Reader Asks: My stepson’s father sucks.

boyReader Asks: I have a step son who while isn’t “special needs,” he has anxiety and general effort issues. He certainly requires more time and energy than my kids to motivate and disciple. That however is not why I write in. My issue is with his father, which I’m sure contributes to his lack of trust and effort. His father isn’t around, and as much as his mother and I encourage said father to be involved he just doesn’t seem to care, though I’m sure on some level he certainly does. His father doesn’t ever call (though we got the boy a phone so he could talk to dad whenever he wants, he never answers.) He doesn’t make any effort to come see him regardless of our offer to fly him out here and put him up for a certain amount of time. (And I know how awkward that situation is, as it is for me as well) I generally feel bad for him on a daily basis that his father doesn’t seem to care. His mother and I have discussed it (and argued about it) at some length and nothing ever seems to change. My question is should I approach his father and voice my (reasonable?) concerns about the lack of him in his life? Or do I write off his lack of effort and not waste my own on is what is certainly a lost cause? Do I put that effort instead into my relationship with the son and developing a stronger male figure role in his life? (I haven’t ever wanted to overstep my bounds) Is it worth stirring up the drama that is sure to ensue from that approach, since the father and the mother are still close friends? (thats a whole other topic I could spend hours on) What’s the best approach? Since I’m sure there is no “right” answer?

Dear Just-Trying-To-Help-My-Stepson-But-Also-I-Struggle-With-His-Dad’s-Existence,

(I shall refer to you henceforth as “JT,” for “Just Trying.”)

JT, you sound like a solid dude.  You do.  Exhibit A:  You wrote to me.  Ding-ding-ding; congratulations you are the FIRST male reader to ever write-in with a question.  As your prize, I shall offer you a trophy wrapped conspicuously in highlighted pages from this bookExhibit B:  Even though you clearly WANTED to write to me about what a douche your wife’s ex is, how difficult your step son is, and how much it irks you that your wife and her ex still have a relationship,  you hesitated because you are WISE and you LOVE your wife and step-kid.

Why do I think that last sentence is true (besides spending almost a decade listening to families tell me some brutal truths in confidence?)?? Because you have slightly altered a very common myth that step parents tell themselves (In doing this, you are careful to neither throw your stepson under the bus nor anger his mother who loves him.):


Common step-parent myth: If only my step kid wasn’t so difficult, my life would be so much easier and his mom and I would barely ever disagree. 

JT’s twist on this myth: If only my step-kid’s dad wasn’t so selfish and horrible at parenting, my step kid (and my life) would be easier/happier, and his mom and I would have little to disagree about.

First things first.  Your question seems to be “should I call my step-kid’s father up and tell him to man-up and start contacting his son and being a more authoritative parent?”.  To this question, JT, you already know the answer.  You don’t need a shrink to tell you that asking such a question would only alienate your wife (who is still close with her ex. At this point anyway. Read on about that in a minute.), absolutely NOT help the kid whatsoever (you think a nice chit-chat with ex-wife’s new husband would make him suddenly start calling “the boy”?) and make YOU suddenly look like the douche canoe.

JT, a more helpful question may be, “how can I accept that my step-son is more difficult than I am used-to without exploding into a ball of anger?”  Or, similarly, “How can I accept that my wife’s ex is a hands-off parent without exploding into a ball of anger?” < Or even, “Dear Yellow Couch Lady, am I correct to say that my stepson’s “motivation” and “trust” issues are on account of his bio father?  If you told me that was the case, it sure would help me feel better and help have much leverage during disagreements with my wife.”

Your overt question may also be a veiled attempt to have a shrink align with you: “I am right that I am a better parent and person than the ex, and my wife is craycray for still wanting to be buddies with him, right?”  Or maybe you are wondering, “Knowing that my wife’s ex is not going to change, and there is no magic wand to reduce my step-son’s anxiety, how do I best co-parent with my wife so we don’t keep fighting about this subject, and we can be the best co-parents possible to little Billy?”  (Note:  I like the last question the best.)

Now.  Allow me to respond to all of the questions I listed (I am thorough that way.  And very bored at the moment. Also, other step-parents most-CERTAINLY feel similarly, so I want to address this from all angles.)

