disengaging essay..for stepparents

I am not sure who wrote this, but someone posted this on an AOL message board...

This disengaging essay helped me to change my mind frame and in essence salvaged my marriage. I would never wish a difficult child stepchild on anyone, but sometimes things you can't control happens. AprilRayne had posted regarding her difficult child Stepchild problem, and someone asked that I repost this essay. I did not write this, but it came to me at a very desperate point of my life.

Please keep in mind that 'disengaging' is NOT for everyone. Many of you have DHs who are TRULY supportive - which is not the same as DHs who only THINK they're supportive.

I've found that for my friends with whom I've shared this, understanding some background is sometimes critical for real 'disengaging' to begin. A lot of this is opinion, intuition, & a lot is also experience. Please keep in mind that the people in my 'model' are not psychotic. They are relatively normal people with good intentions, husbands & wives who love each other & want to stay married, in SPITE of their step kids!

I believe that men & women convey different facets of life to their children. Women tend to be concerned with socialization: manners, morals, respect, appreciation, cleanliness, thoughtfulness, etc, as well as physical & emotional health. Men tend to be concerned with results: touchdowns, batting averages, spelling bees, 'accomplishments' in general. In normal (not critically dysfunctional) nuclear families, this arrangement works pretty well. The children develop bonds with their parents which permit the parents to maintain the 'moral authority' to deal with their kids. Most of these men think they've been great parents, & have terrific kids who could be loved by anyone. Then they get divorced & eventually marry us second-wives, expecting everything to function in the same way that it did in the first marriage. The problem is, they have no idea beyond their own personal, limited 'parenting' what is involved in raising kids. One stepmom on one of the boards made the remark 'I just don't understand how his 4 year old son can be sitting directly between him & the TV, & he doesn't see the kid playing with a lighter!' I believe he doesn't see because he's never had to. There has always been a woman in his life who takes care of 'that stuff.'

When we as stepmoms come into the lives of these people, many of us already mothers to our own biokids, we assume that we can expand our mothering role to include our new SKs, intending to keep on doing what we've been doing. Even
those who have never had children of their own have those 'mothering genes.' Our problem is that we don't have the bonding with these kids that is required to give us the 'moral authority' to parent our SKs.

The only way we can get that 'authority' is through husband, & he must give it to us by expecting & demanding that his kids respond to us with obedience & respect, or at least respectful behavior. THAT is what is meant by a supportive husband. Most of them THINK they are supportive, & many of US think they are supportive. But
unless they are willing to discipline their children every single time they speak disrespectfully to us, or ignore us, or disobey us, they are giving their children permission to continue & sometimes escalate, this behavior. And because our DHs have NEVER had to be mothers, they don't know what we're talking about when we try to get their help. They are still being the same parents they were when they were married to their exes, things worked out ok there, so they assume that the problem is US!

The more we 'nag' & point out what's wrong with their kids, the more convinced they become that at the least, we have no parenting skills, & at the worst, we are child abusers. The more we are determined that these kids ARE GOING TO MIND US, the more parenting we do. And the more parenting we do, the less our DHs have to do. Which is exactly the way they want it. They would rather we didn't scream so much, but we're getting the job done (the kids brush their teeth when we are red in the face, they go to bed when we are spewing spittle). Dad can just keep on being a father, which means he doesn't fool with this stuff. But he's still thinking we're crazy, & can't understand why we're so mean to his kids. In addition, our 'criticism' of his kids is seen as a criticism of him.

husband is not a mother, has never been a mother, & doesn't know what it means or requires to be a mother. husband is content being the same parent he has always been, & thinks his kids are fine the way they are. He's just as confused as we are about why we're having so many problems with our SKs, but in his heart, he believes that we are at fault.

