Boyfriend has a demanding child
September 29, 2008 11:59 AM   Subscribe

My boyfriend, who moved in to my house six months ago, has visitation with his 9-year-old son every other weekend and Monday afternoons. I am not a huge kid person, and never planned to have any of my own--but when I am around the two of them I put my best foot forward, engage the kid in conversation, ask him about his life and the things he enjoys, and try to do fun things with him and his father.

But this child seems awfully demanding and entitled. At the best of times, he insists on being the center of attention, refuses to allow any conversation without his input, and argues with every suggestion his father makes. On the worst days, he calls his father all sorts of profanity and complains about every activity. This is difficult because most activities have been undertaken expressly for his benefit and at some expense. I was humiliated when we went to visit my boyfriend's parents in Europe and he responded to their hospitality with sullen ingratitude and constant complaining.

My bf is slowly learning to create more boundaries but it's tough because he has guilt about seeing his son so seldom. I understand that their relationship is important but I'm not sure that I agree with everything they do: e.g. my bf sleeping in the same bed with his son when his son is over. Is that healthy?

And yes I'll preemptively acknowledge that much of this is my problem and my psychological issue :) I'm making strides but still going nutty on those alternate weekends. I thought it would be good for us to all go on hikes and do things we all enjoy together, but at the end of one of those days I am utterly frazzled from the constant demands and feeling so much resentment I could burst.

Though I concur that "the child comes first," I think that often that principle is taken the wrong way ....once upon a time there was more of a focus on raising children to be good people and responsible citizens. Now the focus seems to be on treating kids with kid gloves and letting them get away with what once was considered flat-out rudeness.

The bf is learning for the first time how to administer a time-out --previously, he's acceded to every demand, with occasional angry blow-ups at his kid and about the kid's mother in front of the kid. But I still step in sometimes, and it actually has good results. The kid listens to me and other adults better and with less insolence than he listens to his father. Maybe I'm making that worse by being the sometime disciplinarian?

Maybe I should just step away further, and not try to participate in their time together at all on those weekends?
posted by vegsister to Human Relations (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I could write volumes on this subject. I personally feel that children should have very defined boundaries and they should know exactly what is and what is not acceptable behavior (FWIW I have two children, an 11-year-old boy and an eight-year-old daughter). This should, ideally, take place from birth. A child brought up with well-defined rules will still rebel but it won't be as bad because there's always an expectation of consequences. Kids are always demanding but once it moves into disrespect, an adult has to draw the line in the sand.

If the kiddo listens to you, keep talking. He probably desperately wants his dad to set limits but doesn't know how to say it. Talk to your BF about what his expectations from you are. Does he want you to step in? Does he recognize that his son listens to you? Does he want to set limits? The good old "family meeting" might come in handy here. Maybe they should both sit down (probably without you, since while you're living together, you aren't legally the kid's step-mother; there could be resentment all over the place if you're included) and talk about what they'd both like to happen while he's at his dad's house.

Everyone might benefit from family therapy, too. Just a thought.
posted by cooker girl at 12:16 PM on September 29, 2008

I would say that your opinion about the kid has little to do with your general ambivilence about kids, and everything to do with the fact that this particular kid sounds a little messed up.

You say that your bf has previously both given in to his son, and trash-talked the kid's mother in front of him. Both of these were BIG mistakes on your boyfriend's part. Mind you, I'm not saying your boyfriend is a bad person, just that the way he handled things had some negative effects on the kid. That's why he's responding to your discipline-- you're actually GIVING him discipline, which it sounds like your boyfriend isn't even doing. I wouldn't say that you're making things worse - on the contrary, it sounds like you've stepped in like the Supernanny!

I'd keep encouraging your boyfriend to keep up with the discipline and encourage him to scale WAY back on the blowing up about his ex in front of the kid -- that really can mess with their heads. Whether or not you join them or not is a different matter, but keep encouraging your boyfriend to be a parent.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:20 PM on September 29, 2008

my bf sleeping in the same bed with his son when his son is over. Is that healthy?

This varies a lot from culture to culture, but even within the mainstream of the US (and certainly Europe) I don't think this is that unusual. In some African cultures (Namibia? I'm blanking here...) entire families would sleep together and parents had no qualms about having sex in front of their children.

