A Strategy to Transform Your Stepfamily in 30 Days

Blended and step families have more than their share of challenges; to stepparents and stepchildren alike, it seems that conflict and negativity are built in. What if I told you that I have a magic formula guaranteed to transform your family in 30 days to experiencing greater harmony and happiness? Well, I do! It’s called appreciation, and when practiced regularly and properly, it can work miracles.
There is a fairly new branch in the field of psychology called Positive Psychology. After more than a century of focus on the effects of trauma and negative experiences on personality and behavior, Positive Psychology turns it all around and instead focuses on what is right. There have now been scores of studies showing the profound effects of positive interactions on productivity, health and happiness. And on cooperation, I might add – a quality in high demand for stepfamilies!
Dr. Don Clifton, who has been dubbed the “father of Positive Psychology” had an extremely simple and powerful model for working with appreciation and recognition, which is described in his book “How Full is Your Bucket?”. He uses a metaphor that’s easy to visualize: each of us has an invisible bucket inside. When the bucket is full (of positive feelings), we feel great; we’re happy, generous, productive and feel connected. When the bucket is empty, we feel awful – our energy is sapped, productivity is lowered and we feel isolated from others. Each of us also has a dipper – we can use the dipper to dip out from others’ buckets (leaving us both in a more negative state), or to dip into others’ buckets, filling them with more positivity. When we fill others’ buckets, a funny thing happens – it fills our own bucket to overflowing.
This may seem overly simplistic, and it is basic – yet powerful. There are hundreds of turning points in a single day; even in mundane situations there is generally a positive or negative charge. And it’s all cumulative: the more negative interactions we have, the more our happiness is eroded. The more positive interactions, the greater our well-being. All of us need recognition, and we don’t get enough. Dr. Gottman, famous for his ability to predict marital success on the basis of the ratio of positive to negative interactions, has found that the “magic” ratio is 5 to 1. Married couples that have at or near that level of positive to negative interactions are highly likely to succeed – when the ratio goes toward 1 to 1, the chances of divorce skyrocket.
Think about your interactions with your spouse, your children, and stepchildren. We are often so focused on “fixing what’s wrong” that our attention, and conversations, tend to be fixated on the negative (“you’re making us late!”, “you didn’t pick up your towel”, “why weren’t you back home when you said you’d be?”, etc. etc. etc.) The world we live in is already a pretty negative place; each of us, including our children, tend to get “beat up” regularly. So why add to the demoralization, when we have a much better chance of getting our children’s cooperation by letting them know we care about them, and believe in them? Think of how you’d feel if someone were watching over you, waiting for you do do something wrong and then make note of it.
Whatever we focus on grows: when we begin to take notice instead of what’s right (even small, insignificant behaviors – “thanks for helping your sister with her backpack”, “I was happy to see you started your homework without being reminded”, “it makes me happy to see you smiling”, etc.) we start to get more positive behaviors. Both positivity and negativity are very contagious.
Here are a few tips for you to begin a practice of appreciation that will begin to change your family dramatically. I highly suggest keeping track of your efforts for 30 days, the time it takes to develop a new habit – it’s the regularity that produces miraculous results.
You must have a plan to make it a reality!
1. Focus on any positive behavior you see occurring, and express your appreciation in a specific way. Focus on progress, not perfection.
2. Be quick to notice small accomplishments, and focus on effort rather than outcome.
Focus on each child’s strengths and refrain from giving recognition that compares them to one another (the last thing you want to increase in a stepfamily is rivalry!)
3. Notice the first thing that comes out of your mouth: is it positive or negative? Are you providing a welcoming environment for the members of your family?
Prevent “bucket-dipping”. Ask yourself throughout the day: am I adding to or taking from that person’s bucket? Use a PAUSE button when you catch yourself “dipping”- and find something to say that fills their bucket instead.
4. “Shine a light on what is right” – remember that with children, each negative interaction will increase the amount of defensiveness, disappointment, withdrawal and complaining you experience. Regular recognition with just a few well-chosen bucket-filling episodes can light up an entire household.
5. Give unexpectedly. Look for opportunities to give “out of the blue”. Surprising others with small things – tokens of appreciation, sharing a great story, a smile or a hug, and intangible gifts such as trust, or responsibility, are great “bucket-fillers”.
6. Lastly, reverse the Golden Rule. Instead of doing as you would have others do to you, do to others as they would have you do unto them. In other words, learn what is meaningful for each person in your family, and individualize your recognition accordingly. With appreciation, a “one-size fits all” approach doesn’t work.
At the end of 30 days, assess yourself and your household. You will find, that if you have been diligent in practicing appreciation, you will not only have a new attitude yourself about your family, but the overall family interactions will have become much more enjoyable – and you will have discovered a much more productive way to get more cooperation and improvement in behavior.

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