New Stepparents: Advise on Getting Respect from Your Spouse's Children


How can I teach my teenaged son to be respectful? My fifteen year old son seems determined to drive us all crazy. He’s rude, never helps out, and doesn’t care about consequences. We live with his step father, my husband, and they hate each other. I’m between the two people I love the most and I’m pulling my hair out. Help!


This is a very complex and multi-layered question. Before a truly viable response can be provided, additional information is needed. I understand that you want your son to be respectful, and I also assume that you have some idea of what you really mean by his need to be “respectful.” You have labeled him as “rude,” and as someone who “never helps out, and doesn’t care about consequences.” While I don’t know your son, I am guessing that this situation is less about your son’s real desire to be rude and disrespectful, and more about his feeling utterly helpless, emotionally overwhelmed, and that THAT has something to do with what you’re labeling as his “rude” and disrespectful behavior.

Quite frankly, your son seems to have “gone on strike” because he doesn’t know what else to do. What is behind his emotional and behavioral protest? Why is he so upset and angry, and for how long has this been going on? You mention that “We live with his step father, my husband, and they hate each other.” This is an emotionally loaded statement! Where is your son’s biological father, and does he have any relationship or contact with his/your son? For how long has your husband been your son’s step father? What was it like whey they were getting to know each other? What were the circumstances that led to your relationship and eventual marriage with this other man? What were your son’s thoughts and feelings about your new relationship and marriage? The language of “hating each other” is extreme and suggests very strong feelings that have not yet been unpacked and sorted out in that relationship. What is behind all that pain and anger? The answers to these and other, similar questions may be difficult, complicated and very painful, but they are essential to the primary task of trying to understand your son and his experience of this family.

You have asked about how to teach your son to be respectful. As a psychologist specializing in working with adolescents, my initial goal is to “respect” the intensity of adolescents’ experiences by trying to understand their thoughts and feelings, and the contexts within which their difficult and awkward feelings have come to exist…and from THAT perspective, help adolescents to find ways to communicate their feelings more directly – with words rather than with negative behaviors. Quite often, adolescents’ oppositional and/or self-defeating behaviors are, in reality, reflections of their own deep insecurities, fears and anxieties, and also of the degree to which they feel utterly powerless. When they “go on strike,” as your son seems to have done, it is usually a desperate – although not fully conscious or deliberate – attempt to get the key adults in their lives to pay attention to them in different ways, and ultimately, to renegotiate the day-to-day terms of family life.

Although it is difficult to do, as this teenager’s parents, YOU need to find a way step back from your own anger and try to understand what your son’s (and step son’s) behavior is trying to say! Remember that adolescents are masters of “acting out” feelings that seem too big and/or too confusing to “talk out.” In all likelihood, given the history of these painful dynamics, this is a family situation that might best be served by engaging a skilled psychologist or family therapist in your area. Your question conveys that the tensions are already extremely high in this family, which usually means that individual family members are so angry and so wedded to their own perspectives that it will be even more difficult to really hear and understand (to empathize with!!) the perspectives of others. These are just the kind of conflicts and dynamics that usually require the skillful work of an objective family therapist.

From my perspective, the BEST way to “teach your son respect” is to “respect” the intensity of his feelings and to try to understand why he is so upset and “on strike.” Your son is SO much more likely to listen to you – to accept your limit setting and to adhere to your expectations – when he has the perception that YOU have listened to him and that YOU have tried to understand his experience more fully. This may be “easier said than done.” I understand that, and therefore, recommend that in your effort to respect and understand your son’s experience – and ultimately, to repair the painful dynamics in the whole family – that you engage the services of a competent family therapist in your area.

Thank you for asking such an honest and thorny question. I hope this response is useful in your efforts to address this difficult family situation.

David L. Gleason, Psy.D.