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Reader Question of the Week

What do you do when your husband’s a bad stepfather?

On Mondays I like to take a stab at answering a Reader Question. A woman wrote in whose husband is lousy stepfather because he is just not very nice to her son (her husband’s stepson). She writes:

My husband married me with three children. At the time two were preschoolers and one was a teenager. They are now 11,12,20. My first husband died a year prior to us getting married. We thought we should go ahead and get married to help our family heal. Since we were old friends and both Christian we thought it was a win win. But my problem is he seem to treat my youngest son, the 11-year-old, mean. He acts like he doesn’t want to be bothered with him. And my son really feels it so he turns to my 20-year-old for protection. I guess you can imagine that tension. I try to speak to him about it but he simply denies anything harsh inside. I feel like a terrible mother allowing this to go on. He doesn’t hit him but the mental abuse is just as worse. I really don’t know to do. Please help. Thanks.

My initial thoughts are: if your husband is truly being abusive, you need to get help for your son. Absolutely. Getting a third party involved who knows all of you and who can help you navigate this is likely in order, just for the protection of your son.

However, it looks like there’s something else going on here, since a parent is rarely abusive to just one child. I didn’t really feel equipped to handle this one, so I asked Ron Deal, founder of Smart Stepfamilies, to take a stab at it for me.

Here’s Ron:

When you Think your Husband is a Bad Stepfather

Step-Families Can Have Difficulty Bonding

While it’s true that stepparents and stepchildren typically don’t share the same depth to their emotional attachment as biological parent-child relationships—and this difference impacts parenting—that may be only part of your situation. Let me explain.

Both biological mothers and fathers form a deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual attachment to their child even while it is in the womb. It is a miraculous process to have a child and the bond between parent and child reflects the profound nature of this miracle. Any biological parent know exactly what I’m talking about.

Stepparents and stepchildren must grow their bond over time. I suppose you could say that they choose love and to be family, rather than having it rise up from within them. This, too, can lead to a profound attachment. (Adoptive and stepparents with long-term relationships know what I’m talking about.) But it can be rough in the early years as adult and child learn about one another, learn to trust, respect, and like each other, let alone love each other.

Without question, the attachment bond—whether weak or strong—impacts parenting. In two of my books The Smart Stepmom and The Smart Stepdad I discuss in great detail why, for example, children snub a stepparent saying, “You’re not my mom. I don’t have to do what you say.” In effect, they are saying, “I don’t trust you or respect your authority enough to obey you. Without shared DNA, you don’t have the right to tell me what to do.” Oddly enough, no one, not society or the court system—not even children, make that same rebuff to biological parents. Apparently, shared chromosomes automatically grants one authority! Being a biological parent also grants you automatic respect, “insider” status with the child, love, grace in conflict, and loyalty. It really helps parents to be parents.

Stepparents, however, don’t get automatic anything. They have to earn like, love, respect, authority, forgiveness when wrong, etc., etc. This can be an arduous and challenging process depending on the openness of the child. If a child is closed and hostile toward the stepparent, they stand on thin ice. If the child is open and welcoming, the stepparent can bond with a child quickly and to a wonderful depth.

The Biological Parent Often Distrusts the StepParent

If managing the process of bonding isn’t difficult enough for stepparents, add to it the distrust that comes from the biological parent. Biological parents raising their children disagree with each other from time to time about how they should manage the child’s behavior, but rarely if ever does one parent accuse the other of not loving the child. “You grounded our teenager for a few days too long and I know why – because you hate our kid,” just aren’t words you hear between parents.

But in a stepfamily situation, it’s not uncommon for a biological parent to doubt the heart of the stepparent toward a child.

This is what I hear in your question. “My husband doesn’t like my son.” And notice how it impacts you and your marriage. You feel guilty for not protecting your son and it pits you against your husband. It automatically divides your home into insiders (biological family members) and outsiders (husband/stepdad). That division is extremely common in blended families (or might I say, not-so-blended families).

Personality Clashes Can Be Common

But there’s something a little odd about your situation that deserves consideration. You have two other children and your husband doesn’t appear to have issue with them. Typically, a stepparent who really doesn’t want to be a parent to stepchildren (this does happen, but I find it to be rare) doesn’t engage any of them. They resign from any role with the children—not just one.

I’m wondering if your situation is more perhaps a clash of their personalities than an issue in stepparenting. Without knowing the history of your husband and all three kids over the past six years it’s difficult to know for sure, but you might need to adjust your assumptions about the motivations of his heart. Doing so might soften your approach toward him:

“Honey, it occurred to me that you have a pretty solid relationship with my older two kids and I see how you tried with Johnny early on, but it didn’t work very well. What are the things about him that make it tough for you at this point to connect with him?”

Sometimes personalities even between biological parents and children just don’t mix. When there’s other children that a parent does easily connect with, the challenging child becomes the odd man out and sometimes, the scapegoat. Let me be clear: the animosity your husband is showing your son needs to change. The real dilemma is what you can do about it. Here’s what I know: if you approach your husband with misguided assumptions, venom and accusation, he won’t be influenced by you. Softly enter his experience and try to hear what the road blocks are for him first, then discuss with him how that might change. My guess is he feel stuck and wants a better relationship, but just doesn’t know how to get there. If you stand against him he will not explore that with you. If you gently come beside him, he might let you be a resource to help him through. That would be a win-win.

Thanks, Ron!

To sum up: if you fear it’s abusive, get a neutral party in to help you figure that out. But on the whole, it could very well just be a personality clash. We’re a biological family, and we’ve walked through this with my husband and my daughter–a two year period when I felt that he was being too hard on her. We got through it and everything’s fine. But because he was her biological father, I never doubted that he loved her, and it was likely easier to deal with.

It occurred right around when she was 11 as well, and I wonder if that’s just a hard time for parents in general? Then, throw a stepparent into the mix, and it’s easy to start doubting the whole thing. So I like Ron’s take: check if it’s just a personality clash, and then try to weather that and navigate it together. Don’t create an us vs. them mentality, because that can be so damaging!

Now let me know in the comments: have you ever dealt with something like this? How do you navigate it?


Ron L. Deal is president of Smart Stepfamilies™, director of FamilyLife Blended™, a popular conference speaker on marriage and family matters, and author/coauthor of a series of DVD’s, books, and curriculum for stepfamilies including The Smart Stepfamily, The Smart Stepmom, The Smart Stepdad, The Remarriage Checkup, and Dating and the Single Parent. Learn more at FamilyLife.com/blended.

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