My son was 5 years old when I met my current husband, who has pretty much raised him for the last 10 years. In contrast, my son’s biological father was absent from his life for long periods of time, and when he was around he was a ‘Disney Land Dad.’
In addition, my son felt like he lost his place, as ‘the baby’ in the family when we adopted another child five years ago. Then, a year ago, we adopted again (through the foster parenting system). Despite our best intentions my son has felt left out and unloved.
Things became worse when my son began smoking pot (alone in our home). We went to therapy and he ‘promised’ to quit, but was caught several times after that. He despises my husband and says he was never there for him. I see that he has projected his feelings of loss of his biological father onto my (type A) husband. My son is currently living with his biological father and won’t speak to my husband (although he warmed up to me after 4 weeks and my realization that I was not there for him to talk to). What can be done to bridge the gap when my son won’t even speak to his step-dad?
I am going to do my best to respond to your question with the information that you provided. However, some of what I am going to write in my response is going to be speculation. It seems finding a good licensed family therapist might be very helpful for receiving the best counsel.
On Being a Step-parent, or Being Part of a “Blended Family”
It’s difficult to be a parent, and especially difficult to be a step-parent, or a biological parent in part of a “Blended Family.” But you are not alone. Today, only one of every four families is a traditional ‘nuclear’ family. That is, a mother, a father, and biological children.
About ½ of all marriages this year will end in divorce, and in most developed countries ½ of all births are to unmarried women. This means the blended family is the norm, not the exception.
Blended families result when a parent marries a person who is not the biological father of their child (or, some contend, when a couple adopt a child that is not their own). Often, if the marriage occurs while the child is still very young, the family looks identical to the traditional nuclear family. However, most blended families contain children from only one of the two parents.
Being part of a blended family can be very stress-provoking for the persons involved (both parents, step parents, and kids). Some common stressors that are often overlooked include:
• new living arrangements,
• new family members,
• new schools,
• new traditions,
• new house rules,
• the loss of friends,
• being displaced from relatives,
• a new church,
• and a new last name, to name a few.
Children in blended families are rarely as thrilled about the remarriage as the newly-married parents are. This can create problems unless it is dealt with early and sensitively. It will take both time and energy to build relationships between step-parents and step-kids.
Moreover, often children feel that by loving and accepting a step-parent they are rejecting their biological parent. This can further complicate matters. And to add another complex layer, parents in blended families often struggle with loyalty issues arising from feeling that they should defend their children against the step-parent or step¬siblings.
Visitation is a common source of stress and angst with blended families. Children often experience two realities, one with the blended family and the other with the biological parent. Life can get even more complicated if the biological or non-custodial parent remarries to create yet another blended fam¬ily! Visitation arrangements also become tricky if the non-custodial parent is physically distant.
Some Basic Coaching Tips and Guidelines
1. Mourn any family losses and transitions.
Persons in blended families, especially kids, should be able to share their feelings of loss and their memories of how things used to be. These topics should never be taboo—but encouraged! It should be acknowledged and respected that all members of the blended family will need time to feel normal again. If a family member is having a hard time adjusting, it does not mean he/she does not care for the new person in the family.
2. Understand kids’ development.
Members of blended families are not always 100 percent knowledgeable of the needs of family members. This is especially true when kids are involved. For example, a step-parent who has not had kids will probably not know what to do with a toddler, or a per-teen, or even a teenager. And even is he/she has raised his/her own kids, they were likely quite different and did not experience the same challenges of the kids present in the blended family. Parents and step-parents can help themselves and their children by learning about age and maturity level appropriate ways to raise children, and by studying ways to better build relationship with step-kids.
