Friday, December 30, 2011

My Teens! Help!

Hi - I have twin stepdaughters aged 17 and a stepson aged 19. They have been in my life for 14 years. I don't get along well with their mother, but we have all managed to be relatively civil with each other over the years, and I have always treated them like my own.

The kids spend about half their time with us, and their father and I have always been involved in their school and activities. We have made lots of sacrifices to ensure that they got what they needed in terms of things and most importantly our time. We haven’t done everything right by a long shot, but we have tried to let them know they are loved and important to us.

One major problem has been that their mom has always lived beyond her means (and has put her own needs first many times), so she has used child support money for expensive clothes, vacations, meals and personal items for them all, meaning that we have had to pay extra regularly for boring everyday items that aren't obvious to children. We've made sure they've had everything they needed for school, health insurance, glasses, braces etc. etc., but have said no to lots of other “fun” things. Don't get me wrong - we have also provided some great extras over the years (such as two great overseas vacations in the last few years, up-to-date computers, DVDs and so on) - we just try to show them that necessities come first and then extras if you can swing them.

We don’t really have any major complaints with the kids - they all do very well in school, don't indulge in dangerous behaviour and are reasonably easy to get along with. However, they are not helpful around the house, and sometimes we feel like we are like a hotel, where they stay every second week and where we provide food, entertainment and lodging while they don't do anything except live their lives. My husband agrees that the older kids are a bit out of control in this respect, but they’re his kids and he doesn’t like conflict or upset. We've tried hard to get them to cooperate more in the less fun aspects of family life, but just gave up when they didn’t. Now things have changed.

I had a baby boy of my own 18 months ago, and since that time, it's like I am seeing the older kids through different eyes. I still love them all, but I just don't seem to be able to cope with the way we are living anymore. I'm tired of providing a safe, comfortable family existence when they take it completely for granted. They think their little brother is really cute, but in 18 months, none of them has changed a diaper or babysat for more that 15 minutes, even though their father and I both work full-time. The girls' room is beyond messy - there is a good 6 inches of designer clothing, makeup and garbage on the floor, and they haven't vacuumed or changed their sheets in months. They don't help with laundry, and rarely do dishes or help prepare dinner. One of the girls is still in a snit because we told her she couldn't go a certain college because we couldn't afford it. It's actually because all our money has gone into supporting the older kids and covering what their mother was supposed to pay for out of child support, but as we don't feel we can tell her that, we have to listen to her complain about our poor planning, and grumbling that I have started a college fund for my son. She will be going to a very good local university instead, but is annoyed because we expect her to get a job over the summer and contribute to her fees. The 19 year old is actually quite good in many ways and takes care of his college fees through scholarships and work, but we often still feel like we were put on earth to serve him.

It's like we opened our eyes one day and said "who are these people?" We have really tried hard to teach responsibility and consequences, but I guess it's a losing battle when kids also live in another place with different values. Now that I have my son, I don't want him to be like the other kids. I want him to get his values from me and my husband, and not to have him exposed to the materialism, the selfishness and the general thoughtlessness. All I can think about is wanting them all to go away – which won’t happen for at least a few years – so I can model different behaviour for my son. How do I manage this feeling of resentment so the next few years aren’t horrible?
Barb
Dear Barb:

You are probably not going to like my answer. I receive emails just like this one from others as well.

The good news is you have assisted in raising decent people, the bad news is they are normal. They are normal because when you make sure they have what they need they are going to take you for granted. You see we teach people how to treat us.

In your note you say, "We've made sure they've had everything they needed for school, health insurance, glasses, braces etc. etc., but have said no to lots of other “fun” things. Don't get me wrong - we have also provided some great extras over the years (such as two great overseas vacations in the last few years, up-to-date computers, DVDs and so on) - we just try to show them that necessities come first and then extras if you can swing them."

In your own words you have provided way too much and even their own mother has not had to face up to her own financial boundaries. All children need love and boundaries. They need to know there are limits. It doesn't sound to me like expensive vacations and all the latest in computer technology provided much limiting or much need to earn what they wanted. Children need to feel good about themselves. They need to feel a sense of accomplishment and unfortunately when we hand out too much material goods they are going to take them for granted. I guarantee anyone is capable of taking things for granted when they have known nothing else.

While it is too late to change them or their attitudes, it is not too late for you to change your attitudes and behaviors. Set limits, ask for what you want and earn their respect by being honest with them about how you feel. DO NOT expect them to respond to resentment as resentment is about giving too much and is the sole responsibility of the giver. We all need limits. Even when it comes to giving.

Sincerely,

M Kay Keller