Her step-son is distancing himself

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  June 22, 2009 06:00 AM

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And there could be so many reasons why...

Hi Barbara,

My husband has a son from a previous marriage that is 17 years old. He lives with his mom in the next town over from us. He is a wonderful kid, an excellent student (national honor society), phenomenal athlete and a very nice young man. He is truly Tom Brady at 17! As far as I can see his only downfall is that he is very self centered. He is 17 years old and into his friends more than his family. Which I understand - I was 17 once with divorced parents and did not always spend alot of time with my dad. My husband and I have 2 boys that are 7 and 9 and my stepson does not have alot of interaction or interest in them. He'll watch them occasionally when we ask but other than that he never stops by to hang out with them or us for that matter. My husband has talked to him about it and nothing changes. I tell him you can't make him be interested in the boys - that's who he is. My husband saw him last night for the first time in a month. They talk on the phone and text but he does not make the effort to stop by. My husband is very upset and really wants to have it out with him that he has another family other than the one he lives with. I try to explain he's a teenager and just wants to hang out with his friends but my husband is pretty straight forward and speaks what's on his mind. I feel like this will only push his son away.........any advice?

Thanks - Elizabeth, Littleton


Hi Elizabeth,

Under the best of circumstances, communicating wioth a teenage boy is trying. They typically aren't big talkers, you know? So in that regard, I agree with you. On the other hand, there's also no reason why your husband can't be authentic with his own son. In fact, it's important that he do so. Not only is it possible that he's building a volcano of resentment that his son could mistinterpret (Dad hates me, why should I bother?), but he also has an opportunity to model emotional intelligence and to hear what's on his son's mind.

Here's the caveat: He's got to do it in a way that doesn't further distance his son.

Here's how: By making "I-statements" rather than "you-statements."

"I feel sad when I only see you once a month," NOT, "Why can't you stop by more often?"

"I love you as much as my other sons even though I don't live with you," NOT, "You don't act like you love me."

Your husband also needs to make himself vulnerable: "I know I've made some mistakes in our relationship over the years, and I'm sure you have some thoughts on that, too. But I'd like to try again."

Depending on the existing relationship and the real or imagined hurts your step-son harbors, this first conversation may go nowhere. But that's not a reason to feel pessismistic. Teenagers need time to mull things over.

By the way, I suggest this conversation happen on neutral turf. Who knows how hard it is for for this teen to see his dad interacting with your children if he didn't get that kind of fathering from him? Perhaps your husband can take him to brunch or dinner. At the end of the meal/event, he can suggest a follow-up event: "Can we do this again next week?" That's walking the walk.

And if this in-person visit you describe last night didn't end so well, a simple email or text from dad to son could do the trick: "I feel badly the way our visit went last night. I'd like to try again. What about next Sunday?" The point is not to take no for an answer. Your husband needs to continue to make the effort, even if he feels rebuffed.

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3 comments so far...
  1. It seems that expectations are unreasonable for a 17 year old. Many 17 year old boys from intact families barely interact or 'hang out' with their parents or younger siblings. That's how teens are. He sounds amazingly busy with school and sports, etc. Why call him self-centered? He is a kid. He's busy. From your letter it seems like the only time you and your husband see him is when you need a babysitter! Maybe he feels used! When was the last time your husband spent time alone with him? You husband needs to step up to the plate and start doing some guy bonding things ALONE with him like take him to a Red Sox game or boogie boarding/snowboarding/sailing/fishing, something active. Only after they have established rapport, then Dad can do active guy-bonding things with all 3 boys (not brunch at the local diner). You need to stay in the background until his relationship is solid with dad and his brothers.

    Posted by Bambinosmom June 22, 09 10:40 AM
  1. Make a standing tradition (pizza on Thursdays - just the 2 of them ) and have an "all" family diner on Sunday nights to which he is always invited - build a framework that gives him a chance to see his dad alone and with the younger bros. Or, have dad buy season tix to the Prov. bruins or a college hockey team, whatever interests them.
    I really liked the way you emphasized "I'd like to try again..."
    If he is responsible for "stopping by" then he will always feel guilty for not doing it - give him the gift of a routine that you can continue on thru college if he stays local.

    Posted by deb stone June 22, 09 08:31 PM
  1. The two younger children are the 17-year-old's sibs. What about the damage being done to them, knowing their older brother doesn't want to be with them?

    The younger childrens' needs also have to be addressed.

    Posted by reindeergirl June 24, 09 11:52 AM
 
3 comments so far...
  1. It seems that expectations are unreasonable for a 17 year old. Many 17 year old boys from intact families barely interact or 'hang out' with their parents or younger siblings. That's how teens are. He sounds amazingly busy with school and sports, etc. Why call him self-centered? He is a kid. He's busy. From your letter it seems like the only time you and your husband see him is when you need a babysitter! Maybe he feels used! When was the last time your husband spent time alone with him? You husband needs to step up to the plate and start doing some guy bonding things ALONE with him like take him to a Red Sox game or boogie boarding/snowboarding/sailing/fishing, something active. Only after they have established rapport, then Dad can do active guy-bonding things with all 3 boys (not brunch at the local diner). You need to stay in the background until his relationship is solid with dad and his brothers.

    Posted by Bambinosmom June 22, 09 10:40 AM
  1. Make a standing tradition (pizza on Thursdays - just the 2 of them ) and have an "all" family diner on Sunday nights to which he is always invited - build a framework that gives him a chance to see his dad alone and with the younger bros. Or, have dad buy season tix to the Prov. bruins or a college hockey team, whatever interests them.
    I really liked the way you emphasized "I'd like to try again..."
    If he is responsible for "stopping by" then he will always feel guilty for not doing it - give him the gift of a routine that you can continue on thru college if he stays local.

    Posted by deb stone June 22, 09 08:31 PM
  1. The two younger children are the 17-year-old's sibs. What about the damage being done to them, knowing their older brother doesn't want to be with them?

    The younger childrens' needs also have to be addressed.

    Posted by reindeergirl June 24, 09 11:52 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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