“Can You Take Him?” When My Stepson Came to Live with Us

Posted August 18, 2010 by

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The email came unexpectedly last year, in the middle of a fairly normal afternoon. My husband’s ex decided she could no longer manage their 9-year-old’s behaviors and asked if we’d let him move in with us. We could not believe what we were reading! Of course we’d take him! We were elated. We were already involved in getting him services, taking him to therapy, etc. We knew that as long as he stayed there and no changes were made, it was always one step forward, two steps back.

We agonized over how to explain to him that he would be living with us now. We sought opinions from different therapists and friends. We thought maybe we should tell him that our home was better suited to help him reach his therapy goals. We had fewer children in our home than his mother and we had more experience and more time for him. One therapist said that although he had goals in therapy, maybe they were not his goals, so maybe that was not the best way to go. We finally settled on telling my stepson, with his mother and therapist present, that his mom just did not have the time to provide him with the attention he needed because she had other children to take care of. There is just no good way to tell a child his mother no longer wants him to live there. We did our best to present it as a joint decision, with his best interests at heart.

My stepson moved in with us with no personal belongings. We figured his mother would send his personal belongings (clothing even!!) at another time. Nope. Over time things became more clear to us regarding what kind of home he was coming to us from. Many of his behaviors are those you see from children in foster care or even those raised in an orphanage: stealing, lying, and food hoarding. We learned he had attachment issues, possibly even an attachment disorder from early neglect.  Truth be told, it feels very much like we took in a foster child.

I go about my daily business of loving and caring for him and he goes about his daily business of doing whatever he can to push me away. He is nasty, defiant and argumentative. I take him to his doctor appointments, play dates, hair cuts, shoe store, whatever I am doing with my own children. I rearranged my work schedule so I am home with him after school. He will then proceed to tell me that the store his mom takes him to has nicer shoes or that he does not like the brand of milk I buy.

I know that deep down he is a little boy who had no say in the matter of moving out of the home he had known for 9 years. A lot of his behaviors stem from him having no control. I know that no matter what I do, I am not his mommy and can never fill the void his mommy left. I know that no matter what I do or say, I cannot make up for the abandonment he feels.  I can only continue to show him love and hope that as he grows and matures he will figure things out in his own time, and with therapy and consistency he will develop into a competent, secure young man.


I am a mom of two boys, ages 16 and 22, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. I have remarried and my husband has 2 boys, ages 13 and 16. The 13 year old lives with us, and has some behavioral problems and attachment issues. There is always something happening at our house!

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  1. Emmie Report

    GestaltGrrl- I had no idea how difficult this was going to be. We too struggled with the fact that the other home was so chaotic and then the mom did make the call for him to live here. We thought all he needed was consistency and love. His weekend visits got out of hand because his mom works weekends and was not there to visit with him and he was left not totally supervised by the other adult in the home. Finally weekend visits had to stop because his behavior was awful, just like you said and we had to start over. Plus he was sad that he did not spend any time with her. She makes no effort to see him during the week or to call him more than a few times per month.We are involved in family therapy with him. He has gotten angrier and angrier over the past year. The therapists say he is taking out his anger at his mom for abandoning him on me. He is living in a fantasy world where she is perfect and he will one day go back and live there. Even things I have done with him are attributed to his mom. He will say he loves certain shirts because his mom gave them to him when it was me who bought them, things like that. I have learned that no matter what we do for him we can never fill the void his mom left, although in the long run he sees a stable home versus a chaotic one. As an adult he will realize it and so will your two little girls!

  2. GestaltGrrl Report

    Thank you for this post; I struggle with being a stepmom of two girls whose life at their biological mother’s house is chaotic at best. (We have 50-50 custody.)

    We have talked about parenting counseling and/or family therapy to try to keep our house peaceful in the face of their acting out and their anxiety about what’s happening at “the other house.” I believe they would be better off living in our home with limited visitation to their mother’s. I think we could dedicate ourselves to pouring enormous energy into making sure that they had love, acceptance, and respect–energy that we give now, only to have it undermined and depleted after their time with mom. I feel that each week we start over at ground zero. I wish their mother would make that call!

    Best regards to you and your family.

  3. phill Report

    Hello, Emmie!

    I agree that you are doing a great job. Your situation reminds me a lot of my own. When my two boys’ (my stepsons)mom went to jail, we immediately retained custody of our boys. My youngest son is three and my oldest will be eleven in December. Before getting married, my husband and I agreed that we would treat all of the children as if they were our own biological children. This commitment was important to both of us.