Question #1)  How can I accept that my step son is more difficult than I am used-to and that my wife’s ex is a hands-off parent?  If you want to radically accept unchangeable crappy situation (your step-son’s difficulty level and your wife’s ex’s loosy-goosy parenting style), you can either go to therapy or guide yourself to practice three things:

       1) Self-awareness skills (Sometimes called mindfulness): Observe/notice your resistence to accepting reality when it starts. Your physical body could give you cues, or you may notice an influx of “should” thoughts or negative/angry thoughts.  Take notice, and observe the feelings without automatically acting on them.  You have a choice to yell at “the boy,” complain to your wife, or shrug your shoulders and accept it as not changing.
         2) Cognitive/Thinking skills: The researcher who made-up the idea of “radical acceptance” suggests that you intentionally remind yourself that this reality exists, that the scenario has a cause (even if you don’t know the cause), and that life is worth living even though the scenario exists.  Sounds dramatic, but these are the suggested steps.
        3)  Distress Tolerance Skills:  Since you can’t resolve the problem, you’ve got to tolerate the problem.  “distress tolerance” skills include sef-soothing activities such as deep breaths, systematice muscle clenching, and visualization exercises) as well as distraction activities (such as exercise, watching a movie, or engagingin an alternative activity.)

Question #2)  Are your step-son’s “trust,” “motivation,” and “discipline” difficulties on account of his bio father’s distant behavior?  No.

First, let’s talk about anxiety:  We know anxiety is largely genetic, and that life stressors “trigger” genetic dispositions. The reason your stepson is resistant to change, has difficulty trusting, and has a hard time being motivated to try new things (all anxiety) is because of a combination of genetics and a bunch of stressors (life and family changes included).  Since he has anxiety in his genetics (and also experienced a lot of other changes and stressors, like most kids do, in his life), your stepson would have had anxiety whether or not his father acted distantly toward him.

Pretend anxiety is a bunch of flies trying to get inside the house on a summer day.  Dad’s behavior right now is sticking a pencil through the screen door (sure a few flies will get in). Your step son’s genetics along with everything else is taking a chainsaw to the screen door (Here comes the swarm.).

Now let’s talk about general compliance/defiance: It needs to be said that step-parents almost always (unless you married his mom when he was six months old and bio dad was never in the picture) have no leverage or automatic respect, and almost-always, there exists an underlying resentment of the child toward the step-parent.  (How’s that for an opportunity to practice radical acceptance?)

God, this is complicated. Let me put it this way:  It is normal that your step so would resist your authority more than your own children do (even more-so if he hears you and mom disagreeing on any parenting issues, or if his life was changed in any way around the time that you showed-up on the scene.)

Your role is not to be his father (though that dynamic may naturally occur, I could write a whole post on the resentment kids acquire if this is forced or “expected” of them), but rather your role is to conduct yourself in a manner that teaches him to respect you simply as an adult in his life.  Many experts on this subject suggest that the bio parent remains main disciplinarian, and step-parent has little to do with the whole thing other than demanding as much respect as any other adult in the kid’s life.

And more important than anything, your anxious stepson has to see you and his mother as a united front with no signs of disagreement (when it comes to parenting).  Signs of disagreement will result in his fierce loyalty to mom and further disregard for your authority.

Question #3)  Are you right that your wife needs to cut ties with the ex?  This is where I get all team-JT on you.  Dude.  Out of respect to you (and requiring her to call on her skills of empathy), I would strongly suggest that she considers limiting her contact with the ex to child-related, need-to-discuss conversations.  No friendly, buddy-buddy-interactions.

That being said, I certainly don’t think your wife is a horrible person, especially because several years ago I was in the same boat as her. Yah, so there’s that. I was extremely buddy-buddy with an ex that I basically grew up with, and naïve me, I thought it was no big deal because it was completely platonic. It took my husband (who was a psychologist in a past life or something) explaining his perspective in a certain way before I fully understood.

His constructive “I-statement and direct request” was something like, “It makes me feel sad and like I’m not the closest person to you, when you call so-and-so when you are bored, when you have inside jokes with him about stuff that happened when you were 20, when you kind of have this banter between the two of you.  It’s hard for me to know that you had this history with someone, basically growing up together and having so many experiences together.  I want to be the only person you have that with.  I want to be the person you call when you are bored.  Every time.  I want to be the person you have all the inside jokes with.”  And since he never once accused me of being inappropriate or put me on the defensive, I simply felt how he felt.  And, since I love him, and didn’t want him to feel that way, it worked.

My understanding of his perspective allowed my psychologist-in-a-past-life-husband to ask me a great question:  “What is it that you are getting out of this relationship with your ex, besides just friendship which you could get from me?”  For me, there was a sense of emotional comfort and nostalgia, and my own anxiety issues made me hesitate to let go of that safety net and trust a new “safety net.”

