Mom doesn't like her potential step-son

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  January 13, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara, I have been dating a guy for 2 years, we are both at the tail end of our divorces, and we have two children each.  One of my major concerns is my boyfriend's lack of setting boundaries for his kids (14 and 10) and no discipline at all.  His son is out of control and I have a very difficult time even being in his presence.  I honestly do not like him, I thought I'd never say this about a child.   I find myself constantly correcting his son while my boyfriend turns a blind eye to his CONSTANT bad behavior.  I've told my boyfriend about my concerns before but things do not improve.  What should I do?
From: Gidge, West Chester

Hi Gidge,

When divorced parents start to date, there can be a wide range of reactions from kids, and while kids of all ages can have a difficult time with this, it turns out that teens may have the hardest time at all, perhaps because they can remember their pre-divorce family. Turns out, that as healthy as dating may be for parents -- a sure sign that they are ready to move on -- it can be dangerous for children's mental health. The last thing kids of any age need is to be exposed to the potential for yet another lost relationship in their lives. That's why experts urge divorced parents not to involve their children in their dating relationships until permanency is a sure thing.

This is a long way of saying that some of this young man's behavior could be a reaction to the fact of your existence. He may be furious at his dad for what he perceives as his dad's fault in his parents' failed marriage, and he may be equally furious that his dad has you, especially if his mother has not found someone. The fact that you -- an interloper in this boy's eyes -- try to "correct" him, as you put it, only adds fuel to the fire: One more reason for him to be angry with his dad.

Whether your relationship progresses or not, the smartest thing this man can do is make a sizable investment of time and energy in his children, including spending time with them that does not include you. Actually, it would be smart for you to do the same with your children. Re-establishing (or establishing; who knows what kind of relationship existed before) may help to diminish the boy's anger. Therapy probably isn't a bad idea, either.

But that likely isn't the only issue here.

Perhaps this boy has behavioral/cognitive/anger-management/developmental -- who knows what -- issues that have nothing to do with the divorce, that have not been appropriately managed, dealt with or even diagnosed. Perhaps they even contributed to the decline of the marriage.

What's more, was this man ever an involved father? Was he ever the kind of father you would admire? What does all of this predict about the kind of step-parent he will be to your children? Has he ever participated in parenting workshops? Read a book on parenting teens, or on limit-setting and discipline? Thought about the impact of divorce on his children? Most importantly: Is he even open to talking about any of this, or does he just turn a deaf ear? From what you write, it sounds like the latter.

Sorry, Gidge, but it sounds to me like you have reached make-it-or-break-it time.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.
 


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6 comments so far...
  1. The LW does not say what she means by "out of control." I'd be curious to know, and to know if she has a teen. Perhaps he is out of control, or perhaps he is doing the standard eye-rolling, sulking, or occasional talk-back that teens do; or perhaps his acting out only happens with her in her presence.

    Regardless, the LW says she does not like the kid. I am *sure* the kid knows this. It would be hard not to, unless the LW is an extraordinary actor. And how much more angry would that make a child -- knowing the person your parent seems to be choosing does not want you, and does not like you? A fair amount of this acting out might be the kid's fear that he is about to get as a stepparent someone who wants him gone. Sure, the LW's dislike of him *might* stem from the acting out, but over the course of 2 years some redeeming qualities must have been evident. Unless the child is a psycho, it is her job, if she wants a future with the boyfriend, to find a way to like this boy. If she can't do that, she should get out and spare the boy some misery.

    Posted by jlen January 13, 10 07:31 AM
  1. All of what Gidge is experiencing is frustrating yet typical.

    Gidge is lucky that Barbara is giving good and clinically sound advice here --too often, stepmothers just get lectures about how they "should" feel, act and be (for example, the poster above presumes that Gidge is causing her own problems by not understanding teens or by disliking her stepson).

    The two additional points I might make here in addition to Barbara's great advice are the following:

    1. Permissive parenting post-divorce is very common, especially by fathers who are spending less time with their kids and fear the kids will stay away if they hear the word "No." Even reasonable expectations seem strict and “mean” when kids are used to permissive parenting and zero consequences. And when there are no consequences for being hostile to stepmom, why not do it?

