and our minds our elsewhere. Our hearts are good, but we sort of don’t hear it.
But other times, it is because we are distracted. I think we all know one of the biggest distractions these days is technology/our phones. There is a new term—I don’t know if you’ve heard—technoference—hey, it’s a real thing. Sixty-five percent of moms admit that a device regularly or fairly often interrupts their play or their behavioral management with their child.
Dave: My wife has said that is true in our marriage—[Laughter]
Ann: I’m shaking my head.
Dave: —with my phone.
Ron: I hate to say it; but for kids, the new sibling they have a little rivalry with is our phones; right?
Ron: So we just don’t hear when they walk in the room, and just sort of sit quietly, and look at us; that is a bid for connection. We just didn’t catch it, because we were looking at our phone. We didn’t quite understand when they sort of pause around a topic and have some emotion. Well, we didn’t actually see the emotion, or see the little tear in the corner of their eye, or see them or hear them clearing their throat; because we are sort of distracted into something that we are involved in. It’s like, “Yes, we’ve got to discipline ourselves so that we don’t miss those little opportunities to connect.”
Because here is the thing, Dave and Ann, if we repetitively miss those connections, our children hear a big message of: “You’re not important.
Ron: “I’ve better things to do than listen and be with you/be in tuned with you.” Now, that is not a message we want to send.
Dave: And they are going to go somewhere else to get that.
Dave: They need connection. They’ll go find it somewhere else; we don’t want that.
Ron: Hey, you don’t text and drive. I say, “Don’t text and parent.”
Dave: Yes; that’s a word right there. We should put that above the door in our kitchen—
Dave: —“Don’t text and parent.”
Last thing, Ron; what are we going to hear tomorrow from Danny?”
Ron: You know, earlier, he talked about staying in control of ourselves when we feel disrespected/when a child is doing things that really concern us. Well, tomorrow, Danny is going to get really practical about how we actually do that: “How do we calm down? How do we stay in control so we respond better?”
Shelby: Blending families is unique, but it is also a tremendous blessing. I come from a blended family myself, and I am really excited to tell you that the 2022 Blended & Blessed livestream and live event is coming up this April 2nd. You can attend both: live at Houston’s First in Houston, Texas; or you can stream it from anywhere in the world in both English or Spanish. Our speaker lineup this year are people like: Ron Deal, Cathy Lipp, Gayla Grace, Willie and Rachel Scott. For more information about the Blended & Blessed conference and livestream event, you can register at FamilyLifeToday.com.
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Tomorrow, we’re going to hear more from Danny Huerta as he points us to the fact that the Holy Spirit can guide us, when we are reacting to our kids, how we can love them well in the context of disrespect and bad behavior. That’s tomorrow. I hope you can be with us again.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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