Now we come to the kids themselves. Here we have children who, for the most part, have been raised by two parents with whom they are bonded & for whom they accept the power of their bioparents authority. We stepmoms come into their lives with no bond & with no authority. But we blindly assume the role of mother in our own homes, & all the responsibility involved. After the 'honeymoon' with the kids is over, if we even have that period of peace & tranquility, the kids begin to test the waters. Now, keep in mind, they do this with their bioparents too, but quickly submit to the authority of these people for whom they have respected,
admired, and depended on since birth. They look to husband to see what they can get by with, because they have no intention of submitting to our authority until they are made to do so. husband has never involved himself in these struggles between
his ex & his kids, because she can handle it herself. He doesn't see the problem. The kids don't know that he can't see the problem. They think he is giving them unspoken permission to defy us. And so they do. The struggles become more angry, more bitter, more frustrating.

And another amazing thing occurs. In some cases, we give these kids their first real taste of power. With their parents, they are willing to submit, because if nothing else, they fear the loss of their parents' approval. They feel no such need to have our approval. They find that with the mere shrug of a shoulder or a rolling of the eyes that they can turn a big strong adult into a raging maniac. By this time, we have become so frustrated, everything they do infuriates us. And in letting by with disrespectful behavior (& they get by with it because husband doesn't stop it), they are encouraged to even greater heights of disrespect, & they hone
their cunning on us, gaining an even greater sense of power. We end up handing these kids tremendous power over us, on a silver platter, & they love it.

There we are, doing all the work (laundry, helping with homework, grocery shopping, cooking, chauffeuring, supplying needs, the list is endless), doing everything reasonable to maintain our family as we had envisioned, and these kids are treating us like bugs on the soles of their shoes. We are raging to our DHs, who can't understand why we're so angry, & we're wondering what
we're doing here, working our rears off, trying to raise these children, feeling abused & unappreciated by husband AND his kids. Sometimes we think about divorce.

Now it's time to disengage.

In order to successfully disengage, you have to accept some realities. They are:

1. Your SKs are not your children.
2. You are not responsible for overcoming their previous 'raising.'
3. You are not responsible for what kind of people they are.
4. You are not responsible for what kind of people they become.
5. You are not obligated to become an abused member of the household just because you married their dad.
6. You are not responsible for raising your SKs.
7. All the responsibility belongs to your husband.
8. Your husband is not a mother.
9. Your husband is not going to raise his children the way you want him to.
10. Your SKs are not going to turn out the way they would if husband supported you.

What all this means is this: You must stop parenting your SKs. You must stop telling them what is expected of them. You must stop disciplining them. You must turn over all responsibility for them to your husband. You must allow husband to make whatever mistakes he makes. But first, you must explain to husband & SKs what is happening. This is what you say: 'Everyone is unhappy, our home is miserable, & I'm completely frustrated & angry all the time. You kids are angry & frustrated with me, & it's getting worse. Someone has to do something about this, & I decided that it will be me. I have decided that I will no longer be responsible for getting you to bed on time, or getting you up in the mornings. I will not tell you to wash your hands before dinner, & I will not tell you to brush your teeth or take a bath. (You must list all those things for which you have assumed responsibility, whatever they are). I am no longer going to do anything that will give you the opportunity to treat me with disrespect. In the future, if you need anything, you must ask your dad. I will no longer take responsibility for (whatever, getting your school supplies, shopping for your clothes, doing your laundry, taking you to basketball practice, etc.) What I hope to accomplish is for us to begin to get along with each other, & the only way I know to do that is to let your dad be the parent.'

And every time they ask you for something, or ask permission for something, you say 'Go ask your dad.' Your SKs may end up missing out on some terrific things because of your disengaging, but it was a choice they made when they decided to make your life miserable. Never give them the opportunity to treat you disrespectfully.

Many of you may be saying, does all this mean I have no rights? Absolutely not. You must choose your battles, & to disengage, your battles should be about those things that DIRECTLY affect you. For example, you have a right to keep your home with the degree of neatness & cleanliness that you desire (just leave the SKs rooms alone & concentrate on the communal areas). You can say, 'From now on, I expect everyone to put their stuff away by bedtime. Since I will no longer be asking you to do it because I don't want to argue with you, anything that is left out after 9:00 will be disposed.' Period, no discussion, just do it. If it's important to husband for his kids to keep their 'stuff,' HE will parent his children, or do it himself. 'If you don't clear the table after dinner, I will not set a place for you at the next meal.' Period, no discussion, just do it If it's important to husband for his kids to eat, HE will parent his children, or do it himself. 'If you leave your dirty clothes on the floor in the bathroom, they will be disposed.' Are you getting the idea? If husband chooses to do his children's chore, let him. The aim is NOT to straighten out your SKs deficiencies, it's to get your husband involved with his children, in whatever way he chooses, & to lessen your work load. If the kids are going to be unappreciative, let them be unappreciative of their dad.

