I rarely work with children. My specialty and my gift is working with couples, either current couples or former (divorced) couples who are trying to work out conflicts that interfere with their relating. But occasionally I will work with kids, if their parents really want it, and if the conflict is between the parent and child. Sometimes (like you didn’t know!) it’s just impossible to get your children to hear you. And it’s often even more difficult with your stepchildren, right?
Well, this stepmom and her nine-year-old stepson were at “that point.” Their communication had been reduced to either screaming at each other or sulking in their respective corners. So I agreed to meet with stepmom and stepson. Biological Dad refused to attend, saying this was a problem between them. Shrug.
When we began, “Billy” we’ll call him, was sullen and silent – not uncommon in this sort of setting where yet another adult was present to gang up on him. So I let stepmom go first; to tell her side of the story. As she told how unfair and mean Billy was to her, he quickly found his tongue and warmed up to the discussion, also the typical response.
Stepmom, let’s call her Meg, and Billy had been together since he was an infant. She married his dad when Billy was just nine months old. So they knew each other pretty well. She had watched him develop and he had learned many of his basic life lessons from her, as well as his dad. Their relationship should have been pretty solid, right. (We both know better than that, don’t we?)
As Billy had grown up he had developed a confusion about his biological mom, who was rarely in his life, and his stepmom, who was there daily. He found himself conflicted about which “mom” he should be loyal to. And this lead to acting out against his stepmother. Meg was at first hurt and confused herself about this once sweet little boy’s turning into a sulky enemy. As they battles wore on, her hurt turned to anger and resentment. And the war was on.
At the point we met, the relationship between Billy and Meg had been reduced to the screaming/sulking attitude mentioned before. Meg’s attitude had become one of “I know he’s not going to do what I say, so I try to just ignore him, until I can’t stand it anymore and I start yelling at him to try to make him do what I want.”
Billy was getting good at ignoring Meg, too, and them screaming back at her before he slammed his bedroom door for a good sulk. Dad was avoiding the tension and fussing at home, which left Billy and Meg even more in each other’s company. Something was going to break is something wasn’t done soon, and Meg was talking about a divorce and getting out of the situation.
After Meg and Billy spouted out their anger toward each other for a while, I asked Meg to let me talk to Billy alone. He told me in no uncertain terms that he hated his stepmother and resented his dad for marrying her (and leaving his mother). Billy’s biological mom had been telling him for a few years that Meg didn’t really love him and she was wanting him gone so she could have Dad to herself. (In other words, Mom was jealous of her son’s close relationship with his stepmom, even though she didn’t do much to foster a better relationship with him.)
We talked for a little while, then I asked Meg to come in and Billy to step out. I told her what Billy had said (I had gotten Billy’s permission to do so), and she said she wasn’t too surprised. The ex had tried the same thing with Meg’s husband early on, but husband had seen through it and nipped in the bud quickly. I asked her what her true feelings for Billy were, and she said she loved him with all her heart and wanted a close friendship with him again.
“How long since you demonstrated that to Billy?” I asked her. She admitted that it had been awhile since he’d let her hug him or even listened when she said she loved him.
“So, while he has his bio-mom telling him you don’t love him, you aren’t showing him otherwise, right?” I asked. She thought about it and said, “I’ve fallen into her trap, haven’t I?”
We talked about nine year old boys and their insecurities and fears. We talked about what she and Billy used to do; and we talked about possibilities for reconnecting. Then I asked Billy back in. Meg apologized to him for being so cranky and short tempered, and she said that she was going to dedicate herself to being a better friend and stepmom to him. Billy stared at his feet, but I could tell he was listening. He finally agreed to try to step screaming in the house and to at least attempt to be a friend to Meg. They shook hands on the deal and left to begin starting over.
Children – step or biological – can easily get confused about how their family feels about them, especially if there are other conflicts going on, such as fighting between the parents or a biological parent injecting trouble. However, all children want and need affection and acceptance.
My advice to Meg is the same as I would offer to you – don’t get pulled into your child’s childish attitude. If you want them to be nicer to you, demonstrate what you want by being nicer to them. And always, no matter what else is going on, smother them with love. You won’t spoil a child by loving them too much; you won’t lead them into expecting too much by giving them attention and affection.
When the flames of sulking, anger, and rudeness break out, smother them with a warm blanket of love.
God bless your whole family!
STEPcoach Bob Collins