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A challenge for my challenging SS

post #1 of 9
Thread Starter 

Trying hard to come up with a plan for dealing with my very sweet and unbelievably difficult 4 year old stepson.


Background: I've been in his life since the beginning. (His parents split right around birth.) He is the youngest of their two, and my DH and I have a son together who is younger. We have the older two half+ of every week, and manage schools, dr stuff, etc. Our relationship with Ex-W is very cordial (after lots of work), and we do our best to attend events together, and blend their two homes as much as possible.


But, unsurprisingly, SS is still having a really difficult time. Since he was an infant, he's been without his mother for half of every week at least, and in her struggles to get her life on track (which she's done very well), I'm afraid he's been shortchanged even during "Mommy's Time." There, he's often with babysitters, and most activities seemed geared to his older brother's interests. DH and I have tried to bring this up, really just suggesting that SS get some one-on-one time too (and offering to facilitate that with childcare), but thus far to no avail.


For the most part, our approach is to focus on what happens at our house, but lately, SS's behavior has become so volatile (even violent) that I've felt compelled to at least think hard about circumstances, whether they're under our control or not. At the very least, I figure, we can try to understand fully.


Over the last couple of months, SS has become extremely angry and emotional -- screaming, shrieking, kicking, hitting. It happens with both of us (me and DH), and can occur without any identifiable in-the-moment cause, or with something as small as a stubbed toe. DH can sometimes calm him down, but if I so much as approach him, it escalates to ear-splitting (and bruising) proportions. For a while, I sort of unconsciously withdrew, thinking that maybe I was being overbearing, or that maybe it was just right to let his father deal with it. But it's gotten worse and worse, and this week I stepped back in.


I started holding him during tantrums, letting them escalate until they die down and then talking to him once he's calm. I asked why he was so upset, and even seemed angry with me, and he hugged me and said, "I want my mommy." In another context, we talked about when he was a baby, and he told me that he screamed a lot then because "I thought mommy wasn't there." It was heartbreaking.


Obviously, this poor kid has more to deal with than is anywhere close to fair. I suspect he's mad at me/us because a) he feels like he's taken away from his mom every week (and when she has other plans) to come here, b) I'm not his mom, but have a son, and while I try to treat them equally, I have to admit that the recent issues have made that hard, c) maybe the very difference between me and his mom (I work at home, and I think we've had the kids babysat twice) makes him feel worse? and d) he may be angry at his mother (fairly or not), but unable to process that anger in any way other than transferring it to me.


My question is what I can do now to try to help. Am I doing the right thing by going back to being a strong presence? Or is that inappropriate step-mom butting in? I don't believe in any way that I can or should replace his mom -- but it seems like he needs some mother-ish presence that he's not getting enough of. If that's right, how can I best step up in a way that improves his sense of security (and doesn't come across as a challenge to his mom)?

post #2 of 9

I don't have a whole lot of answers for you. If it were me, I would continue to be the strong mother presence and let the cards fall where they may. If bio-mom isn't stepping up, either because she can't or won't, then someone should. It's logical that you are the next in line.


Are you (or the parents) able to get him into counseling? I think a good counselor, who deals with abandonment issues in children, would help tremendously. He was not abandoned, per se, but it may feel like that because his mother wasn't there for him as an infant, and isn't there for him now. They would also be able to give you some extra tools to help you help him process what happened as an infant and what's going on right now.


It could be that he knows you are not bio-mom, and he knows bio-mom is supposed to do xyz (and isn't), and so is acting out to get bio-mom's attention. And he probably won't be able to put it into words like that, but sometimes our emotions get ahead of our brains and make it difficult to process what's happening. 


Good luck.

post #3 of 9
Thread Starter 

Thank you for replying!


It's good to hear that it's not definitely wrong for me to step in. :) I just have to figure out how to balance helping him with not offending his mom. (Our last big family-cooperation speedbump, really, was about her objecting to my being motherly towards him.)