    2. Regardless of how nice she is and how hard she tries, kids are more rejecting and hostile toward a stepmother than they are toward a stepfather, according to numerous longitudinal studies. Often this is because of a mother in the picture who creates a loyalty bind for her kids by communicating tacitly or explicitly that "If you like your stepmom, you're hurting me." And another factor is, again, a permissive dad. Teens have a developmental imperative to separate and reject adults and without dad telling them stepmom is to be respected, she will be singled out by teen stepkids for some very poor treatment indeed.

    So much for the misinformed presumption that this boy dislikes his stepmother because she dislikes him.

    The long and short of it: Gidge's partner is failing both as a parent and as a partner. And just “backing off” won’t help Gidge—if she does that in a permissive household with a teen, she will become a doormat.

    Gidge CAN inform herself about stepfamily dynamics, try couples work with an experienced, certified stepfamily counselor, and seek the support of friends who know better than to automatically pin the blame on her. If her partner isn't open to learning and changing, she can also just walk, saving herself years of aggravation down the road.

    A final note about disliking her stepchild: good for her for being able to admit it, and who among us who hasn't been in her shoes can truly understand the difficulty of her position--an unfriendly and unchecked teen stepchild and an unsupportive partner?

    Best of luck to Gidge,
    Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
    author, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

    Posted by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. January 13, 10 09:55 AM
  1. No, I did not "presume[] that Gidge is causing her own problems by not understanding teens or by disliking her stepson)." I said we needed more info. As I said, perhaps he is out of control. Perhaps not. LW gave no specifics, and without them, it is hard -- impossible -- to give good advice.

    But it is ridiculously naive, at best, to think a (potential) stepparent's dislike of a child is not noticed by the stepchild. It is ridiculously naive, at best, to think that dislike has no harmful effect on the stepchild. The above poster's remarks about how children typically behave towards stepmothers does not in any prove or show that THIS girlfriend is disliked by THIS child because of mother issues, etc. And you know what? It does not matter either way. The LW, the girlfriend, is the adult; the teen is the is the child. It is her job to rise above it *if she wants to be part of the family.* Regardless the source of his dislike, my point is that her dislike must be clear and is going to cause misery for the boy and for the family. Great -- she gets kudos for honesty. But the hardest part is to come: if she wants to marry this man or continue as his partner, she has to get over it.

    Again, the LW does not have to like the boy -- but if she does not, she should leave this relationship. If she wants to remain in the relationship, she must find a way to like the boy. There must be something likable about him. I stand very much by that advice. This is a choice she must make. How nice it must be to think that boyfriends and girlfriends are the most important people in the world to each other. But when the boyfriend or the girlfriend is a parent, this simply cannot be the case any more. This child's needs is more important, quite frankly, than whether the girlfriend likes him.

    Posted by jlen January 13, 10 08:42 PM
  1. After two years, Gidge, you are still only dating. You are not married or even engaged - you are a sex partner. Children are more important than their parent's current sex partner. Gidge, you should save your directives for your own children, your sex partner's children are none of your responsibility or concern.

    Posted by Gidge, he's never going to marry you. January 13, 10 10:43 PM
  1. A friend shared with me recently that she and her second husband dated until all their children were out of high school and only then got married and started living together. She said it was hard but it was the best thing for the children.

    Posted by still-learning January 14, 10 08:28 AM
  1. my parents split when I was a teenager, 15, with younger brothers, 13 and 10 -- all a pain in the neck in our own ways. now a married parent of two, my main reaction is that, unless you and your partner can be aligned, in agreement, and consistent, backing each other up, then your chances are slim of being able to influence

    Posted by Stefan January 26, 10 05:59 AM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. The LW does not say what she means by "out of control." I'd be curious to know, and to know if she has a teen. Perhaps he is out of control, or perhaps he is doing the standard eye-rolling, sulking, or occasional talk-back that teens do; or perhaps his acting out only happens with her in her presence.

    Regardless, the LW says she does not like the kid. I am *sure* the kid knows this. It would be hard not to, unless the LW is an extraordinary actor. And how much more angry would that make a child -- knowing the person your parent seems to be choosing does not want you, and does not like you? A fair amount of this acting out might be the kid's fear that he is about to get as a stepparent someone who wants him gone. Sure, the LW's dislike of him *might* stem from the acting out, but over the course of 2 years some redeeming qualities must have been evident. Unless the child is a psycho, it is her job, if she wants a future with the boyfriend, to find a way to like this boy. If she can't do that, she should get out and spare the boy some misery.

