Ever since I married my husband three years ago, my 9-year-old stepson has stayed with us one weekend a month and we got along fine. A few weeks ago he started to live with us full time because his mother was having problems with alcohol. Now he is angry and uncooperative all the time. I have never been a mother and am already worn out. Can you help?
Your family is going through significant growing pains, with everyone having to make some big adjustments. Rather than giving you suggestions for controlling your stepson's behavior, I think it best that we step back and look at the situation from a bigger perspective. Here are my thoughts:
• Don't take your stepson's behavior personally. It is one thing for a child to "visit" a non-custodial parent and something else altogether for him to move in full-time. Not only is your stepson having to adjust to a new home with new routines and rules, but he is also having to grieve for the life he had with his mother. The more you can recognize the upheaval he is going through, the easier it will be to avoid taking his behavior personally.
• Set boundaries with care. Let your husband be the one who makes requests of your stepson while he's settling in. Your role should be less of a rule enforcer and more along the lines of a loving auntie, at least until you have firmly established your own relationship with him.
• Find ways to recharge. You have suddenly landed in the world of day to day parenting, and that is a huge life change. Make sure that you take time to revive your spirit with with things that bring you joy and relaxation -- painting, time with friends, dancing, reading or just having an afternoon by yourself.
• Build a relationship. Humans are naturally inclined to cooperate with those with whom they feel a genuine connection. Would your stepson say that he gets the feeling that you like him? Could he name the qualities he has that you love? He needs to know that, despite the challenges, you are glad he's with you. You may have mixed feelings about suddenly helping raise your husband's son. But the more you can work through that -- perhaps with a good counselor -- the more he will feel welcome in in your home and inclined to cooperate with your requests.
• Have fun together. Ask your stepson to help you make up a list of the things he enjoys doing, and spend some time doing something from that list together each week. If he enjoys playing with action figures, let him explain who each guy is and what their powers are. If he likes basketball, make time to shoot hoops with him at a local park. There simply is no substitute for hanging out together if you want to build a real relationship with your stepson.
• Avoid tattling. You may be tempted to complain to your husband about the things your stepson did wrong, but if you focus exclusively on his misdeeds it will only make things worse. Make sure your stepson overhears you saying good things about him to his father. "Johnny was great with the dogs today. He figured out an ingenious way to feed Fluffy so Fido doesn't take her food! He's quite a guy, your son!"
Your stepson has experienced a great loss. Leaving his mother's home, regardless of how dysfunctional it was, has required him to let go of what was familiar and predictable. Hopefully, time, care, connection and perhaps some family counseling will help you all adjust. Best of luck!
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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