Christmas cookies are baked, Christmas music is playing, the fireplace is crackling warm and the tree, with all of its lights, is standing tall and elegant in the family room waiting the arrival of the stepchildren so that we can decorate the tree. Excitement fills me as I wait for our Norman Rockwell experience to begin.
My children have flown the nest, but my love of celebrating Christmas with children is satisfied with the steps, with them, the excitement of wide eyes seeing the tree come to life with lights, tensile and their special ornaments carefully being placed by young hands on branches reached on tippy-toes fills me with such joy.
But in they come, sour and tired, not wanting to do anything except go to their rooms and sleep. Spend-the-night company from the night before has left them exhausted, and with the breaking of the morning light their enchanted evening of tree decorating, dance, song and pizza at their mother’s home, has turned into pumpkins at their dad’s.
I have worked to very hard to make this a wonderful, memorable time and no one is participating. I want to cry.
Doc comes into the room realizing the situation, smiles gently and asks, “Was this for them, or is this about you?”
“Yes! Both!” I respond, both laughing and tearful at the same time.
I call a friend to bemoan the events of the past few hours. To pat myself on the back for trying so hard…and the cookies…and the music…and the tree, I whined.
My friend, always ready with good advice says, “Why are you talking to me? Go eat cookies, have a glass of wine and enjoy yourself! If you are having fun they will eventually join in.”
Going back into the family area, the children are beginning to gobble cookies and chocolate milk, and their countenance is changing from zombies to real live children.
Prompting conversation, I ask, “So, who all came over to spend the night, and what are your favorite ornaments on your mother’s tree?”
Now they are fully alive with their stories of the previous night’s events.
Sometimes we need to speak life into the lives of our children and stepchildren, and sometimes we need to allow them to speak about life outside of their life with us. To be able to safely talk about the other parent’s home and life without fearing what the response might be with the other parent and step parent.
Being a good listener is vital to a stepfamily. I interact and observe many stepfamilies; some are good and the only problem is different parenting styles. Some stepchildren’s other parent has a boyfriend or girlfriend that they interact with the children. Add in the extended family of the stepparent and there is a lot the children are exposed to and must process, not just during the holidays but also all through the year.
Sometimes they come home telling of adventures that, I must admit, I longed to have been on with them; and, some children I know of come home in silence with bruises. Answers to exactly what happened are difficult to find.
- Place yourself in your child’s or stepchild’s shoes. Think about what it must be like to travel from one house to the next; to interact with people that your mother or father have never met and may never meet. What is it like to need advice, but you don’t want to say anything bad about one of your parent’s friends. Children have a fierce sense of loyalty to their parents and need to be heard, without feeling like they are giving ammunition to anyone that may not love that parent as much as the child does. Listen the way you would need to be listened to in a similar situation.
- Listen to the whole story without interrupting. Do not ask questions, do not try to correct, criticize, or rebuke anything, let them get on a roll with the story because, by sitting in silence, listening you are probably going to hear more of the details of what is going on.
- Be a proactive listener. Make eye contact with the child. You can wash dishes, fold laundry, or simply sit and not move, but keep looking at eye to eye. Make small sounds to assure that you are listing. “umhmmm, wow, ummmm”.
- 4. Allow your body language to show signs of active listening. Some children don’t like it when you stare straight at them the whole time they are speaking. So, if you are active while listening, give them some body language that says, “I’m listening.” Nod your head, stop moving at important points in the story; and, watch their face as they tell you their story. Allow them to fiddle and fidget some as they talk. I have a mortar and pestle on my kitchen counter that all children, whether they are our children or a guest, love to play with as they are crushing cloves, bayberries and lavender and talking.
- 5. And if, God forbid, you hear something that raises a red flag, DO NOT RESPOND IN FEAR! Stay calm, once the end of the story is over, you can ask questions and begin planning the best course of action. Remember, your child may need to face the situation again before you can find a way to completely remove the problem. Put yourself in their shoes!
Learning to listen well to your children is not just about making sure they are safe when away from your presence. It is building a relationship; it is allowing them to know they are in safe hands as they tell you what they are trying to process in their mind.
Learn to love, listen, laugh, and learn what is going on in the life of your child and stepchild. Both of our girls could pull all of the oxygen out of the room before they ever finished a story, and you could watch paint peel from the wall waiting for the boys to talk, but with both girls and boys, they knew we were there.
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