Developing Appreciation Skills


She found herself jealous and resentful of the time they stole from her intimate relationship.

Annie came to see me in hopes that she could avoid a divorce. The problem was clear and it was her. She is living up to the role of the wicked stepmother in a blended family. The mother of the children died two years before she met their father, Tim. She met Tim while the children, Trip, then seven and Sarah then nine, were visiting their maternal grandparents for the summer at their summer house on Lake Michigan. She and Tim reveled in the private time they had that summer. They developed into a playful, passionate, sexual team.

Immediately when the children returned she found herself jealous and resentful of the time they stole from her intimate relationship with Tim. When the children returned home, it was as if Tim suddenly transformed from her lover to an acquaintance. She felt as if she was kept at arm’s length by Tim every time the children were around. She told this to Tim and Tim responded with a marriage proposal.

They married. Things between Annie and Tim began to deteriorate. Annie had little patience for the children. According to Annie, Trip now nine, was an ADHD child who demanded constant attention and enjoyed irritating her. Sarah was a jealous cold fish who was mad at Annie because Tim loved her. According to Annie, Sarah, now eleven, resents every attempt Annie makes to tend to her or even connect with her.

Tim sees Annie’s treatment of his children as abusive and disrespectful. She has come to me because Tim told her that if she does not find a way to be less angry and rejecting toward his children that he would take his children and move out and perhaps file for divorce.

I had taught Annie the HEART ritual. She used it effectively. Things were better between her and the children and between her and Tim. This was about our tenth session.

“Things are better. I don’t react to them with anger like I used to. I don’t raise my voice. I don’t call them names. I haven’t lost my temper with them in a long time. Instead of being at minus ten, I think our relationship is close to zero, maybe a minus one. It is not in the plus range. I’ve changed but they haven’t.

“Trip still taunts me with his constant tapping on the table. It’s not just me that is aggravated by this. It is also his grandparents. I used to scream at him about this. I don’t do that anymore. His grandparents still yell at him when he starts his tapping.

“I watch him tap, tap, tap, on the table and look at me waiting to see if I will explode. Now since seeing you, I imagine that he is giving me a character test by taunting me and I’m careful not to take the bait.

“With Sarah she is so ungrateful. We gave her a new cell phone for her birthday. I gave it to her wrapped as a birthday present. She unwrapped it, pulled it out of its box, ran away with it into her bedroom, and shut the door, leaving us with the mess to clean up. No ‘thank you.’ No questions about how to use a cell phone respectfully. This is typical of her and Tim doesn’t seem to notice. Tim and I were left to clear up the mess.”

“Was Sarah excited about her new phone?” I asked.

“Oh yes she was,” Annie said. “She screamed with excitement when she opened it. Yes she wanted it very badly and she was happy to have it, but she showed no gratitude. Don’t you think she should be taught to say ‘thank you’. I can’t imagine that if her biological mother had observed this that she would not have said something. I feel like something should be said to her about how she takes things from us for granted. Her phone was placed on my cellphone contract. I’m paying for her phone. It’s only fifteen more dollars a month. I’m willing to pay that but I would expect someone to notice and say ‘thank you’. I’m able to avoid making make an issue of this but I’m not able to avoid my resentment.”

“If you try to parent her about this, what will happen?” I asked.

“She will act hurt, complain to her father and Tim will be mad at me.”

“Sounds like a bad idea and a waste of your energy,” I said.

“Yes, totally,” Annie said. “It is hard for me to avoid these challenges that Sarah’s ingratitude presents, but it is getting easier for me to just not care. Sarah thinks I’m on a power trip just trying to control her.”

“How does she do in school?” I asked.

“She and Trip both get good grades and good reports from their teachers. People say they are good kids but I don’t see it.”

“I don’t think that you and this family are stable at zero or minus one,” I said. “I think for you to become part of a stable working family that you need to get well into the plus category.”

“How do I do that?” Annie asked. “I’ve stopped yelling at them. What more can I do?”

“A parent’s primary job is to take delight in their child,” I said. “It appears to me and I think to the children that you don’t enjoy them. At best you appear to tolerate them. They bring a special unique spirit into the world that most adults enjoy. These children see other adults enjoy their interactions that they share, their mother, their father, their teachers, their coaches, their grandparents. They also see that you don’t. Until you work to reorient yourself toward the children, your relationship with these children will remain near the edge of collapse or explosion.”

“So what do I do?” she asked.

“You tend to see things in the negative more often than the positive,” I said. “If things happen that you don’t foresee or expect, you tend to react critically. With the children this needs to change. Because along with children