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Stepfamily Advice
Son and Stepdad Don't Get Along - and Mom is in the Middle
By Lisa Cohn

Dear Lisa:

I’m a divorced mom who recently re-married. My 11-year-old son, Sam, and my new husband don’t get along. My husband tries to get Sam to clean up his room and show better table manners. Sam says my new husband is not his dad and has no right to tell him what to do. I often agree with my son. Sam is a good kid, and his room just isn’t that messy! My husband is often angry and says he feels "left out" of our family. I often feel caught between my husband and son. Please help me!


Renee W.

Dear Renee:

Your story is a common one. The biological parent often gets caught in the middle in stepfamilies.

First of all, I don’t think it’s a good idea for your husband to try to set new rules with your child right away. As Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America says, "A stepparent is an additional adult in the household, someone who should provide support to the biological parent." When a stepparent tries to set new rules in a new stepfamily, the stepchild often resents it.

Perhaps you and your husband could sit down and talk about what’s bothering him, and come up with a solution that works for all of you. If your husband is trying to set rules so he can feel more like a "dad" and part of the family, maybe there are better ways of ensuring he feels included. Perhaps you could plan family outings with the three of you. Or you could suggest ways that your husband could connect with your son by focusing on a common interest.

Robert Klopfer, a licensed clinical social worker and co-director of Stepping Stones Counseling Center, Ridgewood, N.J., says that men who marry women with children often do so because they want to be part of a family. "They want to be part of something, as opposed to being on the outside," he says.

If they feel like they’re on the outside—which is common in new stepfamilies—stepdads often feel powerless, says Klopfer. They feel especially alone and powerless if they have no biological children of their own. And they often don’t know how to acknowledge or communicate these feelings, he adds. Instead, they sometimes criticize their stepchildren.

When a stepdad criticizes his stepchild, a mom will often rush to protect her child, says Susan Wisdom, co-author of the book, "Stepcoupling," and a licensed social worker in Portland, Ore.

"When this happens, it’s really hard to develop a relationship between the stepfather and the stepchild because the stepdad feels so out of the loop," Wisdom says.

"The mom should think about her goals. Does she want a better relationship between her spouse and child? She should tell her spouse, ‘I’d really like it if you two could get along better. This is hard on me. Let’s figure out what’s going on here,’" suggests Wisdom. In some cases, counseling is a good idea, she says. "You don’t want this to break the stepcouple apart. The stepcouple needs to come up with a plan for building bridges between the stepdad and his stepson. Don’t let an alliance between the mom and her child create a rift in the stepcouple’s relationship."

Renee, I hope you can brainstorm with your husband about ways he can feel included—without criticizing your son or trying to set new rules right away.

Keep me posted!


Lisa Cohn is co-author of "One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies www.stepfamilyadvice.com and co-host of Stepfamily Talk Radio, an internet radio show: www.stepfamilytalkradio.com.

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