Being a Step-Parent

Dear Cathi,

I am having a real problem with my husband’s 7 year old son, Jack. We have been having issues with Jack’s Mom telling him lies about his father and me. For example, when our 10 month old daughter Julia was born, she told him that the baby wasn’t really his sister. Jack also tells me that it’s my fault his Mom and Dad are not together anymore.

When I ask him to do something for me, he usually responds, “My Mom told me I don’t have to do anything you tell me to do. You’re not my mother!” 
And, now is where the real problem starts. My husband and Jack’s Mom have 50/50 custody; 

we have Jack for 7 days and then he lives with his Mom for 7 days. Several months ago 

we noticed that Jack is lying to us. A lot! And he makes up elaborate stories that 

aren’t true. For example, he told his mother that I threatened to beat the cr*p out of him

 when he wouldn’t get into bed at bedtime. Of course I would never say this to Jack, but after he told his 

Mom she called my husband to scream at him about my threatening Jack. The next time he was at our 

house, my husband and I  asked why he would make up such stories.  Whenever we ask him why he 

is lying, he just insists that he is telling the truth and breaks down into tears.

Like I said, this is just the tip of the iceberg. He is lying constantly now. 

What would cause a 7 year old boy to tell stories to his mom like this?

 Is he trying to please mommy because mommy has openly expressed her dislike of me to him?

Should I be worried? Should my husband be worried?  

I’d appreciate any advice you can give me.

Thank you!


Dear Joan,

I’m so sorry that you are going through this with your 7 year old step son. I wish I could say that this behavior is unusual for a child when he is in the midst of a cantankerous split between his parents. I agree with you. He may very well be trying to figure things out. In an effort to ensure

 he is not abandoned by Mom, Jack is trying to align with her against you. Children at this age frequently can’t make sense out of shades of gray and it’s preferable to distance himself from you rather than run the risk of losing his mother’s love all together.  In addition, he is testing you. If he is “bad” enough, will you reject him? Jack may also be engaging in a bit of magical

thinking. Like other children at this age, he believes his thoughts, feelings, and behavior

can influence the course of things. His behavior may be motivated by a wish for his parents 

to get back together to take care of him. Jack may not be able to comprehend why his parents split and you are the only thing different between “before” and “after”. Being a step-parent is such a challenging job. The rewards of which 

you may not see for many years to come.

In terms of advice, I would tell you a few things:

1 – Know what circumstances are within your control and what are outside of it. Ask yourself the question, “Do I have control over this person? or this situation?” If your answer is “no”, try to let it go. For example, “Can I stop my step-son’s Mom from talking this way about me? “No.” “OK. I need to let this one go.”

2 – As you begin to demonstrate to your step-son who you really are, a loving,warm woman who has a lot to give a 7 year old, Jack will begin to see you clearly and feel less of the need to act out his insecurities through his behavior.

3 – Stay neutral. Jack and especially his mother are going to make you feel helpless and angry. Don’t react with Jack. Don’t try to argue with him

to counteract his mother’s words. Keep in mind. His mother may not be saying those bad things about you. From the perception of a confused child who is trying to understand where he stands, he may be “perceiving” his Mom as saying these things, but she may not really be saying them.  Reacting as if his perceptions are accurate may only add fuel to the fire.

4 – Having said that, in my view, always view behavior as benign whenever possible. Assuming that Jack may be misinterpreting his mother’s words can only help you feel less angry and more compassionate towards her. In addition, understanding your step-son’s feelings will make his actions feel less hurtful to you.

5 – Refrain from asking the question “Why?”. “Why are you lying? Why did you say that? Why did you do that?” Children don’t know why they do the things they do. Typically the process goes something like this: Feeling. Impulse. Action. When he lies, you may want to say (calmly and warmly), “That’s not what happened. This is what happened. Do you want to talk about what is upsetting you?”

Joan, I know that I am asking a lot of you here. Parents get hurt and scared and angry too. I hope this gives you some food for thoughts 

in your relationship with Jack. 

Also, like my father always told me and I have to tell myself on a frequent basis, “This too shall pass.” 

Your relationship with Jack is evolving. You need to remember this when you are feeling discouraged and tell

yourself, “My relationship with Jack will get better. I’m going to keep working on it.”

Warm regards,