Dear Dr. Wes and Jenny: What's the best way to cope with a teenage stepson (14) who is two-faced when it comes to his mother? I just feel I keep putting myself in the way to get knocked down. We get along great unless he's talking to his mom. I even helped him pass driver's ed, and I do all his checking in with school. I just don't like that he and I get along so well, then he backstabs me and disrespects me.
Wes: Stepparenting is a difficult and sometimes thankless task. I commend you for taking it on. However, you and your spouse need to reconsider your approach in this teenager's life. Something is not working. The first clue is your use of "two-faced" in describing this boy - a very negative view. Instead, consider how difficult it is to live in two very different homes, overseen by an entire staff of adults (biological parents and stepparents) who obviously do not like each other at all. Most kids would feel torn between these homes and their loyalties to each.
Next, you must adopt the fundamental rule of parenting: Don't take anything kids do personally. This can be difficult because you may feel "knocked down" and "backstabbed." This is not the language of the confident and benevolent parent, but of one who feels weak, hurt and betrayed. Teenagers are not built to be respectful of their parents, and those who are tend to be anxious and painfully self-conscious. Until they reach their mid-20s, we should respect them; give them good advice; be there for them in driver's ed or lost love or school success or whatever else they face - and expect little in return. That is the nature of parenting; it is the most selfless act anyone can perform. A successful child is his own reward and nothing more.
As a stepparent, you also must also accept that you are not this boy's mother and you must avoid any pretense that you are trying to be. You comment that you both "get along great unless he's talking to his mom," suggesting a conflict between you and mom that's making this boy feel like he must choose sides. You can begin changing your side of the equation by supporting a good relationship with his mom and showing that you never mean to replace her. And lest there be any confusion, it does not matter what your stepson's mom has done to him or to you: You cannot expect him to take your side over hers. That is not betrayal; it is a matter of biological and psychological predisposition. Do not make him choose, or you will certainly end up with the short end of the stick. A good therapist, trained in divorce management (not all are), could be of great help to you right now.
Correction from last week
Due to a computer glitch on the authors' end, the last third of last week's column on transitioning seventh-graders mysteriously disappeared. In her response, Jenny also noted:
You change so much in junior high, and it is a constant struggle to find out who you are. Some spend time trying out as many sports as possible; others work hard at trying to fit in, while most just try to sit back and enjoy the time with their new friends. Everyone has bad days, the kind where all you want to do is cry because you are in a fight with one of your friends, or the boy you have been dating for two weeks broke up with you. We all have the embarrassing moments, of spilling milk in the lunchroom or tripping in front of everyone, so don't sweat the small stuff.
Take this information from a girl who was terrified to be the one to sit all alone. I was too afraid to walk away from friends because I didn't want to be that weird girl. I didn't want to be the one left out. In my mind, popularity was one of the things that most people struggled for, and I tried my hardest to be like everyone else. I wasn't being true to myself. Now that I look back on it, I would have rather been the girl all alone. It wasn't worth the time and effort to try to compromise who I really am just to fit in. Now that I am out of junior high, I can see that.
Jenny: Communication is key in every relationship, especially if a person is feeling betrayed and disrespected. Your stepson may feel torn between his mother and his father. He may also feel that you are the one coming between that relationship or that time spent with his father is being short-circuited by you. I don't know what happened in the past, but a good course of action is talking one on one. You need to understand that teenage boys are rambunctious, and some just love to rebel. He could simply be taking all of his frustration about the divorce out on you, or he could be trying to fit the role of the stepson by acting the way he thinks he's supposed to act.
It's good that you take an active role in you stepson's life, but remember that if you are doing these things just to make him like you then you shouldn't be doing them at all. You should want to do things for him because you care for him. If you really love your stepson, then love him emotionally as well as materialistically. As Wes stated, you shouldn't expect much back from him - at least not yet.
Whatever you do, don't make him choose sides, because in my estimation one of the reasons he acts the way he does is to appease his mother. He may think that he's betraying his mom by liking you, feeling that if he embraces you as part of the family he is backstabbing his mother. That is why you need to talk to him. Tell him you care about him and that you want to know why he seems to disregard your feelings. Tell him you feel hurt when he says some of the things he says and that you want to help. That is a shorter path to his heart than taking a stand against his mother.
Next week: Teenagers who date adults.