Your Questions Answered: Troubled 18-Year-Old Stepson Moves In

3 06 2010

Hi Jacque,

I know that you must have advice for stepmoms like myself. I feel like I am going to fall apart. My children are 26 and 21; my husband’s are 27 and 21. We live his home state because, as he put it, “his kids needed more help than mine did”.

I am happy to say that my kids do seem to be doing fairly well. I was divorced in 1997 and remarried to DH ( dear husband) in 2002. I have a really civil divorce and my marriage is more solid than my first was. Yes, it has its quirks, but seems to be very solid in most ways. When I moved here, my husband was non custodial of the younger son. The ex is a bi polar (yes, is being treated medically for it) mom that finally moved to another state….best for all involved. The younger son got involved in marijuana before I was in the picture and then got into real trouble; didn’t graduate high school, but did get GED and got arrested, ran to another state, came back and went into rehab and was in a year long court run drug program. He graduated and then moved to another state with his girlfriend….he was 18 at the time.

Things were going very well for a year and a half. My husband thought it would be best if the young man moved back up here away from the girlfriend and her family (the younger son lived with them…they are kind of a hippie commune type of family) until the father of that family had enough and moved into a house where none of his kids and their live in BF/GF could live. The son came back to live with us this past January, saying that he was going to go to college.

He was a problem immediately. First evening back he asked over some old friends and they broke something and were up until the wee hours. My husband finally went downstairs and told them all to leave. I was fuming. There were no ground rules set before this young man moved in. I told my husband that it should be done and it would at least start us off on the right foot, but no….this is my DH approach…reactive, not proactive.

The young man smokes like a stack and is also back to using marijuana and probably more. He got arrested about two weeks being back because he didn’t have a driver’s licence or car license and had outstanding fines from before….we are talking a couple thousand dollars. My DH did NOT pay the fines. He got a public defender and the young man got fines reduced, but had no way to get to work to work the fines off. So, as it was still winter, my husband or the young man’s grandmother took him and picked him up. Once in awhile I was asked and it was fine.

I am in the uncomfortable position of, 4 days a week, being the one that comes home well before my husband. I struggle, but try to be pleasant and have left most of the discipline, or lack of, be by my DH. The young man exhibits bi polar and depression symptoms, but has no insurance to pay for a counselor. He pays for nothing here…which I don’t agree with, but husband is doing it until his court dates (yes there is another as the son took his car out and was immediately arrested again). are over. My DH is not saying what will happen after the court dates and all fines are paid and the car license and license plates are paid for (not by us). The son has no plans now of going to college and does have two jobs.

I personally think that it is time the son moves out on his own since he never has been. I would be happy to give him the money for a deposit on an apartment, but that is all. In my opinion, he needs to learn how to sink or swim. My husband says he feels that the young man would completely fall apart and go down the toilet.

Jacque, I feel that I am getting angrier and angrier with my husband for his lack of setting ground rules and he and his son keep having the same fights over and over….smoking in the house when we aren’t here, staying up all hours, letting people in after we have gone to sleep and then they stay over night….ugh……Thanks for letting me vent.

Dear Stepmom,

This is a toughie! No wonder you needed to vent. I want to remind you that I am a coach and not a therapist. A therapist might have some very different ideas for you and I highly recommend seeking out help for your case. Here’s some food for thought I can offer you:

Do whatever it takes to get on the same page with your spouse. When you have a troubled kid like this one, stepparents typically need to take the back seat and let the biological parent do the heavy lifting of parenting. Usually, a stepparent’s main job is to support their spouse while he deals with the child. In this case, I would still say that your job is to not be out there parenting this kid, but he is living with you, so it’s absolutely fair that you be able to create guidelines for the household WITH your husband. This will not work if he is not on board. Tough kids like this kill remarriages. So if the two of you can align yourself as a team you can better help this young man while strengthening your marriage. Okay, so easy enough to say, but how the heck do you do that, right? First of all, go out and read Divorce Busting by Michele Weiner-Davis, right now. I interviewed her for my book and the woman is brilliant. Second, find a third-party who is a trained stepfamily expert who can help your husband see the benefits of working with you as a team to help his son. I would suggest Ron Deal for a situation like yours. Setting boundaries for this kid is crucial or he will never learn to grow up and this is doing him a MAJOR disservice. The only way we learn is to feel/live through the consequences for our actions. Setting boundaries for his behavior in your house with very clear consequences for not following them is a must in my book. Especially at his age. If he were younger, I would give you different advice.

Turn on your compassion. I have said this again and again but I believe so strongly in the power of curiosity and compassion that I’m going to add it here, too. Shift the prism that you are looking at your stepson through to curiosity. What is going on in his mind? What is motivating his behavior? Why is he so angry or why does he hate himself so much that he is ruining his life in this way? What is the pain that he carries around in his heart that makes him act out so dangerously? What kind of help would enable him to turn his life around? You’ll notice that these questions lead you away from “Look at what this kid is doing TO me, my marriage, and my household” and turns your thoughts to an area that is less emotionally loaded. He’s another human being on this planet. How can you turn on that objective, kind, compassionate part of you? There is a big upside for doing this: You reduce your own anger and that means you lower the amount of stress hormones in your body. You’ll feel better, be able to brainstorm solutions more creatively, and–according to some research–live longer!

Help him get the help he needs. If your stepson is struggling with a mental problem like bi-polar disorder, he needs help. Dad could do some research and put together a list of resources for his son. But he can’t make him get help. This boy is old enough to decide whether he’s going to get help or not.

Set up a structure of support for yourself. For the short term, do whatever you can to support your own gentle heart. Spend time with your own children. Stay out of the house when your stepson is there until your husband gets home. Start a book group. You and your husband  will need to find a way to solve this together and it’s not going to be easy. Make sure that you’re taking good care of yourself so you can come at this problem feeling good about your own inner world.

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