QI have a 7-year-old stepson I will call Kevin, and I need advice on how to bond with him. Kevin lived with my husband (his biological dad), our ­
3-year-old son and me for a year when he was 6 and attended kindergarten. I tried everything I could to be a good stepmom, but we never really got along. I had a hard time dividing my attention and affections between both kids and also felt as though I wasn’t able to be as affectionate to my 3-year-old as I wanted when Kevin was around. Kevin has a lot of behavioral problems, such as talking back, hiding food under his bed and going to the bathroom in places besides the bathroom. This could be chalked up to “normal” 6-year-old behavior or the behavior of a stepchild in a new environment. We tried very hard to work on it with him. But my problem is that I couldn’t get past Kevin’s behavioral problems in order to really feel the unconditional love that parents have for their kids. I tried to do things together and find common interests, but nothing seemed to really bond us — and I know he felt the same way. I really want to get over this hurdle so both of us can have a better relationship. Thanks for any advice you can offer.

A It sounds as though you have a big heart. It is clear that you were trying very hard, under tough conditions, to connect with Kevin. Talking back, hiding food and going to the bathroom around the house are pretty challenging behaviors, and add to that the fact that you are a stepparent? Well, that can be a pretty rough road. So please know that your efforts, while frustrating, do matter.

I also want you to go easy on yourself. The pressure you are placing on yourself to “feel the unconditional love” of a parent toward Kevin is admirable, but daunting. Your question is a perfect example of how, despite an adult’s best efforts, our love and compassion may not land the way we want it to. Here you are, yearning and trying to love Kevin, and he continues to push you away and act out defiantly. We think the more we love a child, the better his or her behavior will become. But this is where we parents get it wrong. This isn’t about more love, effort or strategies. This is about understanding the interior world of a child.

There are so many details I don’t know about this situation that it’s difficult to guide you. I don’t know about Mom, school or learning/neurological issues. I am going to speak in generalities, so fill in the gaps as needed.

You have a 3-year-old with Kevin’s father, so I am assuming Kevin has been splitting time between his parents for at least three years. It also sounds as if he moved in with you for only one (pretty disastrous) year.

When a child’s parents split, even cooperatively, compassionately and kindly, a child falls into a form of panic and grief. Even when the parents are happier and the home is calmer, the child has only known his parents together. And even if that togetherness was chaotic and scary, it was what the child knew. He doesn’t say, “Well, I miss Dad, but this is really better.” A young child mostly feels the loss of whatever parent he doesn’t see.

This can be confounding to parents, especially if the marriage was fraught with anger. Certainly the child must be happier, right? Well, the fact remains that the child loves both parents and lacks the maturity to understand adult relationship dynamics. The child can feel that the Earth is moving under his feet, and this feeling of insecurity is made worse by the fact that the very people he would turn to for comfort (his parents) are the people that are causing the discomfort.

As Kevin moves from one parental home to another, the outlet for his big emotions becomes smaller and harder to access.

Now, let’s add a stepmom and a new sibling. You have more people to add to an already insecure system, and people are placing the burden of “good” behavior on the shoulders of a ­
6-year-old. While you are doing your darndest to connect with Kevin, he sees you as nothing but a threat. You are not his mom. The more you push, the more he is letting you know (through his behavior) that he doesn’t trust you. Marriage doesn’t make you any more his family than sitting next to him does. He can’t express these words because he is not fully conscious of these deep emotions. He simply feels threatened. Insecure. Scared. Frustrated. Hence the defiance and regression. What you are seeing is a very stressed and alarmed little boy.

So, my advice:

1. Lay off. I say that with a lot of love. It is not your job to parent him. You have the 3-year-old and your husband. Obviously, there are boundaries and rules to keep, and basic needs of the home must be met; but resist the urge to strongly connect and attach, give, and expect love from Kevin. Stay kind, have soft eyes and smile, but take it easy.

2. As you are actively backing off this relationship, give your attention to supporting your husband. The parenting job belongs solely to him, and he should be the one actively connecting with Kevin. Meals out, activities, cuddling, reading, discipline — it all needs to come from the father. That is the person Kevin is attached to, so that is the only way it is going to work. As this relationship finds its footing and becomes more secure, you and your 3-year-old may begin to be able to join. But this timing is up to Kevin, not you. Don’t take it personally; this is not about you.

3. Support the birth mom. Speak of her kindly and lovingly to Kevin. Let him know that she is the mom through and through.

4. Look for small openings into Kevin’s heart. When you feel as if there is a softening in him, gently say things like “I saw a baseball game and thought of you the other day.” Or ask him to show you his video game, saying, “How does this work?” If he completely resists, back out of it.

5. Whenever possible, mirror his emotions with feeling words. “Kevin, I see how frustrated you feel!” “Kevin, you are effective at telling me you don’t want to eat this dinner.” “Okay, I see all the kicks in your legs, let’s find something to kick.” As his relationships become more secure, his behavior may become messier. More crying, more acting out. This is normal — but very triggering for adults.

6. So, get support. Stat. An empathetic and loving counselor can help the whole family. I would suggest finding an excellent play therapist for Kevin as you do the heavy lifting at home.

7. Finally, do not harshly discipline defiance or regression. Do not take away what he holds dear. Do not make a huge issue of his bathroom messes. (Instead say: “Oh well, it’s no problem. We can clean this.”) Most important, do not send him to a timeout or to his room. He already feels alone and confused, and both of these acts will trigger his alarm and panic, creating more defiant behavior. His actions are a cry for compassion and love and should be treated as such. Waiting it out, hugging, mirroring his emotions, and letting him know that you are not angry and he is always accepted and loved in the family will help him feel that unconditional love that you were trying to find.

Nothing I have suggested is easy. I know this. I am writing in the best interests of the child, but please find some support for yourself. A good group of stepparents, either local or online, will help normalize these issues and buoy your spirits. Don’t give up on Kevin; you can do it. Good luck.

Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost. com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for March 16 at 11 a.m.