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So, Your Child Acts Differently With One Parent?

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When a child acts differently with one parent than the other, especially in blended families when the child has two homes, it can leave you feeling confused and frustrated.

I will never forget the day I took a road trip with my two stepdaughters and their mom to an amusement park.

I should lead with the fact that it was an awesome day. No juicy “baby mama drama” in this story, folks! But what stands out to me when I reflect on the day is how badly differently my youngest stepdaughter acted.

You see, my husband and I are trying to raise the kids to be independent. We don’t want them to grow up entitled. We don’t want to be helicopter parents fighting their battles for them through their college years; therefore, we try really hard not to baby them.

At the time of this day trip, my stepdaughters were 4 and 5 years old. My husband and I had taken them to the same amusement park about 6 months prior, so I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. I knew which rides they could and couldn’t ride, and I knew how they would act: joyful and fun!

My first red flag going into the trip should have been when their mom asked if she should bring a stroller to the park. Baffled and unsure of whom the stroller would be for, I told her no.

Well, it was about 30 minutes into our “girls day” when my youngest stepdaughter started complaining. The complaints turned into tears, and she begged to be carried. Her mom finally caved and started carrying her.

She carried her for hours. Most of the day, in fact. Initially, I was infuriated. Biting my tongue as to not overstep and discipline while their mom was present, I could not believe my stepdaughter’s attitude. She hadn’t complained at all 6 months prior. She walked the whole park just fine then, at 3 years old!

I was upset at my stepdaughter for acting that way. I thought to myself, “You’re better than this! This is not who you are! Why are you acting this way?!”

I was upset at my stepdaughters’ mom for enabling the behavior. I thought to myself, “Why can’t you just tell her ‘no’ like I did? Then you wouldn’t be so miserable lugging her around!”

A shift in perspective needed to happen.

As the day progressed, I intentionally shifted my attitude.

If her mom wanted to carry her, that was her business. It wasn’t impacting my day at all. In fact, it saved us all from having to listen to my stepdaughter complain.

My oldest stepdaughter was still running around, joyful as always, and having the time of her life. She was excited to be at her favorite amusement park, and even more excited that it was a “girls day.” I focused on making her feel special since her mom was preoccupied.

Both kids loved spending quality time with their mom and stepmom—something that doesn’t happen very often! This realization was a big turning point in my attitude.

So, my child acts differently with one parent. Why?

Emotional manipulation.

Ah, every high-conflict stepmom’s favorite accusation. Perhaps one parent makes the child feel guilty if he does or doesn’t act a certain way or do a certain thing. Is that the child’s fault? No.

He is a child.

Your stepchild knows what each parent expects of him, and he acts accordingly. Of course, he will gravitate toward whomever will help him out the most.

When my stepdaughter wanted to be lazy, she gravitated to the parent who would allow it, not the parent who told her to suck it up.

He is human.

The reality is, your stepchild is human. Have your opinions never changed? Haven’t you at least stifled your opinions around people who would not accept them?

One time in a stepmom group, I saw a member say, “My child acts differently around her other parent. Why does she do that?!”

A wise member replied, “Heck, I’m an adult, and I still act differently around my mom than I do my dad.” As I thought about it, her comment made complete sense. Even as adults, we still—to a certain degree—say and do things to appease our various family members that perhaps other family members would not appreciate.

But what can I do about it? It’s driving me crazy!

Nine times out of ten, these personality or preference differences are not a big deal. So what if your stepchild is a well-behaved angel with you, but a menace to society with his mom? His behavior in her home is her responsibility to correct, not yours.

For the legitimate concerns (where you are concerned about the child’s well-being; for example, something that may cause them to end up hospitalized or in jail…) you have some options:

Talk to your partner.

Has he noticed the behavior too? Is he concerned about it? If you’re going to proceed, you need to be a united front.

Consider your co-parenting dynamic.

Can your partner talk to the child’s other parent? Is this something you all could discuss? Is it even worth it—mentally and emotionally—to bring it up?

If you take action, remember that there’s a decent chance you will not come to a resolution between the two homes. When your child acts differently with one parent, there’s a reason. Whether he wants to appease that parent or he truly had a change of heart, the motive is intentional.

Lastly, and as with most issues we face as stepmoms, look inward for inspiration. Again, haven’t you made slight changes in your behavior around different audiences? Can’t you find a bit of empathy for your stepchild in this situation?

Children in blended families are under constant pressure to make all of their parents happy. They want to love one parent while still respecting the other. They don’t want to partake in your adult bashing sessions of their other parent(s). They just want to feel comfortable and loved.

At the end of the day, not only is this a normal behavior pattern, but it’s really not a battle worth picking (in most instances). Don’t turn this into a bigger deal than it is. Instead, appreciate the sacred time you have with your little ones. They grow up too quickly.

P.S. Have you noticed your stepchild acting differently around custody transition times? It could be what Kate calls the kamikaze phenomenon!

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