You see, the REAL problem is not between you & your SKs, it's between you & your husband. These children are HIS responsibility & if he wants good things for them, he will parent them. If he doesn't care (believe me, he really does!), why should you beat your head against the wall?

My son ALWAYS had a bedtime, my SSs NEVER had a bedtime. Now I tend to my son & let husband tend to his. If he wants them to get a good night's sleep, he will parent them. If it's not important to him, I don't make it my concern.

My husband goes to work at 5:30 AM, which leaves me the task of getting everyone up & ready for school. It used to be a nightmare getting my younger SS up, he would growl & yell & scream & roll over & go back to sleep until I was screaming my lungs out, jerking the covers off. Every day started like that & I was miserable every evening, thinking about my next morning's task. So....I just stopped. I told husband to get him an alarm clock. And I told husband that if he wanted to help his son start his day well, he might consider making sure that SS goes to bed at a reasonable
hour, but that I would no longer make it my concern. SS missed 2 days of school because he wouldn't get up & I refused to make a second trip to take him there. husband decided to parent his son. He did it without being home by using consequences if his son did not get up in time to get ready for school.

The point is this: husband must decide what is important to HIM. You must be willing to put up with some degree of inconvenience to 'allow' him to parent his children. But whatever inconvenience you suffer will be minor compared to the conflict that might be part of your life right now. My husband stepped up to the plate. Your husband might not. But that's HIS decision. Don't expect him to agree with your 'new position.' He doesn't agree with your current position. Don't expect him to like what you are doing - or to be more precise - not doing. The less YOU do, the more HE must do & that will not make him happy. You must remember that he has no right to expect more parenting from you than he is willing to do himself.

You may be thinking, this is nuts! We agreed to be 'parents' to each other's children. Yes, but he also agreed to be a parent to his OWN children. None of this means that you can't do ANYTHING. It's very likely that husband will need your help. That's OK. The issue here is that husband must ASK you for your help, instead of what you've been doing - assuming the responsibility & being unappreciated for it.

When husband needs something done that he can't do himself (a ride for one of the kids while he's a work, for example), first, you have already told the kids 'Go ask dad.' So husband is REQUIRED to become involved in his children's lives. He now must THINK ABOUT what's involved in raising his kids, & we all know it's a lot of work. And you can agree to help out, only if husband asks. BUT, to disengage, you must be willing to withdraw your agreement to help IF the kids, between now & the event, treat you disrespectfully! And you must refuse to assist next time if husband & the kids don't say 'Thank you.' You also have a RIGHT to have your efforts appreciated.

When you begin to value yourself in this whole relationship by expecting to be treated with respect & appreciation, you'll feel a lot better. When I say 'to value yourself' I mean that if your efforts are not appreciated - don't do it! Sometimes the SKs will think, 'Well, we're in the car on the way to the ballgame, now I'm home free to be disrespectful!' BAM! They smart off to you! Well, turn that car around & take them back home - don't raise your voice or act insulted or point out
how ungrateful they are. Just say 'I'm sorry you've decided to treat me disrespectfully. I must withdraw my offer to take you.'

by the way, these are also good methods of getting your OWN children's respectful behavior!

I know, from my own experience, just how hard it is to 'let go.' But it's up to you to make the choice - 'Am I going to continue to live in this awful situation, or am I going to do something about it.' While you fear what will happen to everyone when you 'disengage,' as if the family will fall apart, you will be surprised at the change in your own life. I can't guarantee that everything will turn out the way it has for me, but I can guarantee that you will no longer feel angry, frustrated, resentful, & hurt. The HARDEST part is giving up the need to straighten out these kids & 'change' them into the children YOU want them to be.

