How to Parent the Troubled Kid 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.
Combatting with a child in your stepfamily? Psychologist Danny Huerta offers ideas for dealing with disrespectful, distrustful, reactive, or troubled kids.
How to Parent the Troubled Kid in Your Stepfamily
Danny: I give parents permission to have five time-outs—for five minutes, ten minutes; 30-second time-out—it’s a reset of your mind. You are pressing a reset button; because you are the adult, and they are going to rely on you managing those emotions.
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 Today!
Dave: So think about when our kids were younger and in the house, and you got upset with them.
Ann: —which happened;—
Dave: Yes, that happened for both of us.
Dave: How did you calm down? What did you do?
Ann: I would say to them, “You need to go into the other room.”
Dave: I remember hearing that.
Ann: Do you remember this? And I would have a time-out. I would have to go in the opposite room, because I had to calm down. Do you remember that?
Dave: Oh, yes.
Ann: Because I can get pretty heated,—
Dave: Oh, yes!
Ann: —and I really needed to calm myself down before I would address them.
Dave: Yes; and I think what we are talking about—every family/every family—
Ann: —every parent!
Dave: —have moments like that.
Blended families have that as well. We’re going to talk about that a little bit today with Ron Deal—our director of FamilyLife Blended®—is in the studio with us. Welcome to FamilyLife Today, Ron.
Ron: Thanks, guys. Good to be here.
Ann: Ron probably didn’t get upset with his kids like that.
Ron: Oh, yes, I did. [Laughter] Oh, yes, I did.
Ann: We all do; right, Ron? Reassure me.
Ron: That is exactly right; that is exactly right. Kids will bring out the best and the worst in us. [Laughter]
Dave: You’ve got something coming up pretty exciting for FamilyLife Blended. Talk about that.
Ron: Yes; so on Saturday, April 2, 2022, is our next Blended & Blessed® one-day livestream event for couples—
Ron: —in blended families. Yes, it’s a lot of fun; it’s a great event. Couples can participate from anywhere in the world. If you live near Houston, come be a part of the live audience; we’d love to have you there. But churches can host this and invite couples in their church and their community to come and be a part of it. You don’t have to have the expertise about stepfamily living—that is our job—just get people together. It’s a great little partnership in ministry. Learn all about it—and how you can register; how your church can host the event—go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and you’ll get the information you need.
Dave: We’ve been there; and it is really, really practical and helpful.
I think today’s broadcast is going to be the same thing. Ron, you sat down with Danny Huerta, who works with Focus on the Family® and had a really interesting discussion that we are going to get to hear today.
Ron: Yes, this is going to be Part Two. Yesterday, we spent a little time talking with Danny. He is the Vice President, by the way, of Parenting and Youth at Focus on the Family. He is responsible for all the stuff they do to help build into parents.
We spent some time talking a little bit about cities yesterday. Just so people get oriented: Danny has this great analogy to think about how, when two cities come together—husband and wife—and form a new city, they have highways that they’ve developed between the two of them and bridges; and they’ve got their own museum in their own city with their past. Sometimes, you share all of it; and sometimes, you don’t share all of it. Then they have children. Maybe, we can call those little suburbs. They develop bridges of communication and trains of thought between. It’s a great little analogy.
As he starts talking about that, you’re going to pick up on it pretty fast, and that is what he is referring to.
[Previous Interview from FamilyLife Blended]
Ron: Let’s talk around parents getting hooked by the negative emotions and this stuff that kids throw at us. What do we do when we get triggered?
Danny: Well, so I give parents permission to have five time-outs or more.
Ron: —in a minute?—or a day?—or a week? How many?
Danny: —in a day.
Ron: Okay, five in a day.
Danny: And I do this sometimes for myself. I know it’s going to be a big day of me having to get things done. You put on a sheet of paper, wherever you’re going to be able to access that, and put a time-out; because it’s a great example for your kids. Going for five-minute, ten-minute; 30-second time-out; it’s a reset of your mind.
You are pressing the reset button; because you are the adult, and they are going to rely on you managing those emotions. Having that resource of maybe a friend or another person you can call—go into the bathroom if it’s really getting overwhelming—and get some perspective in the moment can be helpful so you regain composure, and you’re able to come back with your mind.
Ron: I really like that. Yes, I’m responsible for how I am reacting. If I catch myself getting angry—flying off the handle, losing charge of myself—I need to calm down. I need to figure out a way to talk myself down from this; pray like crazy: “God, help me calm down.”
You and I both know the thinking part of our brain shuts off—this applies to your teenager as well; your child of any age—thinking brain shuts off. When we get dysregulated, we stop thinking; and we just start reacting. I’ve got to calm down so I can start thinking again.
