Dear Wes and Samantha: I have a concern about my stepson, and I don’t know how to confront him about it since he is already 18 years old. I have been in his life for 12 years since we got custody of him. He has been avoiding me for a while now. He has been going to his biological mother’s home and staying there quite a bit. I ask to spend time with him as much as possible, but he comes out with excuses. I’m not sure if there’s something going on at his mother’s home that he doesn’t want to talk about, or he really is bonding with his own mother and it’s just hurting me, since I’m the one who really raised him. I feel like he is turning his back on me. What should I do?
Samantha: In their late teens, many children begin to distance themselves from their parents to feel more independent and adult. The fact that your stepson is backing away from you could just be part of a very normal process of growing up and could have nothing to do with you. Because your son’s biological mother was not in the picture while he was growing up, he may not yet see her as a threat to his independence. He probably does not need to individuate as much from his biological mother to become a man.
Also, because his biological mother finally wants to have a larger role in his life, he probably feels drawn to her and may be trying to seize every moment he can have with her. He cares less about spending time with you because, like a great mom, you have always been there for him, and you always will be.
Still, you have a right to feel hurt. Your son, however, may not even realize he is upsetting you. You need to talk to him about how you are feeling without sounding accusatory or demanding. Making him feel guilty or defensive would just widen the gap you feel between you. You need to tread carefully.
Instead of telling him you think he is turning his back on you and ignoring you, tell him you just want to spend more time with him. Point out specific instances where you have asked him to spend time together and he has rejected your offer. You don’t have to mention the time he spends with his mother. If you mention her, it will just make you seem overly jealous and protective. Instead, make sure you express the fact that you enjoy spending time with him. Talk to him about something you could do together weekly — watch a sports game or get cappuccinos at a coffee shop. Having a specific activity will bring you closer together.
Finally, give the issue more time, and give him as much space as you can. The thrill of spending time with his biological mom will eventually wear off, and he will realize that you are the person who has been there for him these past 12 years.
Wes: Sage advice as always from Samantha. Whenever I work with an adoptive or foster family, I stress one thing: Never get yourself between a biological child and his or her family. Ever. The same holds true for a stepparent. There’s no ledger of who does what for a young person. Everyone contributes something. If the mother is not a person of good character, this young man will come to see that in time (meaning his mid-20s). Over those years you need to keep doing what you’ve done for 12 years, be a good influence on him and welcome him into your life, and let him choose what he needs from you right now.
Sometimes we forget that the point of raising kids is to do justice to them, not ourselves. Parenting (biological, step, adoptive, foster) is and should be a selfless act. Our only reward is to see a young person grow up into a successful adult. Of course we hope to be cared for in our advancing years, entertained by grandchildren, and appreciated a bit someday for our contributions, but in the short run, we are here to serve our children and meet their needs, not the other way around. I’m not saying that kids should exploit that situation, and I think your stepson should certainly give you your due. However, it’s unlikely that will happen for a few years. Sam is right to suggest a soft-side approach. The very last word you should let slip through your head when thinking about this situation is “confront.” “Confronting” your stepson is likely to push things from the natural course Samantha proposes toward one of bitterness and resentment on both sides.
I’ve quoted Garrison Keillor several times in this column — “nothing you do for a child is ever wasted.” Take pride in the role you’ve held with this young man and be thankful for the chance you had to do it. When the times comes that he needs a reliable adult in his life, I’m sure he’ll call on you, if you manage any jealousies you have toward his mother. Support him in finding a bond with her. He’ll respect you for it. A young person who cannot reach reconciliation with his mother and father early in adulthood will have a sad and difficult future ahead. Do anything you can to encourage peace between the parties and see it as adding to everyone’s life, not subtracting.
For now, find a hobby, open new social outlets or reconnect with an organization or church. Perhaps you and your husband can spend more time together now that your stepson is moving on in life. Keep your mind off the sense of loss you feel by focusing on the next challenge. We each have one. This will help protect you from doing or saying something that will create more problems than it will solve. Remember, the less you say in situations like this, the less you have to take back.
You’ve raised a boy to 18. Do a victory lap and wait for the results.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. 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.