Dear Patti,

I re-married five years ago and have a 13-year-old stepdaughter with whom I’ve bonded and thoroughly enjoy. Her father doesn’t see her and she’s like a daughter to me.

My biggest regret was allowing my ex-wife to take my son Lucas, 10, out of state. She wanted to live near her family. Every summer Lucas comes to stay with me and my second family. I want him to visit during Christmas vacation, but he refuses because he wants to spend Christmas with his cousins. I don’t like it, but I understand, so I only see him once a year.

It seems Lucas is becoming more distant. It broke my heart to see him act so shy and quiet. Halfway through his last visit he called his mom and said he wanted to go home early. He told her that my wife, stepdaughter and I are a family. He felt like an outsider and was homesick. I tried to get him to open up, but he wouldn’t talk. I couldn’t change his mind and he left early.

Ever since he left, I’ve felt down and depressed. As happy as I am in my present marriage, I’ve started to wish I’d never divorced Lucas’ mom. Maybe then I wouldn’t have lost my boy. Nothing is worth that. I’m starting to feel guilty for spending so much time with my stepdaughter. I’m concerned as Lucas gets older and develops teenage friendships and hobbies he’ll never want to visit and I’ll completely lose him.

  — Hal

Dear Hal,

It’s not that Lucas doesn’t want a close relationship; he’s just at a loss on how to make it happen. Developmentally, he probably doesn’t know how to process his feelings. He can’t help if he feels estranged, angry that you live so far away, are divorced from his mother, and maybe jealous your stepdaughter sees you more than he does. He needs your help.

Be proactive. Identify ways to maintain and deepen your relationship. Assume the responsibility to reinstate a personal relationship that’s only about the two of you. Show Lucas how important he is and that he can never be replaced. Take the lead. This will require focus, compassion and commitment. Let him know you’ll go out of your way to take a personal interest in him and not just include him once a year in your already full life.

Get to know the names of his teachers, coaches, closest friends, other parents and neighbors. Take an interest in his homework and what he likes. Watch the same television program, then talk or email afterward. Share a passion for a sports team, read and discuss the same books, play chess or other games by mail or online. Establish telephone calls on the same day and time each week so he has regular, predictable, positive contact. Follow the schedule faithfully so he has contact to look forward to and rely on. Also call at different times. Let Lucas know you’re thinking of him in the morning, before bed, on a weekend. Make sure your calls aren’t so frequent as to be disruptive, but keep in touch. Listen more than you talk. Be sparing with advice. Don’t take it personally if he doesn’t call you right back or only talks a few minutes. This is normal. 

Change it up and use email, text, Skype or webcam — anything to keep conversations flowing. Send funny or cute cards, postcards, letters, articles and occasional packages to let him know you’re thinking of him. For now, focus more on the two of you rather than the whole family.

If possible, visit him even if just for a long weekend three or four times a year. Let him show you his life. Tell Lucas maybe it was a mistake to not have enough alone time with him and plan a trip for just the two of you next summer.

Try to always be there for Lucas’ birthdays. Arrange time off from work and save money in advance to cover expenses. These efforts are an investment in your relationship. Having you near on his special day will mean a lot, even if his attention is on gifts and friends.

At this point I won’t assume you’re depressed as it’s more likely you’re extremely sad and grieving for the loss of a closer relationship. However, if your low mood continues, it would be a good idea to see a psychotherapist, especially if you have a history of depression.

Withdrawing from your stepdaughter (who also needs you) won’t help Lucas and will only hurt her.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.