Be Careful With A Step Child

We had a caller on the radio the other morning ( who was having problems similar to many couples I see in counseling. His struggle was with his 20 year old step-son.  I’ve changed some of the details for the sake of added anonymity.   He said that his step-son wouldn’t speak to him, and in fact, he was convinced he hated him.  Then he went on to describe the step-son as not really liking anyone in the family, even saying he was very open about saying that he also hated his mother, the caller’s wife.

We asked for some more information, and found out that he and his wife had been married for about 6 years and that the son had been a long-term problem.  He added that the young man had run away from home several times, but each time he had eventually worked his way back into the home.  Our caller’s relationship with his step-son hadn’t always been so fractured.  In fact, he said that earlier in the marriage,  he had been a good listener to his step-son as he expressed frustrations about his family.  He even said that during that time, he felt they had a good relationship.

Of course, the next question was, “What happened?”  He knew exactly what changed.  About two years ago, his step-son was arguing with his mom, and our caller feared their argument was about to become physical, so he stepped in and confronted the step-son saying, “You can’t talk to my wife that way!”  That was the end of their relationship–he now added to the young man’s “hate” list.

As the call continued, the husband spoke of his experience of seeing his wife as weak and passive in her relationship with her children.  When boundaries were challenged by her son, mother gave in.  As a result, he felt he was increasingly put into the role of the enforcer, and unfortunately he tried to take on the role.

Did you know that most divorces in second marriages are caused by issues with the kids–especially the “yours” and “mine” ones?  There’s a reason that in old fairy tales, there is often the problem of the “evil step parent”–who usually tried to parent the kids who were “yours.”  It never works!  Well, not never, but it takes a long time and a very special effort for a step-parent to take on a parenting role with step children.  It’s a role that has to be earned by being a good friend of those step-children.  Step lightly!

You could say that one of the unconscious reasons this couple married was that she was looking for a good man to help with her out-of-control son.  He tried to fill that role, but it blew up in his face.  If he stayed on that path, the marriage would be in danger.  We suggested he start by trying to go back to being a good listening friend to that young man, and then for both he and his wife to get some help as to how to work together as a couple to parent the kids who were “yours” and “mine.”

If you are part of a step-family, you can get some great help from Ron Deal, the author of The Smart Step Family. (

Question:  If you are a step-parent, how much do you work on the friendship part with your kids?  With the parenting part?   Be sure and leave a comment.

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