That's quite the "essay" is it not?

sounds drastic, but not so much..

my 11 y.o. difficult child and I had massive battle over laundry--wearing dirty clothes, putting clean clothes with the dirty ones and vise versa, ripping up his clothes, refusing to put them away, throwing them all over the hourse, ripping them up etc. etc. etc.. So, I "disengaged from" 11 y.o. difficult child's laundry.. (15 and 13 y.o. sk's do their own..as I "disengaged" from laundry for them too because it was such a "battle" etc.) My husband does 11 y.o. difficult child's laundry now...he hates doing it...has a much deeper understanding of what I had been going through.

My sk's complain about the food I make(not your ordinary every day complaint either..11 y.o. difficult child would rage about certain meals I cooked--sometimes just because it was one of his other siblings favorite and it was "no fair that I cooked HER favorite and not his blah blah blah)..that's okay..I just scrape their plates mid-meal...let them go and make sandwhiches for themselves, or they can ask my husband to make something else...

11 y.o. or 13 y.o. difficult children decide to hate me and want me gone (i.e. when he's in reunification fantasy mode) and try to make it happen, I disengage..they want to go out and play? Fine, call your dad at work and ask. They will make their own meals (sandwhiches for the most part or microwave food). They want to make a phone call, have a friend over, need a ride? All fine with me, just as long as they called husband and asked first..

And husband's typical response to them??? (why don't you wait until I get home to ask)

I implemented "disengaging" to a certain degree with full approval and support of our family counselor and difficult child's counselors.

I didn't disengage fully however..I fully felt welcome to do loads of fun stuff with my sk's. (was pretty enjoyable to be a "disneyland stepmom" LOL)

eventually things got into balance, sk's were more respectful, asked me to be more involved with their lives individually..

husband got on the clue bus and became a great deal more involved with the children too.

One of the first rights a stepparent has is the right to "disengage"..(although I cannot disengage ALL the time..as my husband sometimes has to go out of the country on business)...

but I think there are some ideas here that can be utilized in just about any home, blended or otherwise. (especially when reading about a parent that is not involved with the problems a difficult child is having)

And disengaging doesn't have to be a forever thing either, but it can be a useful tool to get "breathing space" and establishing your boundaries.

3 difficult children(11b,15b,13g), 1 easy child(4g), 11 y.o.difficult child--odd/add/adhd/bi-polar/anxiety/ptsd the only difficult child needing medications at this time. 1200mg lithium, 50 mg thorazine(antipsychotic), 10 mg prozac, .2mg ddavp(eneuresis)
13 y.o.-significantly depressed,add/ptsd
15 y.o.--add/adhd/odd/depression/ptsd--on imiprimine for depression/anxiety)

Thank you so much for the post. It was long and I printed so that I could reread this. But I have a question....

I'm home full-time with my difficult child and what do I do when he doesn't do the things that I have asked him to do? Like get dressed? Eat properly? husband will be furious if I have difficult child call him every time there is a question....

I have to have this boy mind me. If I disengage, then he'll just run wild. Then, the neighbourhood will be terrorized.

What do I do?

This sounds WONDERFUL to me. I think that I will use it with my 16 year old SD, too.

I want to use this but unsure how the day will work with dad full-time working and me staying at home with the little difficult child.

Let me know, and thanks again for all of the insight.

Going crazy as the stepmother of a 7 yr old, ADHD, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), ODD
Mother of 11 yr old son (easy child)
Mother 6 yr old daughter (easy child)
Stepmother to 15 yr old daughter (easy child)

difficult child is 20 mg Prozac, 20 mg Adderall
Me: Not taking any medications anymore; gained 20+ pounds and that makes me more depressed than difficult child does

I stay at home too..

When I spoke to my husband about this..

we compromised... 11 y.o. difficult child was allowed two or three phone calls per day...and after that he would simply have to wait until his father got home.

