Question: I have a 12 year old stepson. He lives with his father and me. His mother has every other weekend visitation other than that she is not involved. His father works long hours and I am the one who takes and picks him up from school and I go to parent teacher meetings. He constantly lies about school assignments and behavior problems at school. When I confront him he says that it is none of my business because his mother says so. What do you do when the biological parent acts this way?
Answer: First, let me praise you for being involved in your stepson’s life and taking a hands-on role in his growth and development. Sometimes, this can feel like a no-win position for the step-parent. But, you are a vital influence in this boy’s life.
Do not assume that just because your stepson says his mother “says” his school performance is “none of your business” that she actually said it. Even if she did, children learn very young how to exploit our emotional weaknesses to their gain. If your stepson senses any tension or differences of opinion among the significant adults in his life, he will certainly use that to further his own agenda.
His agenda may be:
1. To gain attention (to focus attention on himself rather than on his grades or school behavior),
2. To gain a false sense of power (to manipulate adults into relinquishing their authority), or
3. To test rules and boundaries.
All of these motivations are an essential part of development but can seem especially complex and devious in a step-family situation. It’s children’s “job” to test and to distract adults from doing the right thing. It’s the “job” of significant adults to stay the course and do the right thing even when children (and sometimes co-parents) push our limits.
You will want to ask your husband to “remind” your step-son that you are a hands-on influence in your step-son’s life. You and your husband should explain that you are not trying to replace his mother but you are involved with your step-son’s well-being. Try to enlist your stepson’s biological mother to support you. If you cannot enlist her support, continue to present a strong, united front with his father.
Weekly family meetings are a perfect place to do this. These meetings give you the opportunity to build family cohesiveness and to work together towards mutual goals. They are also a perfect time to let your step-son communicate his feelings and concerns, especially with any competing demands from one household to the other. Be patient as he explains all the “injustice” and “unfairness” of his life! Listen without judgment or defensiveness and then try to formulate realistically what can and cannot be changed.
With all of this in place, you can confidently proceed to work with his teachers and the school to establish behavior goals and consequences. Stat involved! Stay involved! Stay involved! Middle schoolers need involved parents who will help them keep their priorities straight.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.