As far as everything else: you're not his parent, so it's not your responsibility. You should let your boyfriend know how you feel though - it sounds like he needs to be a little less indulgent.
posted by phrontist at 12:22 PM on September 29, 2008

Make plans to do something else for part of the time his kid is there, and let them have some time alone. It will be better for everyone.
posted by iconomy at 12:28 PM on September 29, 2008

Maybe I should just step away further, and not try to participate in their time together at all on those weekends?

Yup. Not your kid. Butt out unless asked for help or support.
posted by rokusan at 12:34 PM on September 29, 2008

my bf sleeping in the same bed with his son when his son is over. Is that healthy? Every night at age 9? Why exactly? Does his son have nightmares or sleep disorders? Beyond that, in US culture it would seem outside of the norm.

But this child seems awfully demanding and entitled. At the best of times, he insists on being the center of attention, refuses to allow any conversation without his input, and argues with every suggestion his father makes.
Completely normal for bratty kids. And by bratty kids, I mean children who haven't had appropriate boundaries. That's what you've got here.

On the worst days, he calls his father all sorts of profanity and complains about every activity.
Unacceptable, but not your call. However, it's worth establishing with that child that he doesn't curse at you.

Honestly, I feel for this kid. Try to provide some structure if you can for his sake. However, you don't want to be "the boss parent". While he's in your boyfriend's custody, your BF must learn to establish and enforce rules.
posted by 26.2 at 12:41 PM on September 29, 2008

Poor kid. Sounds like things have been consistently inconsistent in his life, especially when it comes to discipline. I imagine he's only behaving the way he is because he's able to get away with it. Inherently he's probably a pretty cool kid. Most kids are.

I think you stepping back is a great idea, since you aren't really enjoying the time together (maybe I'm reading into this, but that's what it sounds like based on your question). Let your bf know exactly why you're stepping back though. Be sure to remind him that junior is a great kid and you hate to see that undermined by the current dynamic between them--and that you have his back--just from the dugout. After a period of either embarrassment or defensiveness or who-knows-what, he may see that you have a good point, the kid has been rather unruly lately. If you create the space for him to bend your ear a bit on the topic, he may even ask your advice--and I think you have some great ideas (non-kid person, pshaw!)

And yes, father and son sleeping in the same bed when they have their weekend together is perfectly normal and very common.
posted by agentwills at 12:43 PM on September 29, 2008

Definitely take a step back in the parenting role, the kid will resent you for trying to be "New Mom" when he's over to see his Dad. Now I do think you need to have a serious discussion with your boyfriend about what the roles should be going into the future (if he's moved in, I'm assuming there is an extended future for the moment).

Kids aren't easy. I have an almost 9 year old who is going on 15, and you have to stand your ground on respect to other people. He's already been taught that he gets results from acting out, and that is unlikely to change easily, if at all. The best you can do is define the parameters with your boyfriend, and encourage him to discuss the issues with the mother as well - not coming from you at all, but just being a responsible parent.

Sleeping with the kid - completely normal, although many people would just lay with their child until they fell asleep. It is hard to comprehend how difficult it is to act as a part-time parent, and that is a moment of bonding that probably helps them both.
posted by shinynewnick at 12:55 PM on September 29, 2008

Seconding what iconomy said. If they have some time alone and you get some downtime, it'll be better for all of you.

It sounds like maybe this kid is having a hard time with the divorce, and is possibly upset with his dad. He's nine, so chances are good that he has no idea how to voice his frustrations. I know that a great many people are not into the idea of a child seeing a psychologist, but in this case, your boyfriend might look at a few therapy sessions for his son, not because there's anything "wrong" with the kid, but because it might be a relief for his son to be able to talk to a neutral adult about what's going on in his life, an adult who can help him work on some specific coping skills.

Setting boundaries can be really, really hard. Especially when time together is at a premium and really, you just want the tantrum to stop. I work with guilt-stricken parents every day who are trying to set boundaries with their kids, and here's what I tell them: you may feel guilty now about saying "no," but you'll feel a thousand times worse in twenty years when he's unable to sustain friendships, relationships, or a job because he isn't able to cope with boundaries.

