My husband and I have been married for a little over a year. His ten year old son is with us every other weekend and longer on vacations. His mother was angry about the divorce (it happened three years ago) and has said bad things about me from the start. My stepson shows up ready to pick a fight. He screams at his dad over what we're having for dinner, and even throws things across the room when he's very mad. Should we stop having him come here for a while? He seems happier when he's at his mom's but my husband thinks that with time he'll get used to being here and stop acting out.
Your stepson has been thrown into a situation that I see all too often: one parent says negative things about the other parent or stepparent, creating divided loyalties. The child is faced with an impossible dilemma: Whose side am I supposed to be on?
It would be wonderful if your husband's former wife could see that she how much she is hurting her son by poisoning his view of you and his ability to feel comfortable when he spends time at his father's home. But sadly, no one can force her to help her son adjust to your presence in his life. Perhaps one day she will recognize the damage she is doing to him and decide to work through her grief in a healthier way.
Still, there is much that your husband can do to help his son deal with the anger that is fueling his aggression.
Start by creating an atmosphere that allows him to express all of his feelings. This may require your husband to be less reactive if his son says things the believes are based on his former wife's unkind remarks. For instance, your stepson may tell his father, "I hate coming here because my stepmom doesn't know anything about kids cause she's never been a mom like Mommy. Mommy knows just how I like my pasta."
Now, your husband may want to argue his son's logic by "proving" that you like children or that you're willing to learn how to cook his pasta, but this won't be very useful. Instead, I would encourage him to use a complaint to get to the heart of the issue. He might say, "It sounds like you feel that your stepmom isn't used to having kids around..." or "Mommy knows just how to fix your pasta. I wonder if it's hard to be here where things are a little different."
Ask your husband to avoid denying, arguing, scolding, or correcting your son when he reveals something that is bothering him. And don't take his negative comments at face value! It is unlikely that he is upset about whatever he is complaining about. Rather, see the things that trigger his anger as invaluable inroads that will let your husband help his son discover that it's safe to offload his sadness and confusion.
The child you are describing is hurting. While I can appreciate the temptation to make the problem go away by pausing his visits, this little boy needs his father, and the chance to work through the difficult feelings surrounding his parents' divorce.
All children go through some degree of upheaval when a marriage ends, but with care and support, they generally adjust. Still, it is important to remember that time does not heal all wounds. Your stepson needs help untangling the mixed messages and feelings that have been stirred up inside him. You may find it useful to enlist the help of a family counselor who can create a safe atmosphere for your stepson and his father to forge a connection built on openness and love.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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