Ask a counsellor: 'My stepson is very upset and angry - how can I get my husband to acknowledge it?'

19th Mar 19 | Lifestyle

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises a woman who's unsure how to handle her stepson's emotional outbursts.

Suffering child in dark room

The problem… 

“My stepson is seven and visits every other weekend. When I married his father last year, he was clearly upset, but since then things have got so much worse. He says he hates being with us and goes out of his way to break things in the house. When he really loses it, he throws himself around the house and screams at the top of his voice.

“Nothing I do seems to make any difference. I have tried to be calm and talk him down as well as getting angry, but nothing works. Last week he got so upset that he smashed his hand through a glass-fronted cabinet. We spent the rest of the day at A&E and when his mother called to collect him, she gave me such a filthy look, as though it was my fault.

“I’ve tried to get my husband to accept that something is very wrong, but he thinks the boy is fine. He says it’s only a reaction to the divorce and it will sort itself out over time. I’m not so sure of that. What I do know though, is that I really can’t do this for much longer.”

Fiona says…

“This child is clearly in pain and in need of help. He’s confused and emotional and, at seven years old, may lack the capacity to understand and explain why he feels this way. Instead, he makes his feelings and frustration known by lashing out. The important thing for you to know is that this is not personal, it’s a reaction to the changed circumstances. It’s also important that you understand it should not be solely your responsibility to deal with the situation.

“I sense from your letter that you take on the role of peace-maker whenever problems arise and, if this is the case, I think your husband is shirking his responsibility as the boy’s father.

“If things were perfect, he and his ex-wife would continue to parent their son, so that he understood all the rules were the same in both homes. The consequences of behaviour too, would remain the same from one place to the next, and his father and mother would be cooperating to contain difficult issues before they became a problem. Things are not perfect though, and whatever the reasons for the divorce, one thing that doesn’t seem to have been agreed on is parenting styles.

“Your husband may well be feeling guilty about breaking up the family, but he is also deluding himself if he thinks this behaviour will simply correct itself. His son is NOT fine – he needs help and soon, so that this situation does not escalate further. If he fails to act now, he risks embedding behavioural problems in his son for years to come. And if he won’t be persuaded by you, show him your letter and my response.

“His first step should be a conversation with his ex-wife. They need to find a way for their son to get the help he needs. This might involve a specialist child counsellor and perhaps input from his school as well. At the very least, they should contact Family Lives (familylives.org.uk). The charity’s website has an extensive collection of advice covering many parenting issues. It also operates a confidential helpline where they can get support and guidance on the best way forward.

“Your husband also needs to help his son to understand that he needs to respect you and what that means. He needs to make it clear that there is a difference between love and respect, and that he’s not asking for the former but that he does expect his son to demonstrate basic respect. That means, of course, that you must do the same in return. But if this situation threatens to overwhelm you or you simply need someone to talk to, please contact Family Lives yourself. Readers in Scotland can contact Parentline Scotland which is part of Children1st (children1st.org.uk).”

:: If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to help@askfiona.net for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

© Press Association 2019

MORE FROM XPOSÉ