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So, here's the story.

My ex-girlfriend, whom I have an 11 year old son with, had a son before ours with a man who has never seen his son past the age of one. He's now 16. He grew up a generally happy kid (ADHD, but still very bright). But, circumstances that I'm not privy to knowing in the past year, had it so that he stopped taking his medication, he got into some trouble with police, and generally his mother absolutely hates him, doesn't trust him, had the police arrest him, and had a police-assigned psychiatrist come to the conclusion, in a couple hours, that he was also a sociopath. Apparently, he shot his brother, from a distance, with a BB gun.

So, he went to stay with his 85 year old grandma for about 3 months. As you can well imagine, grandma wasn't equipped to raise a child in today's day and age. He stopped going to school, and was very angry all the time. Grandma had had enough.

So my wife and I offered to take him. So that he would at least pass high school, and generally aimed toward his career choice.

That was since January 2013. Now, September, he's doing pretty alright. However, I still have some concerns:

  • I'm not able to get him to consistently call us to tell us where he is, even though I provided him the cell phone (but, he does respond 95% of the time when we txt him to ask where he is)
  • He frequently stays out late... 10:00pm~11:00pm on a school night, is that still late?
  • He is seldom home for dinner, and when he does get home (late), he eats quite a bit
  • often skips a class or two at school, never the whole day, just a class. And not really the whole class... he goes on time, but tends to leave in the middle of class. Teachers mark him absent for this.

He is most definitely NOT a sociopath, he feels bad for things he does, apologizes for things, does things to help around the house sometimes without being asked, and doesn't feel sour when he doesn't get what he wants. He had smoked a lot of marijuana, until I convinced him the consequences of letting this drug become a lifestyle. In absence of his ADHD medication (which he fears, because mom had over-medicated him), he says the pot helps calm his nerves. So, I permit it... never in the house, and again, don't let it become a lifestyle. Once in a while, on the weekend, sure. But Don't let it become a lifestyle.

I used to tell myself, "we just need him to graduate. once that happens, he can be on his own, do what he wants, and it's not under my jurisdiction." So I've been providing him a safe and clean place to stay, dinner and breakfast and such, and basically to live with us so he doesn't have to live with his grandma, or try to reconcile with his mother (who, by the way, won't give me guardianship because she fears it will hurt her claim on back-pay of child support from his birth father, who hadn't paid a cent since his son was born). I hadn't tried to replace any parental figure he has, but really, he has none he can trust or confide in, but us.

Specifically, my question is two-fold: - do I just keep on, not trying to be "dad," but just give him a safe place to live until he graduates (with any guidance that you guys could offer?) - or, do I need to convince him that I'm as good as Dad as he's going to get, to start treating me like one, or else there will be consequences?

I'm not very good at all at setting a structured home system. I have generally taken things as they come, and if I at least have forewarning of an opportunity for him to make the right choice, I tell him the consequence for making a wrong choice. But, I have no consistency, and certainly no structure. I know this is likely the problem. But, how do I approach this?

Thanks for reading. It's a long description, which was required, because really, I don't know what my question really is.

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3 Answers 3

So Far, So Good

Seems to me like given the circumstances, things are already looking up and pretty great.

I wouldn't recommend asking him to treat you like a father, because you just aren't his father. You do, however, deserve that he treats you with respect just like he should treat other people with respect, and just like he should treat authoritarian figures and people on his side with respect. That last bit is important. You are on his side, and he knows it. It can be tricky to ask of him though, as he's been dumped before by people who were supposed to care for him, so he may try to push to see if you'll do the same and see it as a natural thing. Just show you won't give up on him, but that you won't be a doormat and actions have consequences.

I would also attempt to set slightly stricter rules on some key points and discuss them with him.

Specific Points of Concern

Out Late - Cause for Concern

11pm on a school night is a bit late, yes, I'd say lights should be off by 10 or 11pm (most of the time). It's not just as a way of controlling his whereabouts and by fear of him wandering in dark alleys or whatnot, but I'm more concerned about that setting a pattern that will hinder his learning and prevent him from getting a familiar and regular routine.