My hat is off to you for putting so much effort and thought into your interaction with this child. He's a lucky little boy to have someone outside of his biological family who cares so much.
posted by corey flood at 12:56 PM on September 29, 2008

I agree with those who've said that you need to let his father be the parent in this relationship. Not that it isn't wonderful that you've recognized his need for boundaries, and you, for one, are willing to enforce some. But it sounds as if this kid needs his dad to man up. Daddy needs to stop letting his pre-teen walk all over him. He needs to stop cowering in front of the child and stand up and be a man or his son will have no respect for him. Sorry, but it's not that hard to set boundaries with a nine-year-old. You say "Stop it." You say "No." You look them in the eye and you don't back down.

When he's there for the weekend maybe you could find a balance of doing family-type things all together (cooking, hiking, movie night) and then boy-centered things they could do alone. Then the kid won't feel like you're getting rid of him, Dad gets quality time alone and you aren't forced to deal with Hell Child all weekend.

As for the expensive disney-dad behaviors, finding a hobby they could pursue together, starting at this age, could take them through the teen years more easily. It could be model cars, remote control planes, dog training, marathon running, whatever they can enthusiastically participate in, together. That's the important part.
posted by toastedbeagle at 1:41 PM on September 29, 2008

I understand where everyone is coming from with, "He's the Dad, butt out," but your boyfriend does live with you, and in my mind that means you need to have some house rules for everyone to follow, including his son.

Firstly, using profanity against his Dad and you, no matter how guilty your boyfriend feels, should be out-of-bounds in your home. You need a clear consequence for this, that you and your boyfriend have agreed upon. Believe it or not, his son could also help you come up with the consequence, and might appreciate being treated as a participant with a say in what happens. I think this boy has probably gone through a lot, and that's why he's rebellious and sullen, but giving him limits and setting clear boundaries will actually make him feel more secure in your home.

As far as not feeling respect for his Dad to begin with--if your boyfriend has said things about the boy's Mom, she has likely said things about your boyfriend, too. The only way to get through that is to earn real respect. But in the meantime, it's not expecting too much to ask for civility at the very least in your house.
posted by misha at 2:09 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just an idea: try not to be so child-centred in what you do during the time you spend together. Plan something that you and your boyfriend want to do and help the child learn that he isn't the centre of the universe. Of course, he needs to be considered, too, but not to the exclusion of all else. It sounds like he's playing you (because he can) and the way your engagement is structured allows him to do so.
posted by Lleyam at 2:27 PM on September 29, 2008

I think you would do well to give it a lot of distance. You represent a threat to the 9 year old. He knows they're divorced, but many kids really, really want the parents to reunite. You live with his Dad, get to see Dad all the time, sleep with Dad, etc. Be ridiculously reassuring about how much his Dad loves him, misses him, and would never, ever leave him.

Give them plenty of time together. Don't try too hard for him to like you. Be there, be kind and helpful, but let him meet you partway. Rent and watch a movie you think he migt like, but don't make a big deal of it, let him join you. Make cookies, and let him join you, etc. Dad would be better off to enforce some limits, but it's pretty difficult for him to hear it from you, so keeping quiet is a good idea. Setting limits about how he behaves towards you is a great plan, and he'll like you better for it, eventually. Teaching a child to respect the other parent is an excellent lesson for divorced parents to learn, though many do not.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on September 29, 2008

Seconding what the others have said.

Now the focus seems to be on treating kids with kid gloves and letting them get away with what once was considered flat-out rudeness.

That, however, is a false statement.
posted by JimN2TAW at 3:07 PM on September 29, 2008

House rules. You (collectively) need to have some. As a member of the household, you absolutely have a right to be an equal participant in establishing what those are. i.e.

Don't be rude.
No swearing.
Take turns.

Etc. Then it's up to your BF, as parent, to take charge of laying out these ground rules -- and consequences -- to his child.

For a parent who is new to the concepts of discipline, watching a couple episodes of Supernanny can be really helpful. Not every family chooses to use the same methods that she espouses. But it can be a HUGE confidence builder just to see how quickly kids of all ages respond to gaining a firm structure they can count on, and knowing exactly what's expected of them. Also, some episodes have addressed the emotional baggage that sometimes holds a parent back from setting reasonable boundaries even when they want to. Maybe it'll make something click in your boyfriend's mind as well.