Danny: A good way—one very simple tool that you can use, starting today—is go/we all need to be hydrated: go get a drink of water, and stare out the window, and just picture the Holy Spirit just pouring in as you are drinking water, and letting your mind rest in the moment. You’re bringing in an extra ounce of that Holy Spirit; maybe, it’s a quick prayer.
Don’t react; drink a glass of water, and stare out the window, and then come back to the conversation—especially with a teenager, who is trying to push your buttons and trying to get you going—that’s where you don’t want to give up any power in that. You have to let the teen know: “It’s not up for grabs; I’m in control of me.” And over time, that is going to be respected; but you have to show that reset, and come in with you in control so the child knows that they can’t push your buttons to a place, where they gain control. They are coming out of anger, and they are potentially going to push you until you break; and they’ve won. Their anger has won, and they feel better about it. They like that you are miserable now. So just take a drink of water and come back to the moment.
Ron: I want to connect some dots for our listener. Let’s connect the early part of our conversation with what Danny just said. Remember, this kid is hurting; and sometimes, they are blaming you for all the struggles that they’ve had in life. Sometimes, they are just mad at the world for the things that have happened in their life, their family, etc.—whatever it might be—the stuff you can’t control. Still, it’s going to come out on somebody; so out of that hurt, they react. Sometimes, yes, they are trying to just ignite you into responding/reacting, in some backward way, so that you’ll move toward them so they can be heard; so somebody will care about what they are hurting over.
That is so difficult to maintain yourself—to put on gentleness; I’m thinking fruit of the Spirit here—to calm down enough to be there to continue to love them; but yet, to see past the hurt and the anger—the outside stuff—and see what is on the inside.
But I’ve got to ask you, man, because anybody in that situation feels disrespected: “How do you wrestle with that? This kid is just totally disrespecting me, and I’m supposed to respond with gentleness and quiet; you know, be calm. That just is hard to do. I want respect first; then I’ll respond with love.” But I don’t think we can do it that way.
Danny: I think our human nature is the reality there. It feels helpless; it feels powerless in the moment. Notice I said, “feels.” You have a lot of power by showing self-control. So when you show that, you show a lot of power that, over time, is going to be respected. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a consequence. You’re still the parent—you’re not looking for happiness—you’re looking for connection. It’s going to be shown in that warmth, and sensitivity, and love with compassion.
Emotions don’t have to be contagious; take a deep breath. Even if you need to stare at their eyes or somewhere to regulate yourself—and that’s a good way to regulate, by the way, your emotions—just stare at one spot, and take a deep breath, and remind yourself of what the bigger picture is here: that you are showing self-control; and that is regaining the power of the moment, because those moments will accumulate over time. Over time, that child is going to respect you. If you lose it, you’ve lost even more ground on any type of potential connection.
Ron: Yes; exactly. I love the way you are saying that: “You are retaining your power in that moment”; and you are. If you start reacting as much as they are reacting, now, they’ve got another reason to disrespect you, in the child’s mind.
Danny: Yes; and figure out a way—you can have a squeeze ball close by, or all over the house, or whatever you need to regulate yourself—some people use/put things in their pocket or chew gum. Little subtle things that help remind you, “I’ve got to manage me. I’ve got to be all in”; maybe, it’s that drink of water. You regain perspective that, when the kids are the most unlovable, that’s when they require the most love from you. That is, truly, when you are being a loving person. Every night, pray for that extra refill from God on how you can love deeply and in a steadfast way—that means immovable—and that will transform your home over time.
This is a hurting child, where their city, if you can picture this, has had an earthquake; and they are trying to rebuild, and all their hurts are probably being brought to you. They need somebody to blame, and you’re the easiest one. They are angry because of what has happened; they can’t even pinpoint it.
The more you can just respond with warmth, and gentleness, and love—what you are saying, “The fruit of the Spirit”—moments will change over time. Maybe, that is the support system you need to regroup; but also, agreeing with your spouse what boundaries need to be there so that you also provide consequences along the way—some boundaries to what is being done/what’s being said—so that things don’t get out of control.
Dave: We are listening to the FamilyLife Blended podcast on FamilyLife Today where Ron Deal sat down with Danny Huerta. Man, I tell you, Ron, that last/that drinking in the Holy Spirit visual is one that really sticks.
Ann: I’m not going to forget that. I’m going to try to apply that, even in marriage, Ron. What did you think?
Ron: Oh, yes; I love it. It is physically helping your body to calm down, which is something we have to do in order for our brain to turn back on; and the imagery of prayer as you drink, “Lord, pour into me the fruit juice of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness. Let me find self-control, Lord, right here/right now, so that I can go back and reengage with my child.” Beautiful imagery: physically, it works; spiritually, it’s magnificent.
Dave: And every parent needs it. [Laughter]
Dave: If there is ever a time that you need the fruit of the Spirit, it’s when you are being a mom or a dad. Let’s go back and hear more of this conversation.
