My 12-Year-Old Stepson Refuses to Cooperate With Me!

Filed under: Divorce & Custody, Expert Advice: Tweens, Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My 12-year-old stepson just came to live with us for good. He has no respect for what I say. My husband and I have talked to him about how important it is for all of us to get along, but he plays his cards very well, being one person with me alone (disrespectful) and someone else when my husband (his father) is around. What should we do?

Struggling Stepmother!

Dear Struggling,

In spite of the fact that some people might advise you to come on strong with your stepson to show him who's boss, or have your husband threaten him to behave, these are Band-Aids, not solutions. This is a problem that needs to be addressed at its root.

Children instinctively cooperate with those to whom they feel attached. A child who feels liked and enjoyed by his caretakers is biased to please them; that's how they're wired. So while it may seem like a good idea to talk with your stepson about the importance of getting along, or to create a behavior chart of punishments and rewards, the most effective strategy is going to be for you to build a foundation of connection with him, starting from the ground up.

You haven't mentioned the circumstances leading to his coming to live with you, but if he's been "expelled" from his mother's home, you are going to have to factor in the anger and hurt he probably has brought with him. Kids need to grieve when they've experienced a loss, and this young man has gone through a separation from his other parent, familiar friends and perhaps his old school that could be fueling his anger, and causing him to project it onto you.

Make a list of his interests, talents and passions, and spend an hour or two each week doing an activity related to them. If he loves to draw, buy some pastels and spend half an hour at the kitchen table drawing together. If he's active and outdoorsy, take him to a park he's never visited and explore together.

Let him know that you like him, and that you enjoy his company. Shift the focus from his misbehavior to the things he does that are helpful, and let him overhear you "bragging" about how much fun the two of you had to his father when he gets home from work. Avoid tattling on him or complaining about his faults; instead, let him know what you enjoy and appreciate about him, whether it's his gentleness with animals, his ability to tell a great joke, or his freckles.

By building a strong foundation of real affection and connection with your stepson, you'll find him naturally wanting to please you, coming ever closer to your heart.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.