Follow-up questions:

  • What is he doing out at that time?
  • What time does he have to get up for school in the morning?

So, I'm not too fussed about it, but I'm a bit concerned if that happens way too regularly and if the whereabouts and actions are unknown. Of course you have to establish trust and not spy on him or anything, but at 16 I'd expect him to be home earlier than this. I don't know it is where you live, but where I do at 16 I had homework to do, and my after-school routine was:

  1. getting home
  2. eating a scary amount of food (my father was shocked to see my brother and I actually cooking meals for ourselves at that age because we were hungrey all the time. Normal teenager biorythm, best to stash lots of food!)
  3. slacking, walking the dog, playing with friends outside, and (later) video games or other things delaying 4.
  4. homework
  5. dinner
  6. after dinner:
    • movie on 1 or 2 days a week tops if homework is done,
    • or homework if it isn't done
  7. bedtime

At that age I'd occasionally go out with my parents, or on more rare occasions with friends in groups (e.g. for a concerts), but most of the time during the week I'd be home by 8pm (dinner time), except on football training nights.

Then I may stay up late at home, but generally that was only for the occasional movie night or because I was late on my homework or preparing exams (I wasn't the smartest student, nor was I the most studious, and I was kind of slacking off before dinner).

Though, of course, back then some things were less ubiquitous: cell-phones, internet, video games... they were there, but not as much of an integral part of your life. And when they appeared, they took more and more importance on my schedule, so I guess that's another problem if he's home anyways... but that seems better than being out.

Hey, I guess he's not out alone and you can tell yourself he's quite social. Not a bad thing in itself.

Skipping Dinners - Not OK

Seldom home for dinner isn't OK.

Follow-up questions:

  • What does he eat when he's not home?
  • How does he afford it?
  • Why isn't he home? Does he give a reason? Is it because of the dinner itself (food, atmosphere, memories ...)?

Dinners are family time. You aren't his parents, and you aren't really his family, but your his "circle". Dinner is the time to catch up, share what's on your mind, and check up on things.

It's also a good time to bond, whether you want it or not, and a good time to stimulate other development aspects. Just don't turn it into this.

Phone Stuff - Seems Fine

The phone-related seems pretty standard and acceptable to me. And good on you for giving him the phone. I had a very good relationship with my parents and they forced me (I have to have been the only kid who had to be forced to be GIVEN a cellphone...) to carry a cellphone when I took up to drive a motorbike. But every time they'd ask me to call when I'd arrive to a destination or something, I'd invariably forget. I don't think that was a lack of respect, just a matter of it being really easy to forget. As long as he writes back AND also picks up when you call, that's fine. What matters is that you can now he's safe and can trust him to call you if he needs it.

Skipping Classes - Not OK

Skipping classes isn't OK, even one per day, even one per week, even one per month. There's no reason for that, apart from being sick or helping someone else out. I wasn't really top of the class but I never skipped class except for serious medical problems or when I covered for a buddy, and that'd also be a possibly stupid reason. Your conditions are that you give him shelter and try to get him to graduate, so it's up to him to take that seriously.

Plus, skipping classes might have unintended consequences:

Dorm Dorks - 2006-03-08

Follow-up Questions:

  • Why is he leaving in the middle of the class? Boredom? Restlessness? Peer-pressure? You need to find that out.
  • Have you verified with teachers that he actually does leave in the middle of classes and that you have the whole story? I suppose you did, but just in case...
  • Have you talked with both him and his teachers about this? What's their take on it, and what consequences will that have? Is he clear on this? In my area, skipping classes would be quickly cause for a temporary exclusion, and then possibly for a more permanent radiation and obligation to be sent to another school, and that's when the real fun would begin...

From a personal experience, skipping classes is most of the time a peer-pressure related thing. Others do it, and it's a matter of social status and of the crowd you want to associate with. That's the tricky part of address, as if that's the case he obviously believes he belongs (and WANTS to belong) to these groups. And it's not necessarily groups of "bad-seeds" (many good and relatively quiet students skip classes as well), but the repercussions are not the same for everybody.