3. Establish new family traditions.
While not rejecting the traditions of the previous family life or those of the non-custodial parent, it is good for the blended family to create some of its own family traditions. This is important for building cohesion and a sense of unity in the family. Note however that each member of the blended family has his/her own history, memories and perceptions and is being asked to merge and com¬promise them with those of other family members. What was once familiar is being turned on its head: Christmas, Easter, Halloween, birthdays, vacations, etc. Though it may seem like a small issue, family traditions are not easily surrendered by persons who ¬have already gone through many other changes. Final note, even as the family develops new traditions and rituals, visitation time with the biological parent should always be respected, especially during important events and holidays.
4. Maintaining a healthy marriage.
Spouses must be intentional about keeping their marital partnership strong. Instruct the couple to take time alone to love-on, show affection to, support, talk-to, be present with, and care for one another. A strong marriage is a crucial part of the overall functioning and stability of the family.
5. Cooperate with the biological parent.
If at all possible, include the non-custodial/biological parent in the life of the children. Kids, especially teenagers, are greatly stabilized by seeing their parents unified. For this, mom and dad should try to minimize contention—especially in front of the kids. Consistent parenting helps to alleviate children’s insecurity following divorce.
More Parenting Strategies for Your Son:
It seem that your son is currently about 16 years old and that the relationship problems exist both between your new husband and yourself. Here are some ideas that might make a difference quickly:
1) Don’t attack the biological parent. I noticed you did a little attacking in your question, calling him a “Disney Land Dad.” Instead, team with the biological parent as much as possible.
2) You acknowledged in your email that you haven’t been as available for your son, to talk with, as you thought; the foster parenting / adoptions might also make this challenging. Know that it’s never too late to make changes, and to find more ways to connect with your son (also see recommendations below)
3) You describe your new husband as “Type-A”. Persons with Type-A personalities are often very driven, but sometimes lack patience, tenderness, and Time. Remember that Kids spell love T-I-M-E. Also, if your son has a different disposition/personality from your husband, he will need to work extra hard to connect with your son.
Parenting is not an easy task. As a parent you are given the authority over your children and must assume control of how they are raised.
One’s role as a parent is constantly changing. As children grow older and mature, one’s role becomes less active until eventually they serve as a friend and advisor to their adult children.
There are various key components that contribute to good parenting. Among the most important are:
1. Love. Children need physical contact, hugs, words of encouragement and affirmation, and quality time- all of which communicate love. Love is able to break down walls and barriers that one cannot otherwise see. Although children- especially adolescents- may pull away at times, it is normal and is often due to the fact that they are simply learning how to act and think on their own. Parents are to love their children even when they are heartbroken by or disagree with their children’s actions, or feel that it is undeserved. A parent’s love for their child is always unconditional.
2. Discipline. Discipline is unlike punishment in that it always intends for a better future for the child. When it comes to discipline, parents must always keep a balance, be consistent, firm, and follow through on their word.
3. Guidance. As a parent, it is your responsibility to guide your children and to teach them about life. At times, this may mean allowing them to make their own mistakes. As a result, parents should be prepared to be disappointed with their children’s choices or behaviors from time to time. However, having such disappointment is better than making the mistake of helping children to get out of their difficulties too readily. By allowing children to make mistakes, parents are actually allowing a great amount of growth to take place.
When one is having problems with parenting, it is probable that a few changes may need to be made. While such changes may be difficult at first, they will not be impossible.
When parenting strong-willed or tough children, it is important for parents not to panic when they think about the future of their child. Some of the most difficult children become the more successful adults. So no matter what the case, parents should always envision the most positive futures for their children. They should also be sure to share those visions lovingly with their children and set aside plenty of time to share with them.
Action steps that may be helpful for every parent to keep in mind are:
- Focus on relationship.
The quality of the parent-child relationship will determine just how effective discipline strategies are.
- Be consistent.
Parents need to work together. Children must not think that they can pit parents against one another or get one parent to overrule the other.
- Spend time together.
Spend as much quality time as a family as possible. If it is only one meal a day, then eat one meal a day together. It is of foremost importance for parents to maintain the strongest relationship possible with their children.