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Undercut & Undermined – what to do if your stepchild resists contact because parental authority is being undermined

When your stepchild seeks to exclude you or worse still reject you, your spouse/their parent and their entire stepfamily , it can be difficult to know how to react or what to do. It can be especially painful when you believe that you have gone out of your way to try and forge a relationship with them and to make your home, their home. It also hurts to see your spouse/partner suffering because their child is saying that they don’t want to come and spend time with them.

Now, there can be many reasons a child might protest about, and resist, spending time with a parent and, by extension, their stepparent and stepfamily. Some reasons are easier to understand and to do something about than others. One reason that can be especially hard to both understand and to combat, is when your stepchild’s rejection is due to your spouse’s Ex (i.e. your stepchild’s other parent) undermining your spouse’s parental authority.

Parental authority can be undermined in many ways. The Ex may undermine authority by creating rules of conduct for your stepchild when they are in your home e.g., you might offer your stepchild the opportunity to participate in a certain game or activity when they are with you, only to have your stepchild decline because “Mummy/Daddy says I can’t do that”. The Ex may restrict the child’s diet when in your care based on food allergies, even though no health care professional has determined they have any such allergies. The Ex may disregard rules that both parents decided on together or that are included in a parenting plan or agreement e.g., such as purchasing the child a phone when they are 9 years old, despite there being a prior agreement made that the child will not have a smart phone until they commence High School. They then might tell your spouse, in front of their child not be such a “stick-in-the-mud” and that if they disagree they should be the one to take the phone away.

Another way in which undermining of parental authority can occur, is when one parent routinely sides with the child’s complaints and criticism about the other parent and/or commiserates with the child when the child complains (to them) about a consequence or rule imposed in the other household. How this typically works is a child believing or complaining that parent A treats them poorly and unfairly, is “mean” or perhaps picks on them. The child mentions the things to parent B, that they see as unfair or “mean behavior by parent A (and also perhaps by their stepparent).  The child’s complaints are listed and documented. Some can be trivial or untrue e.g. “they made me eat too many vegetables” or “they locked me in my bedroom” (where it is known there is no lock on the bedroom door); others can be more serious e.g. “they slapped me across my head when I said I missed you”. Parent B, upon hearing these complaints and criticisms, unquestionably supports the child’s interpretation – “oh that sounds awful”, “how unfair”, “that never should have happened”, “you’re right he does yell when angry, that’s exactly how he treated me” –  strengthening the bond between the child and parent B and reinforcing the child’s views that parent A (and/or their stepparent) treat them badly.

Unfortunately, when one parent regularly sides with their child’s protests and complaints about the other parent, the child can begin to see this as a way to avoid the “problematic” parent and the easier it gets to avoid that parent or that parent’s household. The child then not only gets to avoid spending time with the perceived “problematic” parent but also gets approval and attention from the more “supportive” parent. A powerful reinforced cycle develops. The child can not only become dependent on Parent B, but the child and parent form an alliance which is ultimately, unhelpful and unhealthy to the child.

Most parents do not hesitate to insist their child do something that they must do, especially when, as a grown up, that parent knows it is in their child’s best interests – such as eating a healthy and varied diet, exercising, getting an education, being polite and respectful towards others etc. Yet, despite most studies concluding that (post separation) the support and involvement of both parents is associated with a number of positive child outcomes, including academic achievement, good behaviour, psychological adjustment, a positive self- concept, and social competence, a poor parental alliance, hurt feelings, perhaps anger and conflict, can mean that a child building a workable relationship with the other parent and that parent’s new partner can somehow be seen as optional. (Please note that I am not talking about children or families where they may be issues of family violence, safety concerns or incompetent parenting to consider).

When one parent repeatedly undermines the other parent, intentionally or non-intentionally, it ultimately sends a message to the child that a positive relationship with the other parent (and those connected to that parent) are not that important. It also tends to eventually lead to a parent empowering a child decide whether or not a relationship with the other parent is appropriate – despite the fact that asking, or expecting, a child to choose between having a relationship with a parent and not having a relationship is distressing (for the child). It is unfair. It is not in their best interests’. It also puts too much emotional pressure on a child that they are not mature enough to handle and can decrease their sense of security in all relationships, even with the parent with whom they seem to have sided.