When I was a teenager, my parents had a strange rule on that: we don't mind if you skip classes, but we'll mind if we know about it. When I tell that story, most people interpret it as them not caring and not setting rules and giving us a free pass, but the way it was meant was more that they trusted us to be in class, trusted us to have the judgment to skip bullshit classes if we felt it was necessary (because they remembered that not all classes were valuable), but that it shouldn't be done at the expense of another thing: respecting authority. Theirs, and the school system. That it may be broken is one thing, but you won't fix it by being out of it. And, well, also that if you are going to do something, you should do it well - even slacking and not getting caught. However I never thought this was bad advice, and I didn't slack classes and neither did my brother. It was also a way of teaching a sense of responsibility indirectly: deal with YOUR problems, and don't make it OUR problem.


Some Recommendations

Sports

Does he do any? If not, I'd strongly recommend it takes up some. Which one doesn't matter as much, but if possible something that promotes some social values. Running and athletism will be good to teach you perseverance and other things, but not so much necessarily in lieu of respecting others. A martial art or a team sports will do better at that. On the other hand, relationships are a worry in team sports if his social interactions tend to lead to bad habits (as you mentioned drug use, possible violence and police). So, look up first how the social element plays out in your local sports clubs.

But in general, I'd say even the worst possible sport you could pick, even with bad instructors and bad teammates, would be a good thing for him. It'd keep him healthy, add more structure to his life, and fill up his schedule so you know where he is and he's not tempted to be anywhere else.

Surely there must be some sports he's interested in. It's an investment, both financially and time-wise, but it's a good one.

Other Extra-Curricular Activities

Anything he likes to do? Writing, reading, watching movies, playing video games, etc...?

Anything that's a positive force in his life is a leverage for you, both because you can have an impact on them as punishment if he strays, but also (and mostly!) because you can use that to push him forward.

More "Family" Time

Again, you're not his family, but what matters is to develop a mutual bond built on trust, respect, and - hopefully - friendship.

Have you gone on vacations together? Done week-end outings? Gone to see a ball-game, concert, festival?

Psst, Actually "Family Time" is a Head Fake

I have many memories of my childhood when my parents dragged me to things I wasn't particularly interested in. And nowadays, even the things I found annoying at the time are things I'm thankful for, because it gave me perspective on things, and filled my brain with tidbits of information that I found useful later.

Sometimes, "Family Time" is just an educational tool.

Build His Self-Worth and Confidence

From what you describe, I'd bet that kid would have reasons to have a low self-esteem. Maybe he doesn't show and he's a rugged, maybe he looks confident, but having been displaced from home by his own caretakers (I'm not sure I even want to call them parents at this stage anymore) he probably doesn't feel too good about himself.

Following the point above, make sure to value the things he does right. A bit like the One Minute Manager teaches you: catch people doing something right, not just doing something wrong!

Also, try to not show that having him is just a social responsibility, a burden or a duty. Get him involved in what you do.

Get Him a Job

Even a small one. Even a summer job, a part-time thing, or a stupid job at your employer's. Even find him a neighbor's kid to baby-sit occasionally. Even a make-believe job, like asking a friend or neighbor to ask him if he can help with a problem with a computer problem. Surely an old lady somewhere doesn't have a Facebook account and would agree to pretend needing one, or learning to use Word, etc... (Sorry for the stereotypes and the lack of better scenarios, but you get the idea.)

Anything that gives him responsibilities will be good and relates to the previous point on building his self-worth. It teaches a lot of other things, obviously, but for him I think that's the main point. And again, it will also, as mentioned for other things above, fill his schedule and keep him - by lack of a better expression - "in line".

Keep in Touch with his "Real" Family

Make sure he knows you are trying to keep in touch with them, and for the right reasons. He may not seem to want you to, but he'll probably value that you do, if he doesn't get the feeling that it's to get rid of him (I can't stress that one enough: he's been jerked around and dumped, a pretty strong inner fear for him is probably for that to happen again).


