Relationship Connection: My young stepson is behaving like his unhealthy father

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Question

I recently got married and have been put in a difficult position. My wife came into our marriage with her 11-year-old son from her first marriage. There were many reasons why she left her marriage, but the short story is that her ex-husband didn’t keep his marital vows. Our family life and his family life are starkly different.

We are noticing some resistance from her son in his actions toward the healthy home we are trying to establish. It seems he is siding more and more with his dad on matters about religion and about the feelings he has for his mom. He feels that she has done something for which he can never forgive her. He knows she physically left that environment, but he doesn’t fully know why and has placed a lot of blame on her to the defense of his dad. It is so tempting to want to say, “Well this is what your dad actually did.”

I know some people would jump at the opportunity to right the wrongs that are being portrayed. We are hoping to take a higher road on this, as difficult as it can be. We are worried about the continued influence this child, who is showing some definite signs of following in his father’s footsteps, will have on any children we bring into our family.

Part of my personal desires are to let him go live with his dad as he has been alluding to, but then I’d be dealing with an entirely different emotional necessity from his mom. And my personality won’t allow me to slack on the responsibilities I have been entrusted with to provide him and our home a good environment, even though the responsibility was never meant to be mine.

Her son is in our home 80 percent of the time as the legal arrangements currently dictate. There is a constant pull from the other side to fight for him as to the physical living arrangement. We have always been more concerned with his emotional and spiritual living arrangement and would be very open to other arrangements if those necessary elements are in place.

As it stands, he has some strong tendencies toward the same mentalities of his dad. This has been very tough for me, especially when I have my own desires for a fresh start and a home that is not working against the residual problems associated with the previous marriage.

Answer

I commend you for your desire to create a stable and loving home environment with your new marriage and blended family. Your wife and stepson will benefit from your desire to keep your marriage strong so you can build an uplifting home environment. Let’s talk about how you can work with these difficult dynamics in your new family.

Please recognize that your first commitment is to your wife and then to her son. I recognize that you might be seeing this as a “package deal” since he comes with her into your new family. However, he already has a biological father who has the right and privilege of influencing his own son. Your responsibility is to follow your wife’s lead regarding her son. I highlight this so you can be clear where to put your energy. Focus on taking care of your wife’s needs, listening to her desires for her son and deferring to her preferences on how to teach and influence her son.

One of the most common mistakes stepparents make is to pit themselves against the child’s biological parent. Your wife chose to divorce her ex-husband, but her son doesn’t divorce himself from either of his parents. I invite you to compassionately view this boy’s father through the child’s eyes.

Connect to the loss, fear, confusion and sadness this little boy is feeling upon losing 80 percent of his time with his dad. Yes, you see a bigger picture of how his life might turn out under the influence of his father and the choices he’s making. But from a child’s perspective, all he knows is that he lost his dad. Because his understanding is limited, it will trigger some reactivity from you and his mom to want to prove what’s really going on.

Both families are setting up different home environments, and her son will notice the differences. It’s normal for both you and your wife to fear what will be taught and modeled in the other home. Since you can’t do anything about what’s taught in the other home, focus on building a home that is stable and full of love.

And please remember to be flexible with your stepson. He is watching his father devalue many of the things that matter to you (including devaluing your wife), which will have an impact on how he responds to you. Expect your stepson to be respectful and decent in your home, even if he doesn’t agree with how you do things in your home.

Design the home you and your wife want and invite her son to participate in the different spiritual activities. Even though he may resist them, carry on and allow him to participate as much or as little as he’d like. Make it an experience he’ll want to be a part of without any guilt, pressure or criticism. Remember, you get to control your environment, and your stepson doesn’t get to control anything except how he responds.

Now, I hear that you’re concerned with how to address the blame for the divorce. Please recognize that “taking the high road,” as you put it, doesn’t mean your wife allows him to believe she did something horrible to end the marriage. She can tell him something like, “There were things that happened in my marriage to your dad that made it impossible for me to stay. I can’t share them with you because it’s between your dad and me.”

She can empathize with him how unfair this whole thing is for him and reassure him that she will always be there for him. And it’s highly likely that as this young man grows up, there will be more opportunities to discuss these things with him in a more age-appropriate way. This will, of course, be up to his mom.

Blended families take years to settle into secure and familiar routines. Please be gentle with yourself, with your wife and especially with this little guy who is trying to make the best out of a disorienting situation. Stepparents have influence, but it’s limited at first. Some have said that it’s about as much influence as an uncle or grandfather.

Please don’t fast forward too much about the future. Your job is to focus on creating conditions where your family can have the best possible chance of healing and growing. Recognize that your steady influence, leadership and compassion will do more good than trying to play defense against the other home.

Stay connected!

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are his own and may not be representative of St. George News.

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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