[Previous Interview from FamilyLife Blended]
Ron: Is it possible to do both of those: set boundaries and be gentle?
Danny: Yes, and it doesn’t have to be in that moment of emotion. It can be when something is asked. You can say, “Well, I’d love to really develop trust between us,” and “I’d love to develop relationship/hear some of the things that you made a decision to go against in our home. These are the values we’ve got, and you went against it. Here is what we’ve agreed on is the consequence to that,”—maybe, it’s not going out with friends.
Again, counseling is probably going to/in this situation, counseling would be helpful—somebody from an objective standpoint—helping mediate that. I can tell you a lot of teens have come into my office and said, “I don’t want to be here. I don’t see why I need to be here. This is my parents’ problem; I’m not the problem.” Yet, they do agree that they want a life that is different; so the sooner they fire the counselor the better; right?
Ron: Yes, that’s right—work ourselves out of a job—that’s what we are trying to do. I like the way you cast that. The parent can say, “I do want to consider your request, but here are some things that you have done…so here are some boundaries I’m going to have to set. This is all a conversation about: ‘How you can regain my trust. So work back to a place, where that thing you ask for/that thing you wanted to do, for example, is something we can work towards.” That is drawing on the motivation of the child in a way to say, “Let’s work on this together.” That’s giving them some hope.
I think, when kids feel like, “Man, there is no hope. Nobody is listening to me; nobody cares. There is no way I’m going to honor your boundaries, because what’s the point?”
Danny: Yes; and it gets messy. As a parent, what you can do is remember what’s important to that child that you are trying to connect with. If it’s a stepchild, who is bringing in a lot of anger toward you and blaming a lot of things on you, be persistent and remember those things they love—and not to make it a kid-centric home—but to show that you care deeply about what they think, who they are, and getting to know them. If you guys can incorporate one-on-one times with something that is of interest to you and to the child, and taking turns, that is good.
Again, we don’t want to create a narcissistic type of—
Danny: —undertone in the house; but the child is going to need to learn how to love back as well. You just need to be persistent. I want to use that word—“Steadfast”—is, actually, one of my favorite words.
Ron: Let me turn the corner to a little bit different scenario. What if the child’s anger towards a parent or stepparent is completely justified? They are indignant about something the parent has done. Let’s say you are a biological parent, and you’ve been MIA for a while; now, you are coming back into a child’s life. Or you have burdened your child, as you were talking earlier—and you have made them responsible for communicating with the other household—your co-parent. They have had to carry the burden of this conflict between the two major cities; and it’s just been hard, and a pain, and a burden. Now, you’re wanting to make it better or something.
A scenario that I’ve run into many times—you had an affair—you ended your family because of an affair. You’ve now married the affair-ee, and that’s your blended family. The child is going, “I just can’t accept this. It’s almost like I’m giving mom or dad a pass on their actions if I get happy about this new family.” What does a parent do then?
Danny: Realize, that when a child is in that inflexible type of mindset—and that is what I will call it, inflexible—“You require justice; you have wronged me,”—they will usually move against you. That’s a natural inflexible tendency of the mind. The child is just thinking, “This is how justice happens…”; or they may cling to the other parent to be safe, depending on the age and personality.
What a parent needs to do is come with a humble heart that says, “I have done wrong; you are absolutely right,”—and accepting that; coming with an open, teachable heart, repentant—but not constantly—you just ask for forgiveness. You don’t plead for it; you ask for it—you say, “I’m sorry; knowing what I know now, I would do things differently,”—or whatever that may be—but bringing honest desire and genuine desire for connection, and knowing that it’s going to take time to repair. You’re going to have to be patient. It may take a couple years—maybe, even three years—but that persistence of you showing that you are a different person is going to give new information to that child to interpret who you are differently; right?
This point: “There is justice that needs to be served, and the sentence is never long enough for that and realize that.” So sometimes, the question is: “What do you need from me to make things better?” The child usually doesn’t know what to answer: “Well, I wish you hadn’t done that,” “I understand that, and I’m asking for that forgiveness. Do you think you can do that?” Sometimes, they’ll say, “No!”
You say, “I get that. Let me know if you change your mind or when that happens. Just know that I love you; I would die for you. I still want to connect with you, and I hope we can continue to do that,”—and following through with your commitments—even if it is going to hurt/if you’re going to feel the rejection; prepare yourself, emotionally, for that.
The more persistent and steadfast you are in the relationship, with that type of emotion—you will, over time, begin to see a difference in how they respond to you—because then you’re trustworthy, you’re following through, you are showing that you are doing what you are saying; and they will see the difference over time. They will be watching you; but know that your role is coming with a humble and repentant heart as you try to build that bridge.