If he raged while he "waited" he could do so in his room. If no raging, then he could play around inside the house, watch tv, play computer etc.

the bonus: for every three days difficult child's had good/decent behavior (good, not perfect remember) we'd go to the pool(or another fun place), and 11 y.o. difficult child could bring a friend--(remember what I said about doing the FUN stuff!!!???)

If meals were a problem, then I would ask my husband to make sack lunches and sometimes a "sack breakfast" at night or in the morning before he went to work! (sometimes would have difficult child help husband or me make his lunch--the night before. I simply grew tired of 11 y.o. difficult child complaining about whatever food I made.)

The "morning routine" in our home is that first you bathe, dress, make up your bed etc. THEN you get breakfast. did we hear alot of complaints about this at first? Absolutely, but things tend to run much smoother if the eating is left until "later" or almost last. (better to just have the "have you brushed your teeth" issue than to have a raging child/children clad in pajamas and arguing with you as to "why he cannot go outside and play in his jammies etc."

as for the "eating properly"..

here is our "deal" with 11 y.o. difficult child..

if he simply cannot eat properly then 1. he eats alone at the table and at least tries to use his manners (because the other siblings complain about his eating habits/manners and typically an argument ensues) or he can eat however he would like to in his room. (where sack lunch comes in handy).

For us, this wasn't even a punishment thing..and with the above options I found that 11 y.o. difficult child would "mix and match" sometimes he'd do well eating with other, sometimes he just wanted to eat alone at the table, other times he would eat in his room. (it's no longer an argument or a battle).

Also have difficult child ask your husband the NIGHT before if he can go and play etc.

for ex.

difficult child: "Dad can I go out and play tomorrow"

husband: "yes, as long as your chores are done, you have eaten, are dressed for the day, your bed is made etc. etc. And listen to Dee if she tells you to come in etc. etc. etc."

Then, YOU can say, "sorry difficult child...but your dad said you needed to have _____ done before you go out to play. As long as you get ___ done you may go outside and play for ____.

This is how we did it and it worked surprisingly well. Despite husband having to do alot more work! LOL

But I simply told my husband, that if THIS is working, then he is doing what NEEDS to be done and what a great father he was etc..(although he still grumbles massively about doing 11 y.o. difficult child's laundry LOL! I keep suggesting to him that he take 11 y.o. difficult child to the laundry mat and let him do it himself!)

Remember like any idea/plan, you have to shape/mold it to suit your needs.

3 difficult children(11b,15b,13g), 1 easy child(4g), 11 y.o.difficult child--odd/add/adhd/bi-polar/anxiety/ptsd the only difficult child needing medications at this time. 1200mg lithium, 50 mg thorazine(antipsychotic), 10 mg prozac, .2mg ddavp(eneuresis)
13 y.o.-significantly depressed,add/ptsd
15 y.o.--add/adhd/odd/depression/ptsd--on imiprimine for depression/anxiety)


Thank you!!! I feel like this was written about our house and my husband.

My therapist talked to me about disengaging over a year ago. I couldn't make it work but didn't really understand until I read this. My husband had me so convinced that I was the wicked witch.

I am sending this off to my husband as well. I can't beleive that someone else could feel the way I do. I am contemplating separating because my husband just doesn't get it. I am at the end of my rope and when I tried some of the things that you have he has accused me of child abuse.

Maybe he will see that it isn't me and that I am not the only one who feels this way about things. (And then maybe he won't and I won't be any worse off than I am now) But I thank you-this is a wonderful piece. Great info and a place to identify.

Thanks again for the response
I cannot tell you how much it has helped me. husband is still in the process of reading it. He was really busy at work yesterday! But he told me this morning that he printed it so that sometimes during the day, he will read it.

Dee....I cannot tell you how much your advice/recommendations have meant. And to think that I didn't even have to spend hours in therapy to get this advice!!
I wish that I could give you a HUGE hug in person for this....it helps me with the teenager, too, after Dad has gone to bed (he works early) and she wants to have boyfriend over, whatever. I've said that I'm no longer comfortable making any decision that your father isn't aware of, and I am not waking him up.

I cannot tell you what a difference there is in me.