Parental undermining causes a child unnecessary stress and anxiety in response to which a child may act out or withdraw. They can also react by engaging in what psychologists’ call ‘all-or-nothing’ or ‘black and white’ thinking, which leads them to idealizing one parent and devaluing the other. Good vs bad. Fun vs too strict. Mean vs loving. There are no grey areas or middle ground. Children may also deny any hope for repair or reconciliation – “There is nothing my Mum/Dad can do to change my mind.” After all, if the child can convince themselves that their stepfamily deserves to be excluded from their life and that their rejection of that parent is valid then they don’t have to feel badly about themselves.

As a stepparent what can you do?

Unfortunately there is no magic or easy solution, especially if the Ex continues to undermine and not support the child’s relationship with you and your spouse.  But if in a situation in which your stepchild is protesting and resisting spending time with you and your spouse, here are a few options to try that may help you turn things around:

Keep an open mind.

Do not assume that every comment or decision your stepchild makes is a reflection of the Ex’s manipulations rather than being an expression of their authentic thoughts and feelings. If you and your partner dismiss everything the child says as “that’s your mother/father talking”, you’ll more than likely make yourselves emotionally unavailable to the child because you’ll (unintentionally) imply they have nothing valid to say about their own experiences.

Love and accept the child for who he or she is right now.

Despite all the ways in which your stepchild is perhaps being forced (and appears willing) to alter their character, behavior and life course in order to placate and mollify the Ex, you and your partner will benefit from accepting the child for who they are in the here and now. If your partner in particular holds on to an image of the child they feel they have lost, they may lose the individual in front of them. Their child will more than likely sense their disappointment and anger/frustration and may resent this, such that they’ll want to avoid spending time in your household, because it makes them feel bad, sad or even guilty.

Help develop critical-thinking skills.

If your stepchild announces they don’t want to holiday with their stepfamily or they want to quit a hobby or stop following an interest that they typically do when in your care (and you and your partner feel fairly sure that they are doing so to please the Ex), explore the choice/decision with them before it becomes a foregone conclusion. Skip the lecture and the automatic telling off. Don’t please with them to change their mind. Instead, in a calm and neutral manner (in which you don’t appear to have a vested interest in the outcome) ask them to share their thoughts and feelings with you. Listen actively and try to see it from their perspective (bare in mind that this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with them).

When talking to them about the issue/problem, you can spark their critical thinking skills by asking questions such as: “What ideas do you have? What do you think is happening here?” (you will obviously need to respect their responses whether you view them as correct or not). If they say something you don’t agree with, you could say, “That is interesting. Tell me why you think that.” Use phrases like “We are interested to hear your thinking about this.”  “How would you solve this problem?”  “Where do you think we might get more information about this issue/problem?”.

You can also try asking questions such as, “What would you say to your friend if they told you they were giving up something you know they have really enjoyed?”, “You’re a smart kid, and I know you like to think things through. What are some of the things you have considered in coming to this decisions?”, “Would you like to make a list of the pros and cons of this choice to make sure you’re considering all the angles here?”, “I know you’ve done some real thinking about this and I’m interested to hear how you have worked this out in your mind”.

Your stepchild may hold their ground and the outcome might not change, but by you and your partner asking the right questions you are helping them develop their ability to think independently, to make connections between ideas and evaluate information critically and to know their own reality based on their own personal experiences and perceptions.

Step back.

Sometimes you have to go backwards to move forward. If the only way your spouse is able to spend time with their child is if you, the stepparent, is not present, then allow that to happen. After all, no relationship repair can happen or connection maintained if there is no contact at all between your stepchild and their parent. Whatever is going on and how hurtful it is, your spouse is still a parent to a child that needs them – now more than ever.

Stick to orders.

Consistently follow all Court Orders or parenting agreements, especially those that are about contact and communication. Make sure you and your spouse are always punctual and promise only what you can guarantee and deliver. In this same vein, don’t give a child who is resisting coming to see you a choice about spending time with you. If your partner says to their child “I won’t force you to come if you really don’t want to”, they can’t be angry or upset when that child says, “then I’m not coming this weekend”.