They may grenade it—build it again; right?—and just say, “Just a reminder: I really love you; want to connect with you”; but you don’t have to keep admitting to the fault over and over again to regain love. That’s never going to really do any good, and it’s going to make you feel worse and worse. They’ll punish you more and more. It’s having a moment of special connection, where you repent of that, and you talk to them, and you ask for forgiveness.
Beyond that, you love consistently; and you’re able to reference back, “Hey, do you remember when we talked about this one that I asked for forgiveness? Well, that’s our starting point of something new between us. I’m hoping you are willing to open up a new chapter between us. Can we close the previous chapter and just have a conclusion to that? Open a new one. Maybe, we can title it, A New Chapter.” With kids, who are creative, you can do that; you can say, “What could we title this new chapter that we can start to write together?—because the previous chapter was super messy, but there is a new chapter we can write?”
Dave: We’ve been listening to the FamilyLife Blended podcast here on FamilyLife Today. Boy, I tell you: that conversation Ron had with Danny—Ron, what he just said there at the end—
Ann: Oh, my!
Dave: —every parent—
Ann: We’re thinking, “Can he live in my house? Please come and help me!” [Laughter]
Dave: We all want to start a new chapter because we’ve messed up, or we’ve done things—like Danny said—that are messy.
Ann: But I like, too, how he talked about gentleness and respect, how they can work together.
Dave: He was even gentle as he said it.
Ann: Yes; and that can produce strength and self-control; and then parents control themselves so that—I mean, this is important—we control ourselves so that we can connect with our children.
Ron: Yes, and it’s also part of the repair process. Like, when we mess up—and I’ve been there/done that—the finding gentleness is a way to begin repair. I mean, essentially, you do something—your child feels hurt—you want to show them you’re changing; you’ve got to demonstrate that. We expect change out of our kids around their behavior; we’ve got to demonstrate that first.
You know, that starts with us even knowing what our triggers are; so we can manage those things a little better. I love his phrase: “You’ve got to let your mind control your brain”; right? That’s having the mind of Christ—Philippians 4 comes to mind—“Whatever is true, honorable, praiseworthy, just, pure, lovely”—what does he say?—“think about these things.” Let your mind control your brain. And then, verse 9—“Put them into practice.” That’s Paul’s prescription here: think about it; put it into practice; and what comes next?—peace—“The God of peace will be with you.”
So, yes, we discipline our minds. Our thoughts begin to change. That’s going to help lead to repair in a relationship and bring peace.
Dave: Yes, what a helpful conversation. That was really just a part of the conversation. If you want to listen more of it, go to our FamilyLife Blended podcast. That’s part of our FamilyLife network of podcasts, and you can listen to the rest of the conversation Ron had with Danny.
Shelby: Danny Huerta helped us to see that, as we are persistent and steadfast, over time, we will see a difference in how our kids respond to us. We can take proactive steps to walk with Jesus ourselves and model that well to our kids.
Blended families face unique challenges. We recognize that, here, at FamilyLife Today, which is why we are excited to talk about the upcoming Blended & Blessed® one-day live event and livestream event happening on April 2nd.
We have FamilyLife’s president, David Robbins, with us today. David, tell us about the unique event that addresses this specific topic.
David: Well, our FamilyLife Blended team is one week away from their premiere event that happens once a year, called Blended & Blessed. If you haven’t been before, I urge you to go check out this event. What makes this event so special is that there are very few contexts out there that speaks uniquely to the challenges and the opportunities in stepfamilies.
Ron Deal and his team and the guests that he has do a phenomenal job pointing you to Jesus/pointing you to the Restorer of all things. The ones that I have been able to go to in person, the feedback that I get the most is—that people [who] listen on the livestream or go in person—and they’ve never felt more known [with] their family and people knowing their situations than any other thing they’ve experienced. It truly is a blessing for blended families to experience this day.
Shelby: That’s great. You can head over to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com, to look for the Blended & Blessed conference. You can sign up there to attend live on April 2nd, or you can livestream the event. Again, head over to FamilyLifeToday.com to find out more information and sign up, or you can give us a call at 1-800-358-6329; that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
If this content today, or any of the FamilyLife programs have been helpful for you—I know they have been for me—we’d love for you to share today’s podcast with a friend or family member. Wherever you get your podcasts, it could really advance what we’re doing at the ministry of FamilyLife, if you would scroll down and rate and review us.
Now, this weekend, a lot of Weekend to Remember® events are happening all over the country. There are Weekends to Remember happening in the Poconos in Pennsylvania; Des Moines, Iowa; Nashville, Tennessee; Newport, Rhode Island; Redondo Beach, California; if you’d take a moment to pray for those couples as they are gathering this weekend to attend our Weekend to Remember events.
And coming up on Monday, Dave and Ann Wilson are going to be talking with author, Joe Rigney, about how we can sometimes miss the beauty and blessings in everyday common things and events that our heavenly Father longs for us to delight in as His children. That’s next week; we hope you can join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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