The bottom line is that kids have a hard time coping with ambiguity. The current lack of rules and consequences is piling on the ambiguity to a situation that is already fraught with uncertainty. Having consistent boundaries will be a RELIEF to the kid, even if he doesn't initially greet it that way.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 3:21 PM on September 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

It sounds as though you're doing a great job of bringing some stability to the kid, but a threesome can be really hard, whatever the ages. If you can spend time with him, just the two of you, you'll probably find it pretty easy to make a better relationship; one where he knows the boundaries clearly. That might make it nicer for the three of you to do things together.

Maybe take some of those hikes without your bf? Or have a day of cooking at home, building models, making puppets, whatever you'd enjoy. Give the kid exclusive time with you, where he can learn the rules of civilized behavior without needing to play up to someone. It's worked for me.
posted by anadem at 4:17 PM on September 29, 2008

oh dear, i also could write books on this subject, i'm a pseudo-stepmom in the exact same way. we have his daughter every other weekend and dutifully once a week he visits her grandmother for his evening with his daughter. forgive me if i get wordy.

i think i was a bit luckier than you in that his daughter is a dream and probably more patient about the process than i was. i was ... a bit resentful at first being the third wheel and not the mother. i was the same - a bit ambivalent about children. i have to say that i'm a bit of pill in making sure that my comfort boundaries are not crossed. now 10 years later we're all more like a family unit even as she enters the teen years. i've establish that while i'm not the mother (meaning she never calls me mom or anything of the sort because i had a personal aversion to this concept - i consider it disrespectful to the actual mother who still is a very active part of the child's life,) i am indeed an adult and someone who has authority while she's in my life.

first, this seems like a long term relationship and therefore while you might not be the parent, you *are* a responsible adult and should be treated as such and the child needs to abide by your *reasonable* rules while in your company. i understand the previous comments about 'butting out' but that's simply not realistic because this is also your living space and you have a formative impact on the child whether you like it or not... unless of course you plan upon moving out every other weekend for the next 12 years... and that's simply not an option. discuss your needs and boundaries now if you want this relationship with the father to last... there is no way to survive this and flourish in the long run if you do not. i can't stress this enough.

the presence of his child does not preclude you being in charge of your own household. if you do not set up the framework now, you will never be able to in the future and it really can cause a breakdown of your relations with your significant other. trust me, bad bad things can happen. lying, cheating, minor vandalism even stealing from you could be an outcome as the child comes to see you as someone they 'do not need to respect.' let's be honest, everyone needs to learn respect of adults throughout their lives. if your significant other is not open to ensuring your comfort while the child is in your presence, even when the child is definitely supposed to be his top concern, this relationship will never last - period. take it from someone who went through this experience - all the highs and lows - and survived.

i am no super-stepmom. i am so far from that it's scary but i am a functioning and sensitive adult who doesn't want her life to suck. i'm guessing most people are the same. my biggest issue was feeling resentful on so many levels in the beginning - and hurt by things in my life that i could not control nor did i feel like i 'opted' into them. it took a lot of breathing, a lot of reading books from other 'step moms' and a lot of 'wait and see.' first off let me tell you that it's ok to feel these things - feel them - and then do your best to let them go over time... and it doesn't necessarily go away over months and over years. that being said during the shared time, be as generous as you can be with your loved one. it's not easy on him either by any stretch.

children respond to boundaries and this child is testing both of yours. you need to discuss setting them with your boyfriend right away. first off, this is your house too, no matter how concessionary your boyfriend wants to be out of fear or guilt, and a child being disrespectful is bad parenting - period. he'll do more harm to the future adult than the few weeks of outbursts the child suffers as he is now.

bear in mind that nine year olds always need attention, always feel the need to be the center of it, and likely this boy needs it more now than ever from his father who is not living with him and will act out to get that attention in both positive and negative manners. he's also entitled to it, this is 'his time' and that means the father needs to be focused on spending that time with his son in both exceptional events (like the zoo or park) and normal events (hanging out at home). you have to concede that during this time, you have to take a back seat, but you shouldn't be invisible and you should not be expected to always give up your necessary private time. i took 'days off' from time to time where i did my stuff like reading while my now-husband hung out with his daughter. they are less rare now that we're a functioning unit, but were very necessary in the beginning to me.

