Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My husband shares custody with his ex on their son. I'm not a new stepmom. I've been in our son's life for 12 years. Our son has mental health issues that would be hard to handle in a stable situation. Things his mother is choosing to do with her life are impacting him over and over. I've decided to support him as best I can in our home and realize that I just have to "clean up the mess" that his mother is making. Am I doing the right thing?
- Online chat participant
Julia: Yours is a hard situation to be in. Your position tests the balance between being that caring, invested stepparent without stepping on the toes of the biological parent. Wanting good relationships between both you and his mother is not too much to hope for, but in this case, it's putting strain on him. In having to handle all of the aforementioned problems, yes, you are doing the right thing. You are trying to take care of your son without taking his mom out of the picture. I admire that you have kept both your and her relationship with your stepson intact, but since her relationship is hurting rather than helping, it is best to take action and speak to her.
To keep this from turning into a battle of the moms, remember your commonality - the son's best interest. The less the conversation is about her and the more it is about your stepson, the better the solution with fewer bruised egos. Also gauge how bad her actions are and react in a manner reasonable to the problem. Feeding your stepson lots of sugar is one thing, but not feeding him at all would require a greater response.
Wes: In my book on foster care, I give a lot of attention to how foster parents should learn to walk the same fine line Julia speaks of. I think it's an apt analogy because in those cases the problems with the biological parents are severe enough that the state has taken action. As we saw in the recent child protection disaster in Texas, one can't always rely on the state's good judgment, but for the most part kids in state custody are there because the parents have some serious problems. By your account, you are in a similar situation so you really have to take the foster parent's stance - be supportive and make no judgments.
As I'm sure you've found, this isn't as easy as we make it sound. As a foster parent I constantly found it difficult not to resent the biological parents for their shortcomings. I often grumbled that I did all the hard parenting throughout the week and then the bio-parent was a hero for staying sober during a three-hour visit. But in that role and yours, one must stay ever vigilant to avoid letting those grumblings - or the appearance of grumblings - enter the child's awareness. They've got enough to deal with already, especially in your stepson's case, where there are other mental health concerns.
It's also important to remember that as bad as things may seem, you can always make them worse - or better. I've seen literally hundreds of kids over the years from messy divorces, and hundreds others from parents that were at least as rocky as your stepson's mom. Without a doubt, the kids from the hostile divorces were worse off than those who just had to deal with one struggling parent or a psychological problem. I'd propose that you focus your attention less on cleaning up messes, and more on a spirit of uncompromising, upbeat, positive interaction. We know from research and experience that one stable person in a child's life can make a remarkable difference - just as long as that person avoids getting into a contest with the biological parent(s).
I'd also try not to expect any dramatic improvements in the coming months or years. Parents of teens sometimes forget that their reward doesn't come until the child is 23 to 25. That's when parents begin to be appreciated for what they do - and usually not a minute sooner. Garrison Keillor always says, "Nothing you do for children is ever wasted." No truer words were ever spoken. So hang in there and accentuate the positives so your stepson can, too.
Next week: Late teens in trouble. How to help after kids have reached age 18.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.