Saturday 3 December 2016

David Coleman: My stepson resents me and his sister -- how can I build a relationship with him?

Published 29/08/2011 | 05:00

My husband and I have a daughter aged three-and-a-half years. My husband also has a son (seven), from a previous relationship that ended badly, so he feels lucky he gets to see him.

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For some reason I have always found it hard to communicate with my stepson even though he gets on well with his dad. Even before our daughter was born, he was always very quiet and not talkative. But we did notice that, if he spent time with his father alone, he would be very happy and talkative.

I have tried in the past to be nice with him, help him with his homework, stuff like that, but there's nothing in return. Now this is accentuated with our daughter. She's lovely with her brother and we always encourage her and tell her about him so that she's always so happy to see him and willing to play with him. However he ignores her and does not want to play with her.

Their dad has a lot of patience for his son and tries to encourage him; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. He's so patient with his son but I get the feeling he's not so patient with our daughter, so I get very defensive.

I am nice to my stepson, but I admit I am aloof and keep my distance. I have tried in the past to create a rapport and got nothing in return. I also hate the role that I have of stepmother. In every single children's book she's the most horrible person, so no matter what I do it's always wrong.

I want the children to know that they can count on each other in the future. So how do I encourage him to have a proper relationship with my daughter so they can be brother and sister together?

David replies:

Blending families can be difficult because there can be a lot of loss, hurt, rejection and fear underlying both children's and parents' approaches to each other. But there can also be great energy and vitality in pooling the resources and personalities from separate families.

Centrally, though, everyone needs to be able to see, and acknowledge, how others are feeling about families coming together.

Imagine the world from your stepson's perspective. I assume from what you have written that he lives with his mum and so his time with his dad is limited. That time is, no doubt, very valuable to him and even sharing his dad's time with you could be hard.

I imagine he might resent you and blame you for taking some of his dad's precious time away.

If he feels resentment about your presence in his dad's life then he needs to express the anger that will likely grow from that. In his case, it seems that, in his probable anger, he has opted to withdraw and disengage from you rather than to fight with you.

It is quite normal for children to have negative feelings (he may even get negative messages about his dad from his mum), but he may not want to risk ever being cross with his dad (as he risks losing what little contact he has) and so he may displace some of that negative feeling onto you instead.

Furthermore, you and his dad have a daughter together. Again this is a further distraction for his dad and a further dilution of the time and attention he can receive from his dad.

He might also be jealous that his sister gets to spend all her time with his dad, but his time is limited by whatever access arrangements are in place. I could imagine that he might feel cross with his sister about that, further deepening his rejection of you and her.

He could also feel that since you and your husband have had your own daughter together that he no longer belongs in your family. He may feel he just doesn't fit, or that he has been ousted by his little sister, almost like an intensification of a common oldest sibling feeling of being usurped by a new arrival.

It is also worth taking some time to really work out your own feelings about having a stepson. Be open with your husband about the struggles that you have relating to his son. Look for your husband's support and understanding, particularly if you feel, as you describe, defensive.

I can understand why you might feel very protective of your daughter and her feelings; you are a mum and it is an instinctive reaction.

However, if your protectiveness leads you to defensiveness and possibly conflict with your husband then it doesn't benefit your daughter in the long run.

You also seem to have a very negative view of your role as stepmother. Comparing yourself to stylised portrayals of stepmothers in books, TV and film does you a disservice.

If you believe, because of the media, that it is impossible to have a good relationship with your stepson then you will indeed go on to have a poor relationship with him. It will become, for you, a self-fulfilling prophesy. Don't limit yourself.

His relationship with his sister, too, may be influenced by how you relate to him, as your daughter might choose to model her responses to her brother according to your responses to him.

Your own response of staying aloof and keeping your distance comes, I would guess, from feeling hurt and rejected by him. However, if you do want a relationship with him then you must stay involved with him and his life.

If you were able to demonstrate understanding towards him, of how he could resent you (and his sister), it would make a big difference to his view of you.

I think he needs to get the message from you that far from diluting his time with his dad, that you and his sister can really enrich that time.

You need to show him that you care about him, his interests, his feelings and his life. You are not trying to take over from his mum, but you do need to show that you feel warmly towards him.

Try not to feel hurt by any lack of response from him. It may take him some time to believe that you are on his side.

Because you are the adult, you will have to take the lead in building the relationship. It is worth it, therefore, to keep trying to warmly connect to him. Let him know that you can empathise with his possible views of you and his sister and be patient with him.

Be patient with yourself also; it isn't easy to make the space when you feel you're being pushed away.

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