But, generally speaking, looks to me like you're doing alright and keeping at what you're already doing seems great. Congrats on an honorable and valuable show of kindness.

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"we don't mind if you skip classes, but we'll mind if we know about it" - if he's a bright kid (which it sounds like), this might not be so bad. The way it's being done though (disrespecting the teachers by leaving in the middle of it without permission) sounds like more of an issue than skipping itself though. –  Chris Sep 21 '13 at 8:04

First of all, I think you're doing a great job all things considered! Look at it this way: before you took him in, he was skipping school altogether, getting in trouble with the police and he's not doing that anymore. From what you say, he sounds like a sweet, bright kid. I agree with haylem that you cannot expect to step in at this point and become his "Dad" although in later years he may view you as Dad (my parents essentially raised my cousin, and, even though he was EXTREMELY troubled, to this day my cousin views my dad as his father-figure).

I would like to add a couple of things:

  1. The cell phone issue: If he responds to texts then I wouldn't worry too much if he's not answering when you call. I think this is very common in teenagers now. Most of my high school students didn't even have minutes on their cell phones because they never used it for talking on the phone, or they had very few specifically for emergencies. But they DID have unlimited texting packages on their phone because that's how they communicate. If there's a real emergency that requires him, you can always text him saying that there's an emergency and you need him to call you immediately. He clearly receives the text messages. If it's really important to you that he answers when you call him, then you need to have that discussion with him. And assure him that the only reason you're going to call him is if you absolutely need to.
  2. It's your house and your rules, but, to me, self-medicating with pot is not acceptable. If he didn't have ADHD and he didn't have some emotional issues that seem to need dealing with, I would say allowing limited access to pot probably isn't a big deal, but there are so many people out living on the street who tried to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol when really what they needed was support and guidance. There's a reason why kids with learning disabilities and emotional problems turn to pot (besides the fact that it's so easily accessible) because it's a depressant and it numbs them and makes it so they don't have to deal with their issues. Now, I am not saying that you need to send him to rehab or start making phone calls to counselors for him. I am saying that he is 16 years old and he needs to start learning to take responsibility for his health and well-being. As a child with a learning disability, he needs to learn to self-advocate because, as you said, once he graduates he's on his own. I think you need to sit him down and delicately tell him that it's time the two of you worked together to find a better way of him dealing with his ADHD. And he's going to get scared because you're asking him to drop his current coping mechanism. Re-medicating might be the answer for him. There are TONS of ADHD medications out there and he doesn't have to feel like a zombie all that time. He's completely justified being scared about taking medication. There are also many ways to learn to cope with ADHD without being medicated, but it takes a lot of work and a willingness to do whatever it takes. It's especially difficult with teenagers who have not learned those coping mechanisms as a child. My concern for him is: what happens when he graduates, is turned loose into the real world, and, suddenly, smoking pot isn't enough to help him deal with the stresses of being an adult and being responsible for himself? What does he turn to then? Alcohol? Pills? Stronger drugs? Finding a doctor who he really trusts and who is committed to listening to him, helping him, and finding a functional solution for him is the only way that's going to work, and that's going to be really hard. He's been burned a lot.
  3. The fact that he's randomly leaving class is a little worrying. Is he leaving class at the same time everyday? I've had students do that who had standing appointments in the bathroom with their drug dealers, their friends, their boyfriends/girlfriends, etc. Does he find the class he's leaving too difficult and he just can't cope with the class? I'm sort of perplexed by the whole thing. Around here, students are not allowed to leave class without permission without some kind of serious consequence. As a teacher, if a student walked out of my class that was a sign of major disrespect. Maybe that's not the case where you are.
  4. Absolutely find that boy a job! Teenagers want to earn their own money--even the ones whose parents/guardians have money and they don't need to work per se. They are so proud of themselves when they get that first job. Give him that responsibility of having people rely on him and of having a manager or a boss tell him good job. Let him decide what jobs he wants to apply to. I have lots of former students who have actually made successful careers out of that first job they got in high school, or who have helped put themselves through post-secondary schooling with that high school job. Let him do what he wants with the money, but encourage him to make good decisions with it. Many people could make the argument that you could make him to pay for his own cell phone or whatever, but I think at this point you need to dole out the responsibility slowly--start with focusing with just getting to work on time and doing a good job while he's at work. You want him to enjoy this job and learn from it--not make it a burden or a point of stress.

