Q. "Five years ago, my son's father left. In the meantime I remarried, David, who is a fabulous man. He has tried his best to make friends with my son, Nathan. I handle all of the discipline. We've been married for three years now, and my son still won't do anything David asks of him. How can I persuade him to listen to his stepfather?".
A. Children often feel at fault when their parents divorce, even though the problems are with the adults. Nathan most likely sees the situation as his dad leaving him, rather than you. If his dad doesn't visit, or is sporadic about it, this will only reinforce Nathan's belief. He feels abandoned, guilty and also angry. His biggest fear is probably that you will leave him too.
Having another man in the house only intensifies the problems. Nathan now knows that his parents won't be getting back together. It also means that David is getting attention from you as well. When you were single, he had you all to himself. No wonder he feels terrible.
It could even be the case that Nathan really liked David before you two married. He just had boyfriend status then. He was fun to be around and wasn't bossy. Now he acts like he owns the whole place.
Becoming a parental figure after being a visitor can be problematic. The main thing for you to do is be completely honest and open. Take the time to sit down and talk with him on a regular basis. Sometimes you and Nathan should talk alone, and then Nathan and David should talk. At other times, all three of you should converse. Be sure to invite any other children you may have into these discussions.
Acknowledge Nathan's confusion, anger and resentment. Make it clear, also, that David is not taking Dad's place, and never will. It is all right for Nathan to love and miss his father - even if you don't! Try to remain matter-of-fact about the separation, and keep the children out of any ongoing battles that you are having with your ex.
Also be honest about the fact that you love David and that's why he is now a part of the family. This doesn't detract from your love for Nathan in any way. Explain that when Nathan learns to like and accept David, that won't affect his love for his dad.
Finally, make it quite clear that you have given full authority to David to have parental authority in the home. What David says is what goes. Do not allow Nathan to come to you to try to undermine decisions that David has made. Even if you disagree with what David has said you will need to back him up in public. Then when you are alone with him, you can sort out your disagreement. Nathan must see and hear that you are both completely united, and that you will back up David one hundred percent.
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Dr. Noel Swanson has a free newsletter on children's behavior problems and is an expert contributor to Yes Parenting website. ~ai586
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