With that in mind, I'm not sure how to pull off counseling, although I agree it would more than likely help him. He doesn't act out quite as much at Mom's house -- my aunt, who is a therapist, believes kids often protect the parent with whom things are fragile, and act out with the parent they know can take it -- so I suspect she'd read the suggestion defensively. :/ I'll see if I can come up with a way to make the suggestion without triggering other problems.

post #4 of 9

If bio-mom has an issue with you being motherly to children in your home, that's on her. She needs to be a grown up and get over it.


Maybe you and your husband can talk counseling - and you can go as a family unit. It doesn't have to involve bio-mom at all. If she wants to be involved, fine, the therapist will see her for what she is. But regardless of what the adults want, that child needs help. And Dad has just as much right to ask for counseling as anyone else. And given the behavior is happening in your home (and could be happening in her home, she may not be telling you), then it's on you and your husband to get him the help he needs.


Your Aunt is right, children who are abandoned or abused often fight the adults who can take it. It doesn't mean that they don't need outside help.

post #5 of 9
Thread Starter 

You're right, and thanks for saying it. I'll look for a counselor, and keep step-momming. He really is a wonderful kid.

post #6 of 9

((you all))


Sometimes we know what needs to be done, we just need to hear someone else say it.


I'm glad I was able to help. I hope things get better soon. :)

post #7 of 9
Thread Starter 

Thanks again, and me too. :)


It's really strange in some ways being a mom and a stepmom (as I'm sure everyone on here knows) -- I'm so clear on how to parent my own child, and just less so when it comes to my SSs, because they move between two very different households with different expectations and experiences. I guess we all just learn and adjust as we go. :)

post #8 of 9

Ya know, I just chose to parent my stepkids the same way I parent my own. My house, my rules. The rules might be different at Mom's house, just like they are a little different at Grannie's house or church or school or the store. But in my house, these are the rules. And when they are followed, there are these set of consequences. When they aren't followed, there's this other set of consequences. We really like the first set, so we all try to follow the rules.


I am tolerant and understanding of the fact that moving between homes might mean there is a need for a reminder or two the first day (depending on the age of the child, maybe more). But I am not going to upset the lives of the children that live with me full time, just to accommodate - or be easy on - children that are in my house part of the time. That's not fair to those who live here full time. And really, that's not life. Your boss isn't going to like it when you come in and say "I just spent the last three days on vacation, so I'm going to slack off today". No, they are going to expect you to do what you need to do to get the job done. It's no different for switching homes. I know it's a bit much for a 4yo to understand, but you get it. :)


Of course, my stepkids are teenagers (currently 14, 16, 18). We had all three for part time for a while, then had one full time and two part time, then switched and had a different one full time and the other two part time, and now two live with their mother and one is moved out completely. But through it all, there has been consistency in my home for the two that live here full time (ages 9 and 6). Obviously, the rules are going to be a bit different when we are dealing with teens and a 6yo. But the basic rules are the same - be kind, clean up after yourself, do your household jobs without complaining, be respectful of the people sharing the same living space as you, etc. 

post #9 of 9
Thread Starter 

I agree so much in spirit. And yet, in practice here it just hasn't worked that way for us. I'm very strict with our three year old, and as a consequence he mostly listens (well, he's 3 ;)), and has thus earned a pretty impressive level of trust and respect for his growing autonomy. (Ex: I know he'll listen to me when I tell him a pot is hot, and so he's allowed to stir dinner with supervision; I know he's gentle and respectful with items, so he's allowed to play games on my iPad.)


My poor SS has been acting out so much (and in general listens pretty poorly), that it's hard not to feel like he's always being punished or denied something his little brother can have. Me, I'd stand firm, but my DH... He tends to feel that his older kids' lives have been so disrupted that they require a more flexible approach. We don't agree on that, but he is adamant. And I am willing to try to meet him in the middle somehow, with more prompting, etc. than I would give DS3 before a consequence. DS3, of course, notices the difference and points out his "better" behavior, which sets SS4 off. Sigh.


I love your analogy about vacation and work -- that is so right. And boy, do you have my awe and respect. 

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