Gbmom, I've read your posts...all over the board...does your husband have an email address? If you would send it to me personally, sometimes, it's easier to have a unbiased opinion? There is a stepdad in my area that I met through this board (his stepson was at the same hospital as my stepson in March), and his wife and I talk on the phone frequently. His handle on here is Tripper. I would love to collect some stepparent stuff, anonymously, and send it to him, if I could. Or I could send it to you and you could print it. There has to be a way to make him see that you are not full of it.

Ladies/Gentlemen....what can we do to help this wonderful lady? Hopefully, this is the major sore point in the relationship.... don't know what I could do about other stuff people argue about. If my husband will read this information, we've got to help Gbmom.... one reason...she's the only one in that house with her eyes wide open and willing to work on the problems.

Any ideas???

Dee, thanks again!

Thanks Margaret and others. I will take any and all the help I can get. You are a wonderful group amd may just be able to help me find my way!!!

I do love my husband and the kids-despite everything. I love kids period-I studied Special Education in college and loved them all.

If I can find a way to reach my husband with your help, I would praise the Lord and be forever thankful!!!!

Thank you for you wonderful support. I am so glad that I stumbled upon this place.


New Member
So glad I found this thread. I'm engaged to a wonderful man who has two kids - 15 YO boy and a 12 YO girl. I have a 21 yo daughter who's in college. My daughter and I have always been close. She has her moments but nothing that prepared me for The Boy. My fiancés daughter is wonderful. It's just the boy.

I've been with my fiancé for just over two years. Until recently, he was awful to everyone but me. For our first two years, he seemed to have a grudging respect for me. Unfortunately, after we went on a recent family trip, I finally lost all my patience with him as he was abusive to my daughter as well as to his sister. Once I lost my cool with him, he seemed to have realized that he can get under my skin too, and now has turned his attention to me.

In a nutshell, he has oppositional defiant disorder. No question. His mother is a therapist, and has diagnosed him with that. Yet she seems unable or unwilling to help him with it. He goes to no therapy. He only takes medication for his ADD but not when we see him on weekends.

After the latest episode - in which he told me "go f$&@ing kill yourself" because I would not give him my Netflix password since he had been so disrespectful -- I had concluded that the only way I can keep my sanity is to disengage. Fortunately, my fiancé is very supportive of me, but he doesn't seem to know how to help this kid.

So disengaging is now my plan. I am not going to help him with any benefits or privileges. He will have to do everything through his father. I certainly want them to spend time together, and I'm not going to completely go away, but I am not going to be the one to make the plans or to try to discipline or to provide benefits and privileges. Up to this point, I had made everything happen. Computer. Phone. New bedroom furniture. Nice vacations. Etc. No more.

We have the kids only every other weekend, so I don't have to worry about full-time parenting.

I'm still very concerned for this boy and I don't see much future for him - his ODD is severe and my fiancés whole family thinks he needs a special school. His mom won't help and I don't see how I can save this kid.

pigless in VA

Well-Known Member
Welcome, atexlaw.

My son was diagnosed with ODD when he was 4 years old. There is no medication for this. It basically means that the kid is super difficult to deal with.

I think sometimes for boys that they think anger is the best response to everything. I used to say that anger was Ferb's default emotion. He certainly had a lot to be angry about, but most of the time I was the person receiving the brunt of his anger. I didn't see any improvement in this area until Ferb asked to see an anger management therapist when he was 16. He broke his cell phone in anger, and I refused to replace it.

Absolutely try not to react to them. They thrive on pushing other people's buttons. Be prepared for the ante to be upped constantly. It is not a fun parenting experience, for sure.


Long road but the path ahead holds hope.
Welcome Al

This is a big challenge with you, your new life and a blended family. Have you considered family therapy? I am certain that the boys behaviour will affect you all. He may not go but it will help the rest of you.

You have made a great decision in terms of managing for yourself, this dynamic is going to impact all of you.

My son was a beautiful loving happy and well adjusted child. When he turned 15 that all changed. It takes a toll on you and your family.

Please take care of yourself and seek supports to help you through this journey.