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Q&A: Parenting Difficult Stepchildren

The God of the universe can put love in our hearts for people who are unlovely.
By Dennis and Barbara Rainey


My husband and I have developed a serious conflict over how to handle his 19-year-old son (my stepson). The son recently left college and moved back home, and he now seems determined to live his own life. He doesn't work. He doesn't show respect to me and in fact is often hostile. Yet he expects me to provide his meals and clean his clothes. Whenever I talk to my husband about the problem, he takes the side of his son. In my mind, the son is old enough to make it on his own. The situation has become so tense that I have told my husband that he needs to make a choice of whether he wants to keep our marriage going or not. What should I do?

Dennis: There are a lot of issues here. The first is the marriage covenant. When a man and a woman come together in marriage, part of the vow says, "Forsaking all others." That means the husband and wife will give preference to one another—even in a blended family situation. Kids need to know that there is one relationship in that family that transcends all other relationships and can't be toyed with. They need the security of knowing that this husband and this wife are still going to be committed to one another, regardless of what happens.

I'd suggest that the husband consider taking his wife away and devising a game plan for how they will deal with this issue. He may need to ask forgiveness for failing to protect her in this situation. They need to talk through the situation—perhaps the husband fears that he will lose his relationship with his son if he cracks down. And they need to get on their knees and ask God to bring order out of chaos and bring understanding and wisdom to their souls.

Barbara: It may be that this 19-year-old young man sees that Dad is on his side and the stepmom is not. As a couple, they really need to get together and present a united front. There have been plenty of times that Dennis and I have disagreed in handling the kids. But we've tried to keep our mouths shut when the kids are there and talk about it later privately. We don't present two totally different opinions in front of the kids so that they can play off one or the other.

Dennis: The wife is right—it's time for that young man to grow up. The husband and wife need to agree and clarify to the stepson what's appropriate and inappropriate for how he relates to his stepmother. She needs to be protected. If he doesn't comply with your guidelines, tell him that he will need to move into his own apartment. Even if he does comply, they all need to come to an agreement about when this young man should get a job and move out on his own.

Barbara: I'm reminded of a situation that we faced as a family years ago with a child in the neighborhood who was a bully to our children. One of my thoughts at the time was, "I wish this child didn't live near us." But he was there, and I began to ask the Lord to give me love for him. So God began to miraculously give me a genuine compassion for the child.

In the same way, I can see how a stepmom could wish this child wasn't in the family. But the God of the universe can put love in our hearts for people who are unlovely. Children in blended families are going to feel like they don't belong, and they often take it out on the stepparent. So that makes it harder for the stepparent to love in return. I would encourage this mom in particular to ask God to help her love the stepson and see what the real needs of his heart are. That doesn't mean that she has to go soft on him. But if the stepson and her husband see she genuinely loves and cares for the son, that will go a long way toward resolving the problem.

Copyright © 2003 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.

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