Reading between the lines (as I always do, whether you like it or not), your step-son may be anxious because both his mother and father have anxiety.  Maybe they resist change in their lives, and although their relationship is completely innocent, it represents a holding-on to “sameness” that is comforting to someone with anxiety.  Did your wife’s ex move away, or did she move to be near you?  That may have been a difficult transition, and conversations with her ex may be her ‘binkie.”  Additionally, if there is one thing I know about anxiety, it is that it often comes with a large side of unwarranted guilt.  is your wife feeling bad that she broke up/divorced him, and is trying to overcompensate or soothe her difficult feelings?  Not to say it is okay, but your wife gaining a deeper understanding of the motivation behind her being buddy-buddy with the ex, may give you an opportunity for empathy and may help her to change her behavior.

Instead of getting caught up in a “you’re wrong, I’m right,” conversation, you may want to simply explain what your perspective is without any accusations or anger.  This specific conversation (about emotional intimacy and your vision for the type of deep relationship you envision with your wife) will also bring you closer as a couple.  I mean, you may be right, but you might also end up being right man sleeping on the couch if you’re not careful and empathic in your delivery.

Question #4)  How can you and your wife be the best co-parents possible and minimize disagreements about how to handle “the boy” and his father?

I would like you to keep in mind the following point whenever you have a discussion with your wife about “the boy” or his father: Always always always immediately zero-in on answeting the question, “what is the underlying emotional need in the dispute?” It sounds like you may be looking for some verbal recognition that you are doing a great job being patient and stepping up in a very trying situation.  Or maybe what you are really lIooking for is more attention since your wife spends a lot of energy catering to a high needs child and falls asleep in his bed every night? Maybe your wife may be looking for some understanding and empathy for her and her son’s anxiety??? Vulnerably talk about THOSE things as opposed to surface arguments about specific parenting/child behaviors.  In situations where there is not an immediate solution to the problem (your stepson’s behavioral issues and his father’s lack of interaction) explaining your deeper emotional need (appreciation, understanding, to feel respected, etc.) will make the difference between a huge fight and actually supporting each other.

A therapist may help your stepchild manage his anxiety and also coach you and your wife in resolving discrepancies between your parenting strategies.  < br / >< br / >

In essence, pediatric psychologists who treat anxiety generally 1) explain to the parents where the line between behavioral issues and anxiety issues is (how hard to push him to try new things, etc.), 2) give actual strategies for support (helping him self sooth and think more realistically) as well as accountbability (helping him systematically, step by step, go outside of his comfort zone.)

A note on general parenting styles and anxiety:  I noticed a trend, that the more difficult the child, the more “authoritarian”  (Listen to me because I’m the adult!  Don’t ask why!  Just do it!) parents attempt to be.  Why?  Because we want to delude ourselves into thinking we have some semblance of control, especially when we feel powerless.  OR, if you are, just by nature, a more authoritarian parent, you may also seek coaching to learn about and address the disconnect bwtween anxious children’s responses and that type of parenting style.  In essence, those who are sensitive to not having control or being disrespected in relationships tend to have more authoritarian stances (You know that powerless and disrespected feeling you get when your wife still laughs at her ex’s jokes a little too hard ?  These are the very dynamics that play out in parenting decisions.), and these stances can actually increase emotional distress in the child.

Whether you seek professional help of not, JT, I cannot stress enough the need to be on the same page as your wife with parenting decisions. And I cannot stress enough that I would like that page to be jointly authoritative with you taking a step aside in moments where you disagree (no challenging your wife on her call, especially in front of your stepson. Again with  the radical acceptance.)  If you cannot do this during conversations between the two of you, I suggest couples therapy to address this issue.  And, as mentioned before, when inevitably there are small  issues where you end up disagreeing (mom thinks it’s fine to read until 10 PM, you do not; Mom thinks it’s fine to still be zipping his jacket at six years old, you do not….), buckle up and get ready to enjoy a passive ride since defaulting to bio mom (while showing a united front to your step kid) is the general consensus of the experts.

Ok, JT, that is all I have on this subject for now.

Until next time,

The therapist who says you should really think twice before you brush off your wife’s friendship with her ex, because feelings of disrespect and powerless will dramatically derail your efforts toward radical acceptance.  And you, sir, have a lot to radically accept, if you want to get through this with your sanity intact.
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