Connecting with a difficult teenager

February 3, 2011

QMy husband and I have been married for four years, but I've known his son ever since we got together seven years ago. The boy was somewhat difficult then. He's now 14, and his behavior is even more difficult, which brings out the worst in me. The boy deserves better, and I don't know how to give it.

His mother, with whom my husband and I have a poor relationship, says he has a minor form of cerebral palsy, epilepsy (for which he takes medication) and attention deficit disorder.

He isn't outgoing, either. His short-term memory is terrible, and he has some physical challenges and isn't athletic. Instead he plays video games when he visits, rather than talk to us, and he doesn't help much because he doesn't even know how to set the table, empty the dishwasher or cut his own meat.

Although I give him instructions in short, manageable bites and urge him to ask questions if he doesn't understand them, he doesn't improve. I also provide varied, healthy and tasty meals, which he hardly eats, and encourage him to exercise, to socialize with our dogs and to ask his cousins to come over, to no avail.

My stepson has also told his mother outright lies about me and my husband. He has been extremely disrespectful when we've entertained him. He rarely contacts my husband and barely speaks to me. I don't talk much to him either, since he always tells his mother the one stupid thing I said instead of the nine great things I also said, and then she calls my husband and starts a fight.

I don't want to dread his visits anymore or cause a drama. I just want him to enjoy his time with us and for my husband to have a good relationship with his son. I know it can be done, because I was a single parent when I reared my daughter, and now she is 20 and a happy, productive, contributing member of society.

How can I change our unhappy situation and help my stepson turn out like that?

ABefore your situation can change, you have to give your stepson more time alone with his dad, because children often feel rejected when their parents divorce. In fact, he probably won't even listen to you until he makes peace with his father and knows that he is still loved by him, unconditionally and forever.

Even then, you can't expect a teenager who's dealing with hormones and the uncertainties of adolescence to call his father. Instead, his dad should be the one who keeps in touch with his son, by phone, mail, e-mail and Skype. When he asks him out to dinner or to go to an inexpensive high school or college play with him, the boy may grumble and say "Whatever," but he'll want to go out with his dad, especially if he knows that you'll be somewhere else. Surely there are errands you can run when he visits, lunches you can have with your friends or movies you can see by yourself so your husband can hang out with his boy.

He shouldn't do all the giving, however. To make their relationship more equal, ask him to tell his son that he wants to talk with him and get to know him better, so he should leave his video games at his house.

Your stepson will only listen to his dad, however, if his father listens to him and respects his mind. To show that he does, he should ask the boy what he thinks about everything from abortion to the war in Afghanistan, why his best teacher is so good (and his worst teacher is so bad), and what he'd really like to do when he grows up.

But when his son does confide in him, remind your husband to keep his opinions to himself. A parent should never tell his child that he shouldn't think or feel the way he does or that he will never land such a hard-to-get job. Your stepson's opinions and his feelings are his business, and so is his future. The career he chooses may seem silly to you, but if his dream is legal and fairly safe, it should be encouraged. A teenager knows himself much better than you think, and if he's wrong, he's smart enough to pursue another dream.

Questions? Send them to advice@margueritekelly.com .

Beyond the Almanac

Parents will understand and communicate with teens better if they read a fine new book, "Teenage as a Second Language" by Barbara R. Greenberg and Jennifer A. Powell-Lunder (Adams, 2010, $15). These two psychologists have nailed adolescence so well.

- M.K.

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