As an alternative, your partner might consider saying something like, “I hear you saying that you don’t want to come visit us, but this is your weekend to spend with me and we look forward to you being here” or perhaps “I know moving between two homes isn’t easy for you and at times you may not like doing it. However, spending time with me and my family is important and we need to figure out the best way to do that. I’d like you to help me understand what we can do together to make things better, given not coming to visit is not an option.”

Step out of power struggles.

Remember, no matter how the Ex behaves, you and your spouse have power over your own behaviors and reactions and what you say and do. You and your spouse may truly feel that your ways are better than the Ex’s, but just as they are not involved in the rules in your home, you are not involved in the rules in their home. When there are differences in rules or expectations around behaviour, you might tell your stepchild, “how your mother/father does things is up to her/him. These are the rules and expectations in our house.” Calmly and clearly claim the authority in your own home, and try to step out of any power struggles.

Keep calm and carry on.

When faced with an upset stepchild who may be listing a variety of complaints and criticisms about time spent in your household, try to stay calm and offer an empathic response that addresses misinformation without resorting to mud-slinging.

Don’t angrily contradict the Ex’s comments (to the kids) or become defensive. Don’t resort to counterattacks or try pulling your stepkids into an alliance against the Ex. Don’t threaten or try guilt trip the children to come and spend time in your home. All this will likely do is reinforce their need to avoid spending time in your household, because it makes them feel bad, guilty or shameful.Instead, do try your best to validate their emotional experiences and empathize with how hard it is for them to be caught in the middle between their parents, to perhaps hear bad things about one parent from the other and/or to be “forced” to do something that they are saying they do not want to do. Let them know you realize how hard it is for things to be different.  When parents split up and re-partner, lots of things change for kids. Often those changes feel awkward or uncomfortable.  Reassure your kids that over time things usually get better. Make sure to offer reassurances and an invitation to come to you with future worries or concerns.

And last but not least, if need be seek professional support and advice from a therapist and/or a lawyer. Whilst engaging in litigation should always be a last resort, not a first option, if a child refuses to spend time with you and your spouse, and the Ex is unhelpful, you may need to explore all possibilities in order to preserve their connection to their parent.

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2 comments on “Undercut & Undermined – what to do if your stepchild resists contact because parental authority is being undermined”

  1. Jill Reply

    I have been in a relationship for four year with a man whose ex I believe to have BDP. Despite the fact that she left him, she claims the contrary. In fact she is convinced that I “stole” him from her and has been trying during the entire duration of our relationship to “get him back”. She does this through a combination of insulting him, calling him my love and darling, forbidding him to mention my name, sending cute nostalgic photos from the time they were together, hitting and insulting him at drop off times, inviting him on family outings which I am forbidden from attending, thwarting our vacation plans by refusing his access to the children, telling her kids lies about the reason they haven’t seen their father, and the list goes on….

    I am completely exhausted by all of this and have had a lot of trouble detaching from her sufficiently to feel at peace. At times, I start to hope she has finally given up, but then she returns with a whole new onslaught of provocations and sabotage attempts.

    I have addressed this many times with my partner and his approach is to simply ignore the texts that are not relevant to logistics, still it is hard for me to let go until she does, which may not be for a very long while by the looks of things.

    Has anyone experienced something similar. If so, how did you deal with it?

    • R & T Reply

      Hi Jill, sounds exhausting. There is no easy answer. Setting boundaries for your partner’s high conflict ex can be a huge problem for couples and stepfamilies. Your partner is really the only one that can actively head of in trusive or disrespectful behaviour by the ex. In this regard you and your partner need to approach it as a team and discuss and agree about how to set boundaries and what boundaries are important. One boundary is keeping any communications focused on just parenting issues and ignoring the rest. If the ex tries to engage your partner in more personal topics (not parental ones), perhaps he can simply redirect the conversation, “I appreciate your interest, but I’d prefer not to discuss that with you. Let’s focus on what’s happening with the kids.” The toughest part about boundaries is being consistent and sticking to them. Your partner has experience in dealing with his ex and ignoring her may be the best way based on his experience. If you are struggling to manage the situation then talk to your partner about how you are feeling and lean on and trust one another as you cope with the ex’s chaos.

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