    Posted by jlen January 13, 10 07:31 AM
  1. All of what Gidge is experiencing is frustrating yet typical.

    Gidge is lucky that Barbara is giving good and clinically sound advice here --too often, stepmothers just get lectures about how they "should" feel, act and be (for example, the poster above presumes that Gidge is causing her own problems by not understanding teens or by disliking her stepson).

    The two additional points I might make here in addition to Barbara's great advice are the following:

    1. Permissive parenting post-divorce is very common, especially by fathers who are spending less time with their kids and fear the kids will stay away if they hear the word "No." Even reasonable expectations seem strict and “mean” when kids are used to permissive parenting and zero consequences. And when there are no consequences for being hostile to stepmom, why not do it?

    2. Regardless of how nice she is and how hard she tries, kids are more rejecting and hostile toward a stepmother than they are toward a stepfather, according to numerous longitudinal studies. Often this is because of a mother in the picture who creates a loyalty bind for her kids by communicating tacitly or explicitly that "If you like your stepmom, you're hurting me." And another factor is, again, a permissive dad. Teens have a developmental imperative to separate and reject adults and without dad telling them stepmom is to be respected, she will be singled out by teen stepkids for some very poor treatment indeed.

    So much for the misinformed presumption that this boy dislikes his stepmother because she dislikes him.

    The long and short of it: Gidge's partner is failing both as a parent and as a partner. And just “backing off” won’t help Gidge—if she does that in a permissive household with a teen, she will become a doormat.

    Gidge CAN inform herself about stepfamily dynamics, try couples work with an experienced, certified stepfamily counselor, and seek the support of friends who know better than to automatically pin the blame on her. If her partner isn't open to learning and changing, she can also just walk, saving herself years of aggravation down the road.

    A final note about disliking her stepchild: good for her for being able to admit it, and who among us who hasn't been in her shoes can truly understand the difficulty of her position--an unfriendly and unchecked teen stepchild and an unsupportive partner?

    Best of luck to Gidge,
    Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.
    author, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do

    Posted by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. January 13, 10 09:55 AM
  1. No, I did not "presume[] that Gidge is causing her own problems by not understanding teens or by disliking her stepson)." I said we needed more info. As I said, perhaps he is out of control. Perhaps not. LW gave no specifics, and without them, it is hard -- impossible -- to give good advice.

    But it is ridiculously naive, at best, to think a (potential) stepparent's dislike of a child is not noticed by the stepchild. It is ridiculously naive, at best, to think that dislike has no harmful effect on the stepchild. The above poster's remarks about how children typically behave towards stepmothers does not in any prove or show that THIS girlfriend is disliked by THIS child because of mother issues, etc. And you know what? It does not matter either way. The LW, the girlfriend, is the adult; the teen is the is the child. It is her job to rise above it *if she wants to be part of the family.* Regardless the source of his dislike, my point is that her dislike must be clear and is going to cause misery for the boy and for the family. Great -- she gets kudos for honesty. But the hardest part is to come: if she wants to marry this man or continue as his partner, she has to get over it.

    Again, the LW does not have to like the boy -- but if she does not, she should leave this relationship. If she wants to remain in the relationship, she must find a way to like the boy. There must be something likable about him. I stand very much by that advice. This is a choice she must make. How nice it must be to think that boyfriends and girlfriends are the most important people in the world to each other. But when the boyfriend or the girlfriend is a parent, this simply cannot be the case any more. This child's needs is more important, quite frankly, than whether the girlfriend likes him.

    Posted by jlen January 13, 10 08:42 PM
  1. After two years, Gidge, you are still only dating. You are not married or even engaged - you are a sex partner. Children are more important than their parent's current sex partner. Gidge, you should save your directives for your own children, your sex partner's children are none of your responsibility or concern.

    Posted by Gidge, he's never going to marry you. January 13, 10 10:43 PM
  1. A friend shared with me recently that she and her second husband dated until all their children were out of high school and only then got married and started living together. She said it was hard but it was the best thing for the children.

    Posted by still-learning January 14, 10 08:28 AM
  1. my parents split when I was a teenager, 15, with younger brothers, 13 and 10 -- all a pain in the neck in our own ways. now a married parent of two, my main reaction is that, unless you and your partner can be aligned, in agreement, and consistent, backing each other up, then your chances are slim of being able to influence

    Posted by Stefan January 26, 10 05:59 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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