be honest with your partner, set your rules and discuss them. what is 'acceptable' at his mother's house just can not be acceptable at yours. certain things are obvious like bad language needs to be curbed right away. children will swear but they need to learn that in 'polite company' - your company - it is completely unacceptable. this is a nine year old, and not a fully functioning adult. saying 'please' and 'thank you' is a learned skill and once you will have to continually point out over years. you both need to be firm on these things without exception and having consequences are necessary. kids are kids and they will get lazy and keep pushing - it's the nature of the beast. other things were my personal pet peeves - unhealthy diet - i loathe lunchables and her eating habits were atrocious. we had to strike a bargain about balancing chicken nuggets, hot pockets and backed chicken breasts which we did progressively over time. as you become familiar to the child, so will your habits. as an antidote - i did put my foot down on what i perceived as a complete insult on little out-of-the-ordinary things - like her trying to pull out chicken from my 9-hour homemade matzo ball soup and eating with catsup. i handled it comically saying that 10 million jewish mothers were rolling in their graves over that one but you get my drift. she ate the soup sans catsup, but my (then) boyfriend questioned me about it later a bit agitated. when i explained how much work it was, how good it was for her, how not everything is meant to have catsup and how offensive it was to me, he backed down. also, she walked in on us when we were sleeping and i was not suitably dressed - quite topless in fact and i snapped at her - an offhand reaction. it was my fault for snapping and her father was angry at me but when i got dressed and called a 'family meeting' and explained that it was impolite to walk into a room without knocking because she might see things that her mother and father considered inappropriate, the behavior stopped right away and my partner thought i should be considered for sainthood.

little things will come up, you have to be patient, you have to be the adult about it, but you do not ever have to be made uncomfortable for behavior that should be corrected. you will be uncomfortable for a while as things normalize.

as for the 'same bed' issue - oh boy did i live through that one. for our first years dating (she was four) it was fine… afterall *i* was the newcomer, not her. i seriously hated sleeping on the blow up mattress but we weren't cohabitating so i felt i had to be generous. when we moved in together (when she was about 6) i didn't think it was time to feel inappropriate about it. i explained there were issues that made me feel uncomfortable. i felt it was culturally inappropriate, also as his normal bed partner it marginalized me as part of the household in my own home and i also felt it harmed the child in terms of independence. that's not to say there were not exceptions on bad nightmare/sick nights and such, but i had my own bedroom from the get-go when i was a child and she has her own bedroom at home, when the 'strange place' situation fades, this is a bad habit to keep.

however, be sure you don’t actively marginalize yourself! it is definitely important to plan events between you and your partners son! play video games together, and activities. bake cookies! Every holiday season i make christmas ornaments with my step-daughter as her gifts to her mother, father and grandparents. you need to continually keep trying to bond with your new little one and trust me – you can totally come out as ‘the cool adult’ and benefit from it. that is not to say that you will not, nor should not be part of the discipline committee, but as time plods on – you’ll find you have to be less and less so.

the most important thing is for both adults to be open, honest and generous with their feelings on this new situation. if you're in it for the long run then understand growing a child and a relationship takes years and not something that can snap into place in a blink of an eye.

i'm sorry if i bored anyone. if you ever need to rant or any kind of advice i may be able to offer, my meta-mail is open to you. good luck!
posted by eatdonuts at 6:07 PM on September 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm going to throw a theory out here. The kid is angry and sad and he is taking it out on the both of you when he sees you. This kid rarely sees his dad and when he does his father is accompanied by a woman that barely tolerates him. I'm not blaming you, you didn't sign up for this, well ok you kind of did, but really this falls on his father. Seeing your father every other weekend isn't much and when your dad tries to make up for his absence with elaborate family outings it's all pretty transparent.

I'm not saying his behavior is acceptable, but I think you are rather misguided to believe that his behavior is the result of a failure to set boundaries rather than an unhappy kid acting out.
posted by whoaali at 9:04 AM on October 1, 2008

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