By Quentin Fottrell, MarketWatch
MarketWatch photo illustration/Everett Collection
I have been with my fiancé for over two years, and we each have three kids from previous marriages. Five of the kids get along great with everyone. However, my fiancé has a 16-year-old son who wants nothing to do with any of us, and I am finding myself not wanting to get him anything for Christmas.
In general, he has a bad attitude, contributes nothing to the household, and doesn’t apply himself in school. Yet he thinks he should be allowed to play sports and be given a car and insurance. This all bothers me, but what bothers me most is the way he treats all the rest of us.
For example, at my own son’s 7th birthday, he begrudgingly showed up to the party, didn’t talk to anybody and left early. I believe he only showed up because he was told that he had to.
When we are together as a family at their house, he doesn’t even come out of his bedroom. He will show up to eat dinner, then immediately leaves without so much as a word. Not even a thank you.
I spent the last two years trying very hard to be kind to him, and to always greet him and include him regardless of his attitude. But recently, I just no longer care about his approval. I am starting to feel that if he wants nothing to do with me or my kids, then I will oblige him.
Last year, I asked him what he would like for Christmas. He gave me no answer. I ended up getting him some card games and “puzzles” for adults, and he purposely left them at my house, so I assume he wasn’t pleased with them. This year, his dad (my fiancé) told me that he wants cash, but I don’t want to hand out cash to all the kids for Christmas. I am contemplating getting him nothing at all.
Your guidance in this matter would be very appreciated.
Just Over It
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Dear Over It,
Buying a gift for a teenager is a difficult task. Buying a gift for a difficult teenager is even more difficult. You bought a puzzle for your future stepson, who is himself a puzzle. That’s two puzzles on Christmas Day instead of one. It’s not your fault. We’ve all been there. But Christmas is not the time to hand him his asinine attitude on a plate.
You and your partner could open a mutual-fund account for your children, and set an automatic monthly investment so that by the time he or she is ready to buy a home 20 or 30 years later, the down payment is available. Similarly, you could open a 529 college savings account for your kids.
How would not giving him a gift make you feel? That’s the first, and last, question you must ask yourself. We can speculate how it might make him feel — angry, justified in his bad behavior, hurt, humiliated or glad he doesn’t have to go through the motions anymore, none of which are good results — but what effect will it have on your family?
You are the adult, and getting into the sand pit with a 16-year-old does not sound like a good idea to me, especially on Christmas Day.
I ask myself how something makes me feel when I make big and small decisions: “How does it make me feel?” Sometimes, my Jiminy Cricket is waving a red flag, and I pay attention to that. It helps me make financial decisions that are in my best interest: Saving makes me feel good, spending does (sometimes), and other times I’m spending my emotions — perhaps to cheer myself up, not because I really want or need something. I’ve saved a lot of money that way.
Answering this letter makes me feel good. I hope that I am helping someone, so I endeavor to start or end my day with this column. I pause before sending an email or a text or commenting on a /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR +6.11% conversation, and I ask myself that same question. If I feel like I am venting, or want to set them straight about something, I tell myself to stop. If I feel the need to give someone unsolicited advice, I do the same. It’s not always 100% successful. It takes practice.
It’s not up to your 16-year-old to decide how he should behave. It’s up to you to give him boundaries about what is and what is not acceptable. This has nothing to do with Christmas or family dinners. He is a teenager, and he appears to have issues with being part of a blended family and having a new authority figure to answer to. You and your fiancé could have him see a therapist. It may also be better to give him the space he needs. He will grow up in his own time.
Excluding him could take this antipathy into acrimony. It’s OK to ask him what you can do to help you both get along, and it's OK to say, “Greg, can you make an effort? You’re 16, and I was hoping we could help each other make this work. You have two more years before you go to college. I would like us to get along, even if you’re not ready to be friends.” You don't have to be super-sweet to him or take his guff, but you don’t have to be mean either.
You could just be honest about how you feel: “This stepmother-stepson standoff is a little cliched, don’t you think?” This is the beginning of your relationship with your stepson. He wants a check, so give him a check. At least he’ll be less likely to leave it behind.
Here are my top 5 rules for dealing with difficult people
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