Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My 13-year-old stepson has a few issues for which he is getting help. My problem is that his biological mother doesn't pay attention to him. She only has him come over to her house if we ask, and she never calls him to check on him when he is here. I can see that this is hurting his feelings, and despite my suggestion that she call more often, it doesn't happen. How do I help my son deal with this consistent rejection? By the way, we live less than 2 miles from each other, so this is not a problem of physical distance.
Wes: America is a country of divorce. It's hard to get an exact grip on the divorce rate because there are a lot of factors to take into account, but what we do know is that the majority of kids today live in something other than the "traditional" or "intact" home. Lots of experts, therapists, politicians, church leaders and researchers offer advice on how to avoid divorce, but for reasons that go beyond the scope of this column, it's unlikely we'll see any major reversal in the near future. Because remarriage or cohabitation is the norm, there are increasing numbers of stepparents. In some homes both parents are stepparents to each other's children. In some cases the divorce is friendly and the stepparents don't have problems with the biological parent in the other home. In other cases, an ugly divorce and custody battle sends the stepparent right into a buzzsaw - and not infrequently another divorce. And I've just scratched the surface of how complex these situations can become.
As far as your case is concerned, you're in a real bind here. Really the best analogy I can give you is one I use with foster parents - regardless of how badly you believe the biological parent is behaving, you must resist the urge to point that out to your stepson. I'm not suggesting that you overtly deny reality and tell him that his mother is his greatest blessing. Just avoid taking all the myriad opportunities to remind him that she is not. Stick to appropriately timed responses like "I realize how hard this is for you," and then move on. Even if your stepson is saying disrespectful things about his mom, you should not join the bandwagon. Especially avoid getting into any contests or power struggles with his mom, no matter how she may be distancing herself. The best foster parent I ever met worked tirelessly to help the biological mother recover from substance abuse. She failed - but even then she maintained respect for her while she adopted the children into her home. You've already tried to influence her, so you have to move on to quietly helping this young man out without threatening the delicate relationship with his mom.
Rather than trying to replace her in the mother role, just reach out as a kind adult friend. Offer the sort of support you feel the mother is lacking but let his dad do the parenting and discipline. If your husband is leaving this to you, let him know that this puts you between a rock and a hard place. Too often the primary residential parent in a divorce - be it male or female - starts looking for someone to raise their children with them, or worse, FOR them. If that's your situation, I suggest you have a talk with your spouse. If that doesn't help, a couple of sessions with a therapist trained in divorce and custody matters may.
Julia: I'm always surprised when my friends are able to speak to their mothers and get away with an "I'll be home late, call you later, bye." Maybe it's because my mother was always so protectively diligent of my whereabouts and my well-being, but any mother surveillance that is short of GPS-based is no good in my book. So, in comparing other people's mothers to my own, I assume that other people are being neglected. Other people's parenting will always be in comparison with my own.
Although your son is being hurt by his mother's actions, she may be parenting the best she can and doesn't know any different. It's not a stepparent's place to tell someone else how to parent, but consider telling her how your son feels rather than how you feel, or how you think he feels. Tell her what he has said to show his disappointment. So long as you keep the resolution of your son's feelings as the basis for your conversations, fewer feelings will get hurt. If you're uneasy about talking to her, see if your son would be willing to directly share how he feels and maybe set up a scheduled few days of the month where it is just him and her spending time together.
Next week: Parent teen shopping lists. We try to find some unique gift ideas.