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My X-husband has custody of our 10 and 5 year old sons. He married 7 months ago, and my 10 yr old son is very upset that he is mistreated by his new step-mother. She has two sons of her own living there as well.
They are ages 6 and 8. He tells me she screams at him over nothing, curses at him, ignores his efforts to get on her good side (doing extra chores, helping the younger children, etc) - just gives him dirty looks when he is good.
She acts nice to him in front of school faculty, neighbors, etc. She punishes him for nonsense - and the thing is, he is a very nice child. He is eager to befriend adults, very intelligent, thoughtful and generous. She makes negative remarks about him, and makes it a point to let him know his opinion is not important to her.
She shows blatant favoritism towards all three other kids. For instance - She makes him sit in a separate room alone while other kids watch cartoons. My X excuses her behavior - saying that she is very sensitive and gets her feeling hurt easily... And her outbursts of anger are her way of dealing with hurt feelings.
He insists that my son hurts her feelings because of things like not wanting to call his new step-sibling his "brothers"... Or not wanting to share toys because they are not age-appropriate by a long-shot. This makes no sense to me.
My 10 year old isn't one to be mean or hurt feelings - he tells me that her children misbehave and he gets embarrassed in public because of their bad behavior. She screams and curses at my son for no reason at the top of her lungs!
He is not used to adults acting like that. Also - he tells me she was nice prior to the marriage - but changed overnight within days of the marriage. She is alone with all 4 kids often.
Does my husbands reasoning make sense? Is this excusable? Should I be concerned about her behavior escalating into physical abuse? What should I tell my husband to do? He wants to send her and my son to Therapy - but is that the best thing?
Response from Dr. DeFoore
Hello, and thanks for telling your story here. Dealing with this type of custody arrangement can be tremendously stressful for a parent. You want to protect your child, and yet your ability to do so is very limited. I will try to answer your questions and see if I can be of help.
I don’t know whether your husband’s reasoning makes sense, because I don’t have enough information to assess that. However, I can say that verbal abuse as you describe is never excusable, regardless of the circumstances. Verbal abuse does sometimes escalate into physical abuse, but I encourage you not to focus on that...trust that your son will tell you if it gets physical. It sounds like he’s talking openly with you, and that’s good.
Regarding what to tell your husband, and the wisdom of seeking therapy, I think therapy would be good. I recommend family therapy, however, in which your ex husband, his wife and all of the children participate. This needs to occur with an experienced and well trained family therapist, but when it’s done right, it can work wonders.
One thing to be aware of, and to pass on to your ex husband is that in step families, the biological parent needs to always be the primary parent with his/her biological children. When step parents move into the primary parenting role and take the lead in discipline, it never goes well. If the two of them (your ex and his wife) can make this adjustment, it will likely help the situation tremendously.
It’s also possible that the step mother feels insecure in her new role, and is scapegoating your son. If that’s the case, you can’t do anything about it directly...just follow my other recommendations and I think you’ll see improvement.
Meanwhile, I suggest that you use these positive journaling exercises, to keep yourself in a positive frame of mind during this difficult time. Try to focus on the positive aspects of yourself and everyone concerned. This is not a matter of overlooking the problems, it’s just a way to remember the bigger picture of what’s going on.
I hope you find this helpful.
My very best to you,
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