Supporting a son who needs structure in an unstructured setup

  • May. 3, 2017 12:30 a.m.

Q: My husband and I have a beautiful 8-month-old girl, and he and his ex have a bright and rambunctious 6-year-old boy. We have him part time at home. He was diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder this year in kindergarten after he became a problem in the classroom. It took a while to find a good balance of medication for him, but now that they did, the change in him has been phenomenal, and school has improved drastically. One thing I have come to know about him is that he thrives on a schedule and structure. He’s constantly asking about his timelines and whom he’ll be with and when. He wants less and less to be with his dad at our house lately, saying that things are more fun at Mom’s and that he gets to sleep in bed with her. His mom’s house is drastically different from ours, and she’s much less invested in discipline and keeping a schedule than we are. (This is not an accusation; she has admitted to being this way because she hates feeling like she’s being mean to her son.) It breaks my heart to hear him say this to his dad, and I’m wondering whether we can do some things differently to try to make the dynamic a little different without giving up the basic guidelines at our home. I want to raise a happy little boy, as well as one who is (mostly) well behaved and balanced, but I’m at a loss. I try to help as much as I can, but I realize that my main role is one of support. What can I do?

A: You sound like a caring and good stepmom, and that matters.

You (and every caring stepparent) have a heckuva job. You have your own biological child with your husband. You have split custody of a child who sounds as if he has some emotional and maybe executive-functioning needs. You share custody with a parent who, although loving, has some admitted problems with setting boundaries. And you? Well, you don’t have much influence, do you? You are not the primary parent for disciplining. You are not the primary rule creator, nor can you enforce many of them. It’s tough no matter how you slice it.

Your question is “What can I do?” The reality is this: not much. Your primary role is supporting your husband as he raises his son, as well as raising your baby girl and being the best stepmom you can be. You already know what your stepson needs: routine, schedule and structure.

But let’s see whether we can illuminate more of the ADHD symptoms.

Your stepson has been diagnosed with ADHD and is medicated, but what many don’t know is that separation and anxiety also look like ADHD behaviors.

When you wrote, “He’s constantly asking about his timelines and whom he’ll be with and when,” my eyebrows went up. Why? Of course he needs structure – every child does — but children who change homes are often in a quietly panicked state. Essentially, whichever parent your stepson is with, his heart is worrying about when he will see his other parent. It is hard to find rest when you are 6 and constantly worried.

This is not a disorder. Children are designed to want to be with their parents, and when the system becomes confusing, a child’s brain tries to make sense of it. One of the ways the brain does this is to focus on the next meeting. Am I saying he doesn’t have ADHD? No, I really don’t know. But I would be curious to see whether his symptoms started at about age 4 or 5. This is a typical time when a maturing brain will go from having tantrums to having anxiety-like behaviors.

An easy way to help this young man is to make clear charts and hang them everywhere he needs to see them. A chart for the week (even if he isn’t there in your home), a chart for the upcoming month, a chart for the next three months. Then you frequently visit the chart before his little brain gets to worrying. I am not saying it will be a magic trick that will get rid of his anxiety, but it could help him orient himself.

As much as you can, support your spouse in bringing his ex on board with this. You are not seeking to change her (which is the fastest way to ruin a relationship). Instead, work with her in partnership to bring the boy’s heart some ease and relaxation.

Also, when your stepson talks about how much more fun his mom’s house is, don’t take the bait. Just listen and nod. The truth is that co-parenting is very, very hard, and often the parent who is doing what is needed is getting the short end of the stick, emotionally speaking. Setting boundaries, providing structure and keeping a sane schedule is not sexy. You are not the “fun” parent, but do your best to schedule some fun with him when he is around. It doesn’t have to be extravagant, but put it on the chart and get excited about it.

Being a stepparent can be a tough gig, but your influence is important. Stay supportive of your spouse, and take good care of yourself. Good luck.

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