Respect and stepfamilies

Question: I am a new step mom to two boys, ages 4 and 10, who live with us fulltime. During my husband’s separation and divorce, his ex mother-in-law helped out with the children. They stayed with her frequently, as my husband needed child care and their Mom was not responsible or dependable to watch them. While the mother-in-law loves them, she also spoiled them by waiting on them hand and foot, buying them whatever they wanted, etc. Now, since our marriage, I have stayed at home with them fulltime. My problem is this: manners and respect were not really taught to the boys. Although the 4-year-old is open and eager to learn, the 10-year-old is arguementative, complaining, and questions everything. It has become a daily battle since he has been out of school for the summer. I love him, but at this point I don’t like him very much and I just hate having to deal with him. It leaves me emotionally and physically drained. I have spoken to my husband about my concerns and he agrees that he needs to respect adults. I am hoping he will have a talk with him about this. I don’t know what else to do. I just can’t bear to think about spending my whole summer like this. I am at my wit’s end. Any suggestions you can offer would be greatly appreciated.
– Alba

Answer: This may not be the cool, relaxed summer of your dreams. The timing of recent family events places you squarely in the middle of a long, hot transition. Hopefully, knowing what lies ahead, will prepare you for the challenge ahead. In addition to “doing the right thing” for your stepson, you must rally your personal reinforcements. You don’t want to do this alone! And you must plan a few timely escape plans for yourself. You will need to have breaks to look forward to!

Let’s start with teaching your stepson respect. You are definitely on the right track. You are setting new expectations of behavior. You are discussing the changes with your husband who is willing to support your efforts. You are recognizing your emotional reaction to the situation. Unfortunately, change takes time.

Tread carefully around the emotions that come with divorce – try not to place your stepson in a position where he must defend his mother or his grandmother. Your stepson may still be feeling anger, resentment, confusion, loyalty, and betrayal from the divorce. If you can, be grateful that your stepson’s grandmother was able to help at the time. Grandparents are not parents to their grandchildren and she has enough of a burden knowing that her daughter could not be there. It’s no different than bending the rules when a child is seriously ill. For a time, the adults around the child may try to compensate for any suffering the child experiences.

Time will work to your advantage if you accept that building trust with your 10-year-old is a long, slow process. The rules have changed out from under him, as they should have. Your stepson desperately needs the structure of these new expectations and the security of rules enforced by caring adults. But children never seem to say “Thanks, I’m glad you are tough on me and involved in my life.” I will say it for him – You are absolutely doing the right thing! He needs you now more than ever! Stand strong through all the complaining and the questioning. This is the foundation of your love and the foundation for your new family. It is truly OK not to like the way he is acting. And I promise you next summer will be better.

That said, in no way, minimizes the fact that this IS emotionally and physically draining. You need a plan to take care of yourself! Enlist your husband, maybe even the ex-mother-in-law, a short summer camp session, or some other sitters to give you a break. You cannot carry the weight of everyone’s emotions through this family transition.

Lastly, plan multiple things you will enjoy this summer. Don’t sacrifice everything you enjoy. You will be better able to give some breathing room to the negative emotions if you can balance the negative with some powerful positive emotions. Take a class, take a mini-trip with or without the children, plan a weekly girls-night-out, or start a project just for you. Staying at home full-time with children requires personal balance. By all means, check out some of the excellent books on step-parenting. You are not alone living in these emotionally complicated and challenging times.

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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