One of the hardest things to hear from one of our kids is “You are not my parent! You can’t tell me what to do!” Stepparents and foster parents usually hear that in the middle of an argument about house rules, boundaries, or advice. I never heard that reaction from my stepsons, but I heard it a lot from foster children. It’s a one-size-fits-all rejection that kids can turn to whenever they run into something that they don’t like. It’s tough to respond to that claim because it’s half right. Moreover, it hurts to hear someone you care about and sacrifice for reject you so completely, and the accusation can push us into reacting just as non-logically as our kids are.
We can deal with the accusation, though, if we take some time to think it through and plan ahead how we want to respond. I’ve found four sentences that have helped me move my relationships with my foster children past this roadblock.
"No, I’m Not Your Mom, and I’m Sorry that She Isn’t Here."
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge their loss. We are not our child’s biological parent. We are in their lives only because they have lost their intact biological family through death, divorce, or other trauma. If we ignore that loss and skip straight to arguing about their second statement (that they don’t have to pay attention to us), our kids simply won’t listen. None of our eloquent arguments and flawless reasoning will get through their emotional barriers.
This discussion is not the time to explain to a child why his or her biological parent is not there. We may need to have that conversation with them at some point, but an argument about boundaries is not the time or place. We simply need to acknowledge that they have suffered a loss and that it’s hard for them to work through their emotions.
"I Care About You."
The next thing our kids need to know is that we care about them. Of course, they won’t believe just words; we will have to show them how much we care and it may take a while for them to believe us. It’s also possible that they will reject whatever we say. But none of that matters at this moment in time. Whether they want to hear it or not, we need to remind them that we care. The old saying is absolutely true — no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care. Even if they don’t hear us the first 27 times we tell them we care, we still need to keep saying it.
"I’m Responsible for Keeping You Safe."
With stepchildren, you can stop after the first two sentences. They have a biological parent in the family, and most experts say that that parent has the main responsibility for correcting the kids. Even if you think your spouse isn’t doing a good job setting boundaries with the kids, don’t step up and try to do the job for them. Your efforts will do more harm than good. Learn the phrase “connection before correction,” and remind yourself often. Until your stepchildren accept you in the family, your attempts to set boundaries will simply create more chaos.
If you are a foster parent, on the other hand, you don’t have the luxury of waiting for a connection. You have to set boundaries because there simply is no one else available to do the job. In this situation, you may not be the person who is supposed to be there, but you are the person who is there. Never apologize for being there, and never apologize for setting boundaries that keep your child safe.
At the same time, you need to try to avoid a power struggle. I have made the mistake of saying, “My house, my rules,” and the resulting conversation did not go well. I found that it works much better if I keep the focus of the conversation on the child and what I think he or she needs. Of course, children may reject our concern and almost certainly will argue about what’s necessary to keep them safe. But a discussion about what they need is almost always more productive than an argument about who is in charge.
"These Are the House Rules."
Finally, reiterate that the rules are the rules and that the structure is still there. As I’ve explained before, talking about “house rules” generally goes over much better than “my rules.” I don’t know whether the words come in on a different wavelength or just don’t sound as personal, but the technique has worked for me more often than not.
Of course, there are many ways to make these four statements, and every family has to find its own vocabulary. The sentiments, however, are important, as is the order in which we say them. Acknowledge their loss, remind them that you care, and provide the structure that they need, even when they don’t want it. Establishing new family relationships can be tough on everyone, but keeping those principles in mind may help you move more lightly over some rough ground.