Help, My Stepson Ignores Me!
What Am I Doing Wrong? How Can I Do This Right?
I recently married a woman with a nine-year-old son. I thought the process of creating a stepfamily would be easy, but my stepson is not very open to me. He doesn’t listen if I ask him to clean up, generally doesn’t bother to say “Hello,” and doesn’t introduce me to his friends. I’m trying to be a decent father, which means sometimes I ask him to tidy his room or wash his dishes. My wife seems to get caught in the middle and protects her son instead of supporting me. I feel like an outsider in my new family. What am I doing wrong?
Many stepfathers find it tough to connect with a rejecting stepchild, according to a study by E. Mavis Hetherington, author of For Better or For Worse: Surprising Results From the Most Comprehensive Study of Divorce In America. In fact, Hetherington notes that many stepdads give up the battle after only two years. I hope you won’t be one of the stepdads! Stepparenting can be incredibly rewarding and life-affirming, especially as your spouse’s children grow older and come to see you as a force for good in their lives. So your desire to do this right is commendable!
Stepdads need to embrace patience, honor their stepchildren’s relationships with their biological parents, and find a support system outside their new stepfamily. They should try to connect with step-kids on the children’s own terms.
“Your son’s mother and biological father play critical roles in the stepdad-stepchild relationship,” says Robert Klopfer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center, Ridgewood, N.J. “If a child is rejecting, the stepfather should try to understand that the child may feel he needs to be loyal to his biological parents. Kids get cues from other family members,” he adds.
In addition, single parents and their children often form very tight bonds. It’s natural for your wife to protect her son when there is conflict. However, you might consider working with your wife and possibly a counselor or minister to define your role in your stepfamily. It’s generally not a good idea to establish new rules or discipline a new stepchild.
“If stepdads feel like they’re outsiders — which is common in new stepfamilies — stepdads often feel powerless,” says Klopfer. “They feel especially alone and powerless if they have no biological children of their own. And they often don’t know how to acknowledge or communicate these feelings,” he adds.
“To help create an environment that allows love to develop, stepdads should try to connect with their step-kids by focusing on their interests, like soccer or music,” says Klopfer. “Learn to relate by giving the child something they need from you.”