I want to do the right thing by my stepson

Dear Suzie,
A work colleague brought your BBC programme to my attention the timing was amazing! I am a stepfather to 2 boys 11 & 14 y/o by two different fathers. We have been a family for 4 years and married for 18 months. The boys both call me Dad now. The eldest (who is in contact with his father) is generally fine. He’s a typical teenager, but harmless otherwise and we have a good relationship. The youngest is very clingy to my wife and has been diagnosed as ADD. he reacts to medication with a rash and that has now been stopped.

Our biggest problem is how to deal with his constant lying and stealing. My wife dotes on him but also gets very frustrated at his behaviour. I let her do most of the discipline which we make sure to agree on, but she often goes soft on him and lets him off. I am very ‘old school’ and believe that he needs a firm hand to curb his misbehaviour as it is causing major problems with friends and family. How do we handle him? I want to do the right thing…

Thanks for your very kind words about the series – I’m so glad it’s proving helpful to you! I’m sure you do want to do the right thing and I will do my best to give some suggestions to support you.

One thing you may want to consider is this “old school” stuff. You say your youngest stepson’s misbehaviour is causing major problems and that you feel he needs a firm hand. You may be particularly interested in watching the last film in my Stepfamilies series, going out in NI, England and Wales on February 8th and Scotland 1st February. In that you will see a man who was brought up by old school means and given a firm hand. And I think that was the root of is problems.

The problem with old school and firm hands is that they simply don’t take account of WHY people react in certain ways. This system goes for the symptoms and sees bad behaviour and seeks to control it by punishing the miscreant. What I do is see bad behaviour as a signal of bad feelings – grief, guilt, rage, pain – and I seek to understand what is happening and why. What I want to do is hear the message underneath the behaviour.

You say your stepson is 11; so you came into his life when he was about 6 or 7. I wonder when his father left, and what sense he made of his father not being in touch, and his elder brother’s maintaining contact. If most kids are anything to go by, he thinks it was his fault; that he’s to blame or lacking in some way that his Dad would up and leave and totally abandon him. No wonder he clings to his mum – in a child’s eyes, if his Dad left, so may his Mum. What a terrifying prospect.

Lying and stealing are classic symptoms of children who feel lost and rejected. He steals to fill up the gaping hole he feels at the centre of his life and he lies to protect his image of himself as soehow not responsible for his actions. As, in a way, he isn’t. And when he acts up and acts out, he gets punished; that’s punishing him for being scared and confused and showing it in the only way he may know how – by being as bad as he feels.

And maybe he’s even testing you; if his Dad left because he was bad, how far does he have to push before he proves his theory right and the two of you reject him too? I think the way you handle him is by taking The Hard Option. And that is listening to him, trying to understand what he may be feeling and thinking.

You saw some of the techniques I use to let kids voice feelings – the egg timer, drawing. And looking at how you set rules and deal with family conflict. I don’t want to sound like a salesperson but my book Stepfamilies – thriving and surviving in a new family, written to go with the series, really would help – you’ll find a link to amazon in my book page.

All the methods I used to make a difference in the families in the series, and plenty of exploration of the sort of issues you are struggling with, are in its pages. You’re not alone and your son isn’t a problem. He has a problem, and you can help him overcome it. Good luck!

This entry was posted in All Advice, Children, Family, Relationships. Bookmark the permalink.