    We felt that this was the only option for helping our children grow and learn in a healthy environment. When my sons came to live with me, I sat my oldest son down and told him that I would love him everyday. I told him that I would not expect less from him than I did from his sisters. You see, I have three daughters. One is away at college, but the other two, now 12 and 10, live with us, as well. I told him that sometimes he would get mad at me and that that was okay. I have even revealed to him some of the conflict that my older daughter and I had over the years. He can see how close we are and how well she has “turned out.” She graduated a year early and is in her second year of college. She works and attends school and still plans to go to law school. She and I chat frequently online, by text, and on the phone. She even offers him advice about “dealing with mom and mom’s expectations.” She is a good big sister to all of the kiddos.

    I thought it was important for him to know that I might have different expectations than those to which he was accustomed. And I do. I do push him to eat well and to work hard in school and on his homework. And he DOES get mad at me. But that’s okay and he knows – at the end of the day – that I still love him.

    I also thought that it was important for him to know that I would make mistakes and even be grumph, sometimes. And I do and I am. But, just like with the rewards, discipline, and expectations, I am an equal opportunity offender, as they say!

    He is a wonderful boy and he is allowed to miss his mommy. He DOES have two mommies and I am NOT going to tell him, otherwise. However, I do respect his love for and loyalty to his biological mother, who is out of jail now and has only supervised visitation from 8 to 6 on Sat. and Sun. every first, third, and fifth weekends. She lives with her parents and her mother is the one court-ordered to supervise the visitation.

    I will add that his maternal grandmother and I had a serious and excrutiatingly honest conversation a few weeks before we took custody. It was difficult, but it was worth it. The night her daughter, the boys’ bio-mom went to jail, she called me from her daughter’s residence and requested that I come and get the boys. She said, “I thought that you would want to come and get them.”

    A lot happened between that incident and us getting full legal custody, but they did NOT ever go back home, after that night.

    It is difficult to watch children in danger or in bad situations. It is difficult to watch them hurt, but, at least now, your son and our sons are in safe, loving homes. And that is a blessing!

    Don’t get me wrong; it is NOT easy, but it IS worth it!

    high school teacher and mother of five

  4. IonU in MD Report

    Some kids love to shock and surprise. You are an awesome mom, so words mean nothing from children in pain. It is the actions which you should look for. Like eating nicely with the rest of the family. Little things for normal families, but a big step for your stepson. Keep up the work.

  5. Alicia O'Brady Report

    I admire you in taking in your stepson, altering your schedule and giving him the much needed love and help. Hopefully all you have done will reap rewards when he grows to be a great young man. Even if he grows and never thanks you, you should be satisfied that you did the best you could out of the situation dropped in your lap. I take this opportunity to thank you for all you have done just in case he doesn’t.

  6. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Emmie, good for you for taking in your stepson. It sounds like you and your husband are doing everything in your power to parent him with love and compassion. I’ve heard a statistic that I think rings true: “It only takes one loving adult in a child’s life to give him the chance to have a normal adulthood.” In your stepson’s case, he has two loving adults. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us here, and welcome again to our Parent Blogger team!

  7. justme Report

    With all the love and support this little boy is getting it’s bound to have a big impact on his life.I’m sure one day (maybe not soon) he’s going to look back and see how truly blessed he was. I think that his stating his preference of store and milk brand of his former home might be his way of sharing that he misses his mom, former home or his dream of how he wanted it to be.

  8. Emmie Report

    Hi! I really do appreciate that you took the time to read my post. I love to hear everyone’s comments. I wanted to clarify that there are many facts and bits of personal information that I left out of my post. His dad has been taking him to therapy since the age of 5, which was when many of these behaviors surfaced. The child has since been diagnosed independently by both a psychiatrist and a psychologist and he does have more intensive needs and is displaying more intense behaviors than the norm. There are also things that have come to light over the years regarding neglect and domestic violence that have been substantiated. Also, I totally understand that his wants for things to be like his home are normal and I apologize for leaving it out of my post that I try to make things the same for him whenever possible. We are working with two therapists who have been very helpful in making the transition as positive as possible. Thanks again for your comments!

  9. designdiva76 Report

    Although I am happy to hear that you and your husband were able to remove your step-son from a bad situation, I feel that it is unfair that you call out these behaviors as being issues directly related to his previous home life. 9 year old boys seem to struggle with choices, regardless of upbringing. Most children are taught from an early age that stealing and lying are bad. But coming into 3rd and 4th grade, there are new temptations surrounding them, and more opportunities for misbehaviors to be rewarded with temporary enjoyment. This is the age where parental guidance is crucial, and where they are taught “on the job” how to behave.

    As far as milk and shopping preferences go, I think that this is a typical request for children of blended families. It would probably be considerate of you to adapt some of your shopping habits to make him feel like he is a part of the family (vs. a guest).

  10. Sangita Report

    Adore you, the first reason is the how readily you accepted your Stepson and the second being the adjustment which you made for him…It’s really a great approach, you have gone for…Words lacking to appreciate you….Great Mom and an powerful parent.Your own story can inspire others too with the same situation.



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