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Stepmom and Son Have a Very Contentious and Volatile Relationship

Mark, I have recently found and joined your OPS. I have a 15 yo son that came to live with me when he was 12. His mother is best described as an overindulgent parent. He was also exposed to her habit of distorting the truth to suit her needs. He learned and has told me that no matter whether wrong or right she always gets what she wants. She will go months without calling him. My son will not open up to anyone. He seems to have the traits of a "scapegoat and a lost child". He has approximately 15 of the 20 traits from your Indulgent parent quiz. I am more in line with an authoritarian parent. Needless to say i have made a multitude of mistakes as a parent. I am also a 13-year police officer with a 50/50 mix between patrol and specialized units.

That said the current problem is that my wife (his step mom) and my son have a very contentious and volatile relationship. Saturday while I was asleep my wife got onto my son about something and he announced that he was leaving. She grabbed his bag and told him that he was not taking the items that he had packed. He shoved her and either kicked her in the leg or stepped on her leg.

My wife woke me telling me that he was leaving and that I needed to get a hold of him and that he had pushed her. My immediate response was to try to calm everyone and get the story of what had happened. Instead it was a lot of "I hate her, all she does is ...".and "I'm tired of his crap all he does is cause problems...."

Things got calmed down and I was able to get some of the frustrations lined out. I spent the day trying to come up with a discipline for him later that evening my wife suggested grounding him to his room w/out tv, ipod, cell, etc..

Now she is upset and resents me because she feels that I did not stand up for her by either pushing/attacking him or whipping him. The more she thinks about it and talks to relatives and friends, the more frustrated she gets. I feel that the physical discipline would give him the "reward" that he seeks. I have no problem with corporal punishment, however he seems to genuinely appreciate it. My wife has commented numerous times over the years that she doesn't understand how he acts perfectly normal, even happy after getting a whipping. But now she is upset that I didn’t mete out some type of corporal punishment to him even after the fact, yesterday or today. I feel almost helpless, nothing I have tried has worked and I can't convince my wife that we are doing the right thing now. I know there is a small window to get him turned around and I am afraid of losing another chance.

I didn't find your site until Sunday and it seems to fit so well. I know this is a lot at one time, but any advice is appreciated.

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Hi D.,

Re: corporal punishment.

I don’t think that spanking is child abuse. When done in the heat of anger though, spanking often does lead to physical abuse. While spanking may be appropriate for some younger kids, physical punishment is not appropriate for teens. Rather than having it escalate into abuse (or, in some cases, result in retaliation by the teen), I discourage spanking as a method of discipline. Instead, I offer parents several alternatives to spanking. These alternatives are not as quick and easy to apply as a good whipping, but bear in mind that corporal punishment is just another traditional parenting strategy that has no long-lasting benefit.

Re: tension between you and your son’s stepmother.

I’ll address this to your wife in hopes that she will read it without being offended:

A StepMom often feels hurt, angry, and worried about her relationship with the children and her relationship with her husband. She has come to care for, even love, her husband's children very much and wants to do a good job as a parent. Naturally, she believes she is right in her ideas and wants to shape up the other adults/caretakers (i.e., her husband and her stepchild’s biological mother). Even if that were possible (it isn't), the other adults also believe they are doing right. The only person StepMom can change in this situation is herself. She needs to begin to look at the situation differently, and change her part in the cycle of hurt that is going on.

Assuming that we're talking about differences, not abuse or neglect, all of the adults in this situation need to start giving each other a break. Nobody has a corner on what is right -- only on what they each prefer.

StepMom can take a great deal of stress off of herself by accepting the reality that the children will always have a deeper, stronger feeling for their biological mother (no matter how she parented). She doesn't have to compete with that or correct what she sees as Bio-Mom's deficiencies. In fact, she would do much better to approach the children as young friends, not as responsibilities or as reflections of her beliefs about child-rearing. She can have far more influence on the behavior of the children by simply being an additional adult friend.

StepMom can also withdraw from the struggle with her husband. He wasn't able to work out his differences with his former wife while they were married. He isn't going to be any more successful at it just because StepMom wants backing.

By getting out of struggles with the adults, StepMom also gets herself out of struggles with the kids. She certainly has the right to ask for basic politeness and respect for herself and her possessions. But it's a losing battle to ask them to behave differently or to follow her house rules. They won’t.

It's often fascinating what happens when one part of a complex system makes genuine change. Often enough, there is a quiet but significant domino effect over time. That's why I advise stepmothers in this kind of situation to understand what they can and can't change and to make peace with it.

If she angrily withdraws or punishes her husband and the kids by playing the martyr, she hasn't shifted her role in the fight, only her tactics. If, instead, she can really let go and find a place for herself as another adult role model in the family, she may be surprised to find that she gets far more of what she was fighting so hard (and so ineffectively) to get – respect and consideration.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

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