You are a wonderful person. There aren't many people who would offer to take in a troubled teenager and it sounds like things are on the upswing for him. Teenagers can be intimidating, but they appreciate it when you speak to them bluntly and honestly. Positive karma points for you!

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Seems that you didn't sign up for any of this, nor did your wife. But you're doing what you think is best for an individual that needs it. I'm not going to try to address the specific points, but to give one point of foundational advice based on what you've written:

He has no family. Be his family.

The easy part: Consider his maternal unit out of the picture. Consider his 85 yo grandmother as an 85 yo grandmother. You know, invite her for Saturday dinners, go over there on Thxgiving and Xmas day, stuff like that. Make it as family as possible. Consider that he is 16 and you've known him for "a while" . . . he may call you "James", and you may not be the paternal unit, but you are dad as you have helped form his life.

The hard part: Unless you see a reason to let go after graduation, I don't think that's really necessary. If you want to help him thru this part of his life, then get on with your own, nobody can fault you for that.

However, it sounds like you might be trying to follow some kind of unwritten script. Just because he graduates that doesn't mean you have to suddenly go hands-off.* As a matter of fact, socially, I think that would be about the worst time to do it. *

HS Graduation is a 1-time event in everyones life, and there's... dude... I can't express how much rides on that time in a persons life and people don't really realize it. It's the end of innocence, of childhood, it's the beginning of adulthood. It's also a time when society expects people to stop being a child while at the same time not letting them be an adult. It's frustrating and exhilarating. And on top of everything else, he will no longer have any kind of legal responsibility or obligation from his maternal unit (after 18).

One thing that everyone knows, but nobody says out loud: In middle class America, there is a ONE WAY PORTAL thru which high school graduates pass. You are right to try to shepherd him to it. If he doesn't graduate, he'll never pass thru it. A GED is a legal equivalency that bears the legal weight, but has stigma. Employers will take a 19 yo graduate over a 19 yo + GED every time. He needs to know this. It needs to be said out loud that even if he does get a GED that his opportunities will be limited. Fair or not, that's the way it is.

But the main point: Remember life right after your own graduation? Think about it. Remember it. The main thing that parents and adults forget is having been a kid, a teenager. "I remember all kinds of crap that happened! Oh man, this one time when I had that Pinto and 8 people..." Fine, but do you remember how you TRULY felt, not just the idealized memory? Do you remember the thought process behind decisions good and bad? The why's and wherefores, not just the events? Remember... and give yourself relevant perspective. It will help you deal with this.

Everything in his world will change. For most people it's a difficult time as they seek direction. He will need someone in his life to be that rock in the ebb and flow of the swirling world around him. Without it, he will be susceptible to all manner of influences while his mush of a psyche hunts for definition.

This is what my 2 oldest are going thru. My 22 yo is well on his way to having a complete definition of who and what he is. My 20 yo is still searching, but I think he's finding it. Regardless of where they are (physically or mentally), they know they can always come home . . . for dinner and then GTFO... But the point is that they know they always have someone to help them deal.

TL;DR Summary:

You've been there with him, for him, thru the bulk of his life. He will continue to need that when he's 19, 24, 32 and beyond. You can absolutely be there for him without him living in your basement.


Sidebar: If you have the money, I would definitely advise trying to get that sociopathic judgement expunged from his police record. It will only hinder him in his adult life. It will forever pop out on any employment background check and potentially credit reports, and he will be incessantly reminded of how much he hates his maternal unit. It will be nothing but a distraction.

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Here! Here! Graduating high school, even though I was moving on to college, was a really craptastic time in my life. I had a stable family to run to when things got rough so I don't know how people with less-stable families got through it. –  Meg Coates Oct 7 '13 at 18:30

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