Question:

I have a stepson living with me that has a very co-dependent relationship with his mother. (All the children have been here for four and a half years). He is being withdrawn and surly and sometimes almost a bully towards others. He is almost nine years old and used to be a happy, tenderhearted helpful little boy. Now all he wants is to live with her, and she feeds this attitude with comments like “if you lived with me, I would……” and “I miss you so much, I am only happy when you are here…..” and many more.

He seemed to be making progress in adjusting to having two homes. But since his older sister told the mother she was happy living with me, the mother has focused on the boy. And he is not as resilient as his sister. I also worry about the youngest, age five, and whether the mother will influence her also. I know the strength of a mother/child relationship is strong, and the opposition on my part will cause him to defend her more.

How can I help him to deal with the emotional chaos he is feeling? My inclination is to sabotage their relationship, but I know that wouldn’t help anything. How can I bring back the little boy that was there before? It hurts me to see him hurting, and to imagine him living with her for his adult life without a wife, family or friends.

Answer:

While I certainly don’t agree with any adult putting a child in the middle of their relational drama, I want to clarify one point that may help you understand what your stepson is going through. Dependency of any kind is not unhealthy in eight year-old little boys. In fact, he’s completely dependent on her, on you, and on his father. He is caught in a terrible web of warring adults who threaten his fragile sense of security.

I agree with you that the worst thing you could do is to retaliate against his mother and sabotage their relationship. He doesn’t need you to make this about you. Instead, focus less on how difficult she is and more on how you can create a more secure environment in your home.

Can you trust the environment you’ve created for him over the past four years? Do you feel your relationship with him is strong enough to support him through these confusing messages? I think you’re fast-forwarding to the worst possible scenario of him essentially marrying his own mother. I wouldn’t go that far. He’s eight years old and confused. He’s not doing anything wrong.

You don’t need to worry about his mother and her exploitive comments. You need to worry about getting his own father more involved in his life so he can feel a secure bond and a secure base. Your husband has to take the lead on this and let his son know he has a loving adult he can trust. Speak with your husband about being more deliberate in his relationship with his son. He needs to know that his father is accessible and responsive. This isn’t a contest between the parents. This is an opportunity to recognize a little boy’s distress and do more to comfort him.

President Brigham Young once taught, “there are two courses of action to follow when one is bitten by a rattlesnake. One may, in anger, fear, or vengefulness, pursue the creature and kill it. Or he may make full haste to get the venom out of his system.” He said, “If we pursue the latter course we will likely survive, but if we attempt to follow the former, we may not be around long enough to finish it.”[i] Don’t chase his mother and try and get her to change. Focus on ministering relief and support to a little guy who is trying to figure out where he belongs.  

His mother will likely continue to make unhelpful comments and force unfair comparisons between your two homes. Let it be. Focus on giving him an experience in your home where there are adults who only care about making sure he has the right balance of nurturing and structure.

If you can see his behavioral changes as a response to confusing messages about his security, then you will want to work on increasing your presence and connection during this difficult time in his life. He doesn’t need to sit around and talk about his emotional chaos. He needs to know he has people in his life who make time for him, don’t use him to push their own agendas, and allow him to be a child.

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (<a href="http://www.


<hr class=’system-pagebreak’ />stgnews.com/”>www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:

Website: www.lovingmarriage.com

Twitter: @geoffsteurer

Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

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[i] As reported in Marion D. Hanks, “Forgiveness: The Ultimate Form of Love,” Ensign, Jan. 1974, 21.