After several years of being a single, divorced mom, I married “Leon.” My son “Charlie” always wanted me to get back together with his father, and has been openly hostile towards my new husband from the beginning. Nothing I can say or do will change my son’s way of thinking. Recently when Charlie refused to do a simple chore I asked him to do, Leon told him he needs to listen and mind my request. This ignited a shouting match. After a few moments, Charlie insulted Leon. Leon finally lost his patience and slapped Charlie. In shock, Charlie did what I initially asked him to do, but then left the room in a cold rage. Now he won’t speak to either of us unless he absolutely needs to. This has been going on for a week now!
Abby, my husband works long hours to help keep a roof over our head, and tells me constantly how much he loves Charlie. He is deeply hurt by Charlie’s behavior, and regrets losing his temper the way he did. As for me, I am getting angrier and angrier with Charlie’s behavior, and have half a mind to send him packing to his father. Is this insanity ever going to stop? What should I do?
At a Loss in Attleborough
Charlie and I have something in common, we both got stepdads later in our lives. Both Mom and Dad did, too, so the whole family got together to write your reply.
Mom said that when her stepdad first entered the picture, there was a power struggle because she was kind of the one in charge before he came along and took over the family. She was in her early teens and had been self-sufficient until then, so she had a lot of anger that some stranger could come in and act like he was the boss of her. It was a tumultuous time, but they worked it out. He is still in her life and she says that they both have grown up a lot. Overall, he is a good man who did the best he could with a very difficult situation.
Dad said that he was devastated when his mom and dad divorced. When his stepfather came into Dad’s life, he was very resentful and would not give the new stepfather the time of day. It took a long time for them to work things out, but now they are the best of friends. Dad says he deeply respects his stepdad now.
I had a different dad when I was a puppy. I think my dad loved me, though he was not always nice to me or Mom. Things changed very quickly and, as you can imagine, no one really takes the time to explain family dynamics to the dog.
I think, unfortunately, that a lot of kids in divorces are treated much like dogs. The moms and dads are going through very had times, and they forget that all the rest of the family are in the middle being hurt and confused. Fear and sadness and anger and resentment can all build up inside, and each kid will grab hold of a different one or several of those emotions. They may not be old enough to know how to handle these emotions. They can only learn how to treat other people by what they see you do.
If you are mean to your ex-husband, your son will see that it is OK to be mean to people they are mad at — even people they love very much. If you are resentful or afraid or sad all of the time, you are teaching your son to react those ways to these situations. I am not saying that you cannot feel these things. I am saying that your son will learn how to use these emotions based on how you use them.
The only way to combat this is honesty and love. Lots and lots of love. You once loved your husband enough to make him a dad, so remember that part of him and bring it out for your son. Ask your ex-husband to do the same. Be honest with your son while remembering that when you say terrible things about your ex-husband, you are insulting someone that your son still loves very much and misses terribly.
Not only will it make you and your ex-husband better people, it will make you better parents, and it will show your son how to treat others even in the most difficult situation.
As for the new dad, be honest. Let your son know that he loves him. Again be honest and make sure your son he also understands that his stepdad will forever be an EXTRA dad, not a replacement dad. You do not have to give up one to enjoy the other.
Mom calls this adding kibble to the bowl. She learned this while fostering dogs that had food aggression. Many shelters and well-meaning people will punish a dog that growls or snaps at people when they are eating. They may hit him or take away his food. The problem with negative reinforcement is that you make the problem worse. Now the dog sees you as a double threat to his food and his safety, so he is going to become even more aggressive. It is so sad that many people give up on these dogs when it is such a simple thing to fix.
This is what you do:
Let the dog have some of his food, and then while he is eating, you approach only to add food to the bowl. Soon he will no longer be afraid or resentful of your presence. Soon the dog will only see your approach as a positive thing.
Mom read what I wrote and taught me a new word: ironic. She said that it was ironic that I first said that children in the middle of divorces are often treated like dogs, and then I offered a dog-training tip to help you with your son. I will be honest, dogs do not understand irony. The one thing we do understand, though is love.
Love is universal, and love is the only thing that can help you and your son.
Sending lots of that love,