I recently had a reader named Michelle post a question on my blog that I felt needed a bit more than just a quick response in the comment thread.  I am going to post the question here, give some of my thoughts, and then open it up to suggestions from others who may also have some ideas.

“My husband has adopted my two boys, 7 and 10, and he has a 17 year old girl and 14 year old boy from his first marriage.  With my husband recently adopting our younger boys, it has definitely affected his 14 year old son.  They do not live with us or in the same area, so visits are few and far between.  My husband has always had a difficult time relating to his son.  The son is much closer to his mom.  The kids are coming to visit next week, and lately the visits are so strained that the son won’t participate in any activities, he just wants to play his PSP or video games.  He is now suffering in school as well and his sister told my husband that he doesn’t have as many friends anymore.  Depression?  We know that seeing his dad raise younger boys must hurt, especially since the boys play sports and the 14 year old hates sports.  I am trying to help my husband open up to his son and just talk, but my husband is so nervous.  They have a few things in common, but over the past few years they have grown apart.  I am hoping this is just the teenage years that we just experienced with his daughter, but I don’t know.  Just seeking whatever guidance anyone may have.  We have spent enough money on books, etc.  I thought it time to talk to the experts.  Our peers.  Thank you. 

When we first got married we experienced something similar.  When two households combine there is bound to be some “stepping on toes.”  With my divorce we have the standard visitation set up.  My kids live here full-time.  They have dinner with their father on Thursdays and they stay with him every other weekend.  Hub’s divorce is different.  He and his ex split the week with their kids.  It’s a little strange, but we have all adapted.  Everyone struggled in the beginning.  Hub’s youngest son, Shroom, was 11 when we got married.  He was the one who struggled the most with his dad sharing time with other kids.  He got angry once when Hub called my son “buddy.”  Hub had always called Shroom “buddy” and he didn’t like hearing his dad call anyone else that name.  He was also jealous that Hub built my son a bed.  He pulled away from my husband and wouldn’t talk to him.  The mother called and claimed that Shroom wanted to live with her permanently.  It broke my husband’s heart.  We got through it, Shroom stayed with the schedule, and he no longer seems to have those issues.  Here are some ideas that have worked for us.  Maybe they will work for you as well.

*Have your husband spend one-on-one time with each child.  He should give them his undivided attention.  Turn off the cell phone.  Listen to what they have to say.  Let them pick an activity they would like to do with just the two of them–a movie, lunch, playing catch–whatever, but let the kids do the choosing.  Have him try to get a few minutes alone with each child every day.  

*Driving in the car sometimes helps kids relax and they are more apt to talk.  Maybe Dad and son could run errands together and talk in the car between stops.  Or a long drive somewhere may help facilitate a conversation. 

*Another idea might be for him to take a one-on-one trip with each child.  My husband has told me to do that with each of my children (what a gift from him!).  I took my oldest daughter to San Diego last summer.  She picked the destination and the activities.  We toured the city, played on the beach, visited Sea World, and did a snorkeling excursion.  We took lots of pictures and I wrote about it in her journal.  She had been struggling with some personal issues and the trip helped us grow closer and helped her to open up about some of her struggles.  The rest of the kids can’t wait until it is their turn and Hub plans to do the same with his own kids.  If time or money is an issue, day trips in your area could be an option.  Since he doesn’t live in your area, visiting some of the sites near your home might be fun for your step son.  Show him a list of options and let him choose a few for some one-on-one time with dad.  Also, a camping trip with just the two of them might be something they would enjoy.

*Does your husband keep in contact with his children when they aren’t with you?  Regular positive phone calls, emails, and snail mail can help keep the relationship intact.  Does the son have a cell phone?  I have found that texting my kids occasionally has helped us to bond.  They really like it when a parent takes the time to send them a message.  Just last night my kids’ dad sent them a picture text of himself because he’d just shaved his head.  They burst into laughter and begged for me to let them borrow the car so they could go see his new ‘do in person.  Texting is big with teenagers, parents can join in and connect with their teens.

