A few years ago I got married and became step-parent to a teenager (now in his early 20s) who was raised by his alcoholic and chaotic mother (who subsequently abandoned him). He lived with us for over a year, and we had plenty of challenges getting him into a regular schedule and into work. He’s made amazing progress.

After he’d lived locally with another family member, which we paid for, we pushed him to become independent, work more and pay his own rent. Eventually we told him we couldn’t pay any more – not only could we not afford it but it felt as if he was taking advantage.

During this transition he started dating and moved in with a woman in her late 30s (my age) – subsequently stopping any kind of work. He seems happy; this is his first girlfriend. I swing between feeling he needs to mature, make mistakes and grow independently and feeling the situation is wrong and he’s vulnerable. My friends and husband downplay things but I can’t help feel the age difference is inappropriate. It’s especially uncomfortable since she is my age (I really see him as a child). We want to be able to talk to him honestly without pushing him away. Would this relationshipbe considered on the predatory side?

The problem with trying to get adult children to become more independent is that when they do they may make decisions we don’t like.

I went to UKCP registered psychotherapist Katherine Walker who felt it was important to separate what might be “your own stuff woven through this” and what is genuine worry for your stepson. “Maybe you’re thinking that you couldn’t or wouldn’t at your age be in a relationship with someone of your stepson’s age. But your stepson may be genuinely happy. I understand there may be some past trauma with regard to his mum, but it doesn’t mean he’s a vulnerable adult. It means he’s got a complicated past.”

I wondered if you could really home in on what feels “wrong” and “inappropriate”? Have you met his girlfriend? Some older women prefer being with younger men for all sorts of reasons that aren’t necessarily predatory. Or is it that, as Walker says, this is a situation you just wouldn’t find yourself in, so it feels wrong? This is understandable but it’s what we mean about separating out your stuff from his.

Walker did want to stress that “none of this takes away from the fact that you’re his stepmum, and it sounds as if you really do care for him”.

But she wondered why no one else around this young man seemed overly worried and why you were taking all the responsibility? “Is this because the others are genuinely unconcerned or are they disconnected from their emotions?”

The issue here is that while you see him as a child, he’s an adult. That doesn’t mean adults don’t get into difficult and unsafe relationships, so my advice would be the same as if he were in a relationship with someone his own age and you had concerns: keep him close.

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“He’s still your stepson,” says Walker, “so you should feel you can sit down and have a conversation with him on your own if you can’t enlist his dad. Not to preach – this will only make him defensive – but to make him realise you’re there for him, that the channels of communication are open. You might want to say something like, ‘There’s always a bed for you here.’”

But that’s only if you genuinely mean it. He may have taken you at your word that you wanted him to fledge and while he’s not as independent as you hoped, he is independent from you and his dad. If it’s appropriate you may want to say something about the age gap but I think this may detract from what you’re really worried about, which is his vulnerability. So make it about what really concerns you, once you’ve worked out what that is.

Maybe he’s truly happy and this will be the start of great things for him. But if he’s not, as Walker says, “Make sure he knows there’s always a door he can come back and knock on”.

Walker and I did a podcast on step or bonus families which you may also find useful.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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