My stepson is becoming very disobedient to his mother and me, especially me, and I don’t know what to do. His father left them when he was still in diapers, so he never knew him, but he tells me I’m not really his dad and that I can’t tell him what to do. I married his mother about a year ago. He’s 14 now and we think he needs a firm hand before he gets into serious trouble. Can you give us any advice?
This is a common problem. You married his mother after he became a teenager and it is obvious he sees you as an interloper. It takes time to adjust to being a step-anything, be it parent or child, and the issue is complicated by the fact that he is at an age when he is just becoming a man, himself. Unless she had other relationships in the interim, I assume he had most of his mother’s attention until you came along.
A young male often has difficulty with the new man who is sharing his mother’s life. It is a lot to ask, to expect him to welcome you without question and bow to your directives without some resentment. That is, unless you and he had already developed a good relationship. Having a good relationship is a key and it will fall to you, as the adult, to be the most objective, wise and patient. It rarely works for a stepparent to come into a family guns-a-blazing, even though a stepparent has many of the rights and obligations of a natural parent. Stepparents can discipline, but I suggest you do only what is necessary. Instead of concentrating on wielding a firm hand, try to foster a good relationship and instill the right values, particularly by your example. Meanwhile, you might try the following:
First, and foremost, you and your spouse absolutely must agree. If you have different agendas or different rules and conflicting ways of handling problems, your stepson will use it against both of you and it will affect not only your relationship with him, but your relationship with your spouse. He will think he has won, but everyone will lose because the stability of the family will be undermined.
Second — treat your stepson as your own. In your home, you are a parent. That means you love him , and you discipline – reasonably, of course. It doesn’t matter what he is allowed to do with his other natural parent. Love him unconditionally, treat him fairly, cut him slack when it’s appropriate and rein him in when he is on the wrong track. It’s okay if he doesn’t like you all the time. Most kids don’t like their parents all the time, and they don’t expect to. You’re not his pal, you’re his parent, even if there is a “step” in front of it.
Remember, his parents’ divorce and your subsequent marriage probably has nothing to do with him, but children of divorce often think it does. They may be angry and hurt, and they may feel guilty, so talk to him, or find someone else who can. Let him ask questions, and answer them honestly, reinforcing the fact that he is now, because the family has expanded, loved by more people, not fewer.
Third — your relationship must consist of more than your power over your stepson. If that’s all it is, a power struggle is all it will ever be. Children tend to obey not because they recognize power, but because they care for and respect their parents. They can usually tell when a parent is exerting power simply to show muscle and be the dominant force, or when he or she sincerely cares about them and wants to prepare them to be successful and content in life.
Don’t resort to merely ordering him around, because that will only separate you further and he will continue to rebel. You should, however, give clear, firm directives, with sound reasons why. Those directives need to backed-up with appropriate sanctions. You and his mother must also always act as a team, so agree before either of you takes action.
Fourth — Ask questions, not only of him, but of yourself, too. Stepchildren have real needs that are more important to them than yours are, to them. Here are some sample questions:
1. How do you feel about your stepson and how do you show it?
2. What is his place in the family since your arrival? Does he feel like an outsider?
3. How do you treat his mother?
4. How has his relationship with his mother changed since your marriage? If it is worse, does he blame you?
If you can answer those questions, you should be able to pinpoint some of the problems. If you can’t answer them, that, in itself, might be part of the problem.
Ask your stepson for some input, if you think he would discuss the situation. If he does share his feelings with you, listen to them because they are very real, to him. Don’t compromise your own values, but don’t put him down. He sees things from a different vantage point. Try to understand his viewpoint and make whatever adjustments seem fitting. It will make dealing with each other much easier for you both and will hopefully result in better behavior from him.