*Since your step son likes to play his PSP and video games, maybe Dad could play the games with him.  The son might enjoy teaching his dad how to play.  When I was a single mom we had a Nintendo gaming system.  My kids regularly invited me to play with them because they knew they could always beat me.  They loved it.  Whenever we played Mario Kart together they would pass me up then turn around and nail me with a turtle shell, or they’d just run over me.  We had a lot of laughs playing that game.  Maybe you could buy a new game for them all to try.  Rock Band and Guitar Hero seem to be big with kids right now, maybe your husband and his kids could play those games together.

*Since your step son is so big on his PSP and video games, chances are he likes the computer too.  Maybe your husband and his son could spend some time finding things to view on You Tube.  That is something our kids like to do.  They really like to view clips from the 80’s because that is when we were teenagers.  They love to make fun of the 80’s.  But there is so much more to view on You Tube then stuff from the 80’s.  There is bound to be something the two of them connect with.

*You mention that your husband and his son have some things in common, perhaps your husband needs to focus on those things and plan some activities around those common interests.

*Does your step son like to read?  Maybe your husband could read a book that his son is currently reading or has read in the past and then they could discuss the book together.  I just finished reading a book about vampirates because my daughter had read it and wanted me to read it too.  I have connected with my kids and my step kids by reading what they read.

*Make sure there is “family time.”  Studies show that families that eat meals together regularly are closer.  The kids also eat healthier and make better choices.  Make one night a week your “family night.”  On that night spend time as a family playing games, or watching a video to discuss later, or go out for ice cream, or roast marshmallows, or visit a park, the ideas are limitless! 

*Taking family vacations together is a great way to bond.  Make sure every person has a responsibility to carry out and some choice on the activities.  Take lots of pictures and allow the kids to choose their favorites to keep for themselves.

*Friends are an important part of teenagers’ lives.  Is it possible for your step son to bring a friend with him occasionally?  Having a friend around may help him to loosen up.

*Even though your step son doesn’t enjoy sports perhaps there is something physical your husband and his son could do together that they would both enjoy.  Maybe they could go rock climbing, jogging, hiking, or swimming.  Even a simple walk together through a canyon, around the neighborhood, or in a park could provide some bonding time.

*Maybe your husband could take his son with him to work one day.  Dad could show all about his career and tell what he did to prepare for his career, which may spark an interest in his son towards that career, or at least it might start a conversation about career choices in general.  Maybe the son will share his thoughts on what he wants to do with his life.

*Have the two of them learn a new skill together.  Do they both have an interest in photography?  Learn it together!  Any new skill is game:  swimming lessons, creative writing, computer skills, riding a unicycle, doing tricks with a yo-yo.  The point is that they do it together.

*Doing chores together is a great way to get them talking.  Cook a meal together.  Do the dishes.  Yard work.  Time is spent together.  Work gets done.  Skills are learned.  And bonding occurs.

*While your step kids are with you, make sure that they get some choice on how they spend their time.  Let them choose some of the family activities and let them choose some activities they can do on their own.  Kids tend to be more cooperative if they feel they have some control over their lives.

*Dad can look for the good in his kids and make sure to verbalize it.  Notice what their interests are.  Notice their clothing choices.  Notice their choice of tv shows.  Kids like to be noticed.  Don’t make an issue if some of the choices would not be your choices.  Just notice, and if they choose to share with you the reasons why they choose some things, then listen.

*Has your husband and his former wife discussed the school and friend concerns?  They may want to do that and come up with a plan together on how to help their son.

*Some things you as the step mom can do would be to allow your husband and his kids to have some time together without the “other” family.  It isn’t personal, it’s about preserving relationships.  You can do things to bond with your step kids.  The ideas above can be adapted for step parents and step kids.  Look for the good in your step kids and be sure to verbalize what you see.  Remember that they are part of the person you fell in love with.  Do what you can to make them feel welcome in your home.  Buy their favorite foods, provide a place they can be alone when they feel that need, initiate conversations with them, let them do chores–chores are part of being a family.  Display pictures of them in your home.  If you have access to it, display some of their outstanding school work or art work.

There are many other ideas, but I am already over 1900 words with this post and I am anxious to see what others have to suggest.  Thank you for your question, it gave me the opportunity to evaluate how we are doing in our own family.  Good luck!

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