My son is 12. He was very young when I lost my husband. I remarried a widower with a son and daughter. My second husband is a good man and his children (10 and 7) are well-adjusted. My concern is my son, who seems withdrawn. He is not interested in playing with his new siblings. My husband makes a huge effort to build a rapport with him but my son doesn’t respond—I’ve seen his interest spark and then he will make a conscious effort to walk away. I’ve found him trying to eavesdrop on our conversations. I understand this is a difficult situation—he’s on the threshold of adolescence, he suddenly has a new family, he has to share his mother with two new children. But how can we make the transition easier for him and make him part of the family again?
Ease up: Give your child time to adjust.
While you seem to have put together all the right elements to make the best of this demanding, but positive, change in your life for all those concerned, something has not worked according to plan. And that’s because your son is taking his own time and way to readjust. He has many things on his plate, as you must be well aware: dealing with the loss of his father, then adjusting to his mother having new people in her life, and having to deal with these new people himself.
It’s really great that you and your husband are fulfilling your roles with sensitivity and authenticity. That’s no small task. The only thing you can now do is to not try so hard with him. Because in making this huge effort (both you and your husband), you are possibly also expecting some results within a certain time frame, however much you try not to. So it would be best to cut back on your efforts a little, and just let him be. You may not realize it, but just your being happy, the new siblings being good children, you liking them, and the new father being a good man (quite a wonderful package)—must all be working in its own way to get this 12-year-old to feel good again. It’s just that it is not evident. While the rest of you have made the transition with ease, he is still in the processing stage, and may remain so for a while.
Eavesdropping on conversations is a sign of him having trust issues, and of feeling like an outsider. This is quite natural, and it’s best that you let him take his time. Be very careful not to communicate, verbally or non-verbally, even inadvertently, something like, “Look how much effort everyone is making towards you, and look how ungrateful/unresponsive you are being.” This will only add a burden of guilt, and can cause him to retreat further.
You ask what you should do to make him part of the family again. Well, he is part of the family. It’s just that he is not part of it in a way that would make it easier and more comfortable all round. Best not to force it—it’s highly likely that the time he is taking is being used internally by him for genuine processing, and when he does come through and makes the connect, it will be permanent and trusting, because he has been able to do it on his own terms and within his own timeline. Meanwhile, as husband and wife, just continue with your process of fusing the two families into one, and allow for some ups and downs, which does not mean that the basic structure is being compromised.
Gouri Dange is the author of The ABCs of Parenting.
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