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Raising a Stepson

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: This past June, my husband's son, who is now 13, came to live with us permanently. My stepson has two sisters who live with their grandmother. None of the children have ever lived with their mother or father but have always lived together. My stepson is very well behaved and does well academically in school. However, I have never had children of my own and would rather not rely on my own parent's examples of parenting, so I'm not sure exactly what things I should worry about. I think he is too timid. He barely speaks at home. When you ask him questions, he mumbles or speaks so low I have to ask him to repeat himself. Then I feel like I'm getting on his case. I don't know if his self-esteem needs work or he's just quiet and is being a normal teenage boy. However, he continues to get remarks on progress reports that he talks too much at school. I think my feelings are a little hurt that he can't speak to us at home. I've tried discussing some of these issues with him--especially, about not talking and he says he just doesn't like to talk or doesn't have anything to say. He also cries easily (more to his dad than me) if you have to correct him or discipline him. And we don't raise our voices or shout in our house. Any advice?

A: This 13-year-old is living in a most abnormal situation, based on his past living conditions. He is now living with a father he has never lived with and his father's wife. I don't know what contact and/or relationship father and son (and you) have had during these past 13 years; these past relationships and the fear of being disapproved of (which he may interpret as being unlovable and unwanted) could certainly be some causes for him crying when he is corrected or disciplined. He may, in fact, think that you folks will send him away if he needs to be corrected and disciplined too often.

Your husband is beginning to live with his child after 13 years of living apart; you are beginning your mothering with a 13-year-old boy. These are rather challenging beginnings to say the least. I believe the best you can do for this boy is to make him feel unconditionally wanted and loved and to allow him to adjust slowly to this radically different life. As to his not talking to you, I wouldn't personalize this at all. As long as you continue to show interest in his life and offer him support and praise you will be making him feel welcome and appreciated. I would, in fact, be encouraged by the reports from school that he is talking too much; this clearly indicates that he is capable and eager to talk with others.

Don't expect to be the major influences in a teen's life, that role falls to his peer group. It will be very important for him to develop a social network, especially since he may be a new kid in school (if he moved from another school district to live with you). It may be quite helpful, even though teens would rather be caught dead than doing things with their parents, if your husband at least offers to do some things alone with his son. The presence of a strong male father figure is rather significant to a young boy of this age. Good luck being parents to a teen; it will be an exhilarating, frustrating, wonderful journey.

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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.

Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.


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