Stepmoms Ask: Why are His Kids so Miserable?

Stepmoms Ask: Why are His Kids so Miserable?

“Laura, I want to be loving and kind to my stepkids. But it’s not easy. They are so bratty, manipulative and whiney that I often just want to get away from them. I feel horrible saying that out loud–but it’s the truth, “ Leah admitted. “What am I going to do? Sometimes I think I’ve made a huge mistake and I consider walking out.” 

And stepmoms across the globe let out a sigh as they whisper, “I hear ya, sister. I hear ya.” 

One of the challenges most stepmoms didn’t anticipate is a growing intolerance for her husband’s kids. They got along ok while she and dad were dating, but now that they are all under one roof–it’s getting ugly.

One of the best ways for a stepparent to overcome the angst and frustration that comes with blending is to take a deep dive into WHY the kids are acting the way that they do.

We often blame the child by saying “She knows what shes doing”  or “He only acts that way when dad is gone.” And that may be true. But that isn’t exploring the root reasons–the why beneath the behavior. And it’s not going to fix the issue.

To obtain that insight we must put our emotions on hold, and put our learning ability on high. So this blog might to sting a bit. But I love my stepmom sisters enough to share the things that will make your situation BETTER, and ease your stress levels, IF thats what you are seeking.

Most experts who study kids/teens and divorce or kids who live in two homes will share that they experince the following:

  • Acting younger than their chronological age
  • Showing fear of being apart from parent(s)
  • Experiencing moodiness
  • Acting out
  • Being manipulative
  • Experiencing sadness and depression
  • Struggling with guilt
  • Having sleep or eating problems
  • Undergoing change in personality
  • Having academic and peer problems
  • Displaying irrational fears and compulsive behavior (1)

I understand this subject only too well. I was 8 years old when my parents divorced. I have no memory of the day we moved away, and the following 6-9 months is a blur. I don’t remember the drive to another city, moving in with relatives, starting school or my new teacher. I have one vague recollection of a teacher praising my schoolwork, but she has no name or face.

In contrast I can remember the smallest details of my life before the separation. I recall the gray swirled wallpaper in my bedroom, and the green and white gingham dress that my Aunt Dorothy had given to me for my birthday. I have a vivid recollection of my brother’s crib complete with teeth marks, and my treasured chalkboard where I would “teach” my dolls. This photo is my brother and I just before my parents split.

The Tide box was stored on the bathroom windowsill, and our brown sofa was plaid. And a small, white radio that sat on top of the refrigerator entertained me as I washed dishes. This photo is me and my brother just before my parents split.

Twenty-three years later I found myself in a counselor’s office weeping. I had just quit a high-stress job with a boss who was impossible to please. Instead of experiencing relief, I was overwhelmed with shame and despair. When questioned the reason for my anxiety I replied,

“I don’t know. All I know is that I’m eight years old again, and I can’t do one thing right.”

I was as perplexed as he was to hear those words come out of my mouth. Why did I say that?

As the conversation unfolded it became painfully clear that this little girl, with a memory loss, believed she was the reason for her parents divorce. The torture of that conviction was too burdensome for my tiny mind to endure. So I forgot. Thirty-one years later, sitting in that office, the truth unfolded. The shame and trauma of my parent’s divorce had haunted my life, and influenced my decisions. And I never even knew it.

Imagine, if I had a stepmom who understood my pain, and she desired to help me overcome that shame? If she stopped trying to be another mom, or stopped resenting my mother and instead sought to be my “soft place to fall.”

DO YOU KNOW that YOU, Stepmom, can be that person for your stepchild?

Kids and divorce or living in two homes is a complex subject and there are no easy answers. However, it’s imperative for parents and stepparents to learn that they play a pivotal role in minimizing the trauma kids experience when their parents separate or divorce.

Here are a few tips that might help:
• Most kids will initially go into a form of denial when their parents separate. They believe, “This is temporary, my parents will get back together.” That’s why it’s not advisable for dad  to enter into a new relationship quickly, he may feel ready but the kids are still grieving. Even years later many kids still dream about their parents reuniting, which is one reason why they resist, become nasty, and fight a parent’s remarriage. It’s the death of the dream that mom and dad will be in one home. Please don’t blame the child, it’s a natural reaction.

• Allow the child time to grieve. Children are unable to communicate grief in the same manner as adults. Therefore, they may be sad, angry, frustrated or depressed but can not express it. This comes out in behaviors. What you see might not be rebellion but rather anger /frustration over the fact that they hate living in two homes, two sets of rules, two beds, no ONE place that just feels safe and cozy.

We stepmoms often hate this because it insinuates that our husband once had a life before we came into the picture. We resent that we aren’t the FIRST. We are jealous, resentful or envious of the life and family he had before we fell in love. So we try to minimize the previous relationship or marriage with “He wasn’t happy with her.” That may be true, but he did have a child with her and that connected him in some way to her forever.

If we are not emotionally ready to process this fact, it might be wise to move more slowly into the stepmom role and give ourselves more time to process. It’s OK to continue dating, but step back from a deeper commitment until you have obtained some help accepting that you can’t change this dynamic.

NOT EVERY woman is cut out to be a stepmom, there is no shame in saying, “I dont want to raise someone else’s child.” Discover whether this is the life you want before making the commitment.  

• The more changes, the more issues. The more dad and stepmom can keep things consistent the less the child will express emotional behaviors. And if mom and dad disagree over these logistical it’s possible the child will side with one parent they view as the victim.

• It emotionally harms children when parents use them as spies, mediators, or informants. They feel trapped in the middle of a no win situation. You CAN NOT control how the other parent handles this. Instead of being angry with the other parent use the situation to help the child. “Joshua, I’m so sorry that you are dealing with an adult issue. Kids of divorce often feel trapped between mom and dad, and I’m sorry if you feel that way. It’s ok to respectfully say ” No, I’m not comfortable with that” when your mom asks you to discuss issues with us that are adult issues.”

• Kids often feel disloyal if they love or engage with the other home or the stepparent and extended family. We automatically blame the mom for causing this, and sometimes she is at fault. But many times it is just the result of living in two homes. And often WE are doing things that activates the disloyalty without even realizing it. It’s always wise to step back and ask ourselves, “Am I saying or doing anything that is causing the child to protect their mom.”

If the child sees or hears stepmom or dad saying negative stuff about mom to our friends, coworkers, or they observe us rolling our eyes, posting on social media, mocking her in any way, we are exacerbating their tendency to protect her. We must try to see it through their eyes if we want to be able to minimize the problem.

• When a parent or stepparent belittles, bashes, or criticizes the other parent it can emotionally destroy a child’s self worth–EVEN if it is true.

“If mom is bipolar that’s what I will be. If mom is a tramp, drug addict, or drama queen that’s what I am.” Often dad and stepmom tell me “We dont speak negatively about her to the kids.” However, kids can tell when you hate their mom. I understand that this can be very hard if mom is making life difficult. But we MUST refrain from allowing that anger to trickle into the home and onto the kids because it’s making the blend with them more difficult.

Think about this: If you say something negative about your sister, cousin, dad, etc. it’s OK. But if I SAY the exact same thing about your sister, cousin or dad your claws will likely come out. You are protecting your family. Thats how it is for your stepkids.

• The children who do the best after a divorce are those who have a strong relationship with both biological parents, unless the child is in danger. This is true even if the other parent isn’t a good or nurturing parent. If mom is attempting to alienate the child from dad that is a legal issue.

I know it’s frustrating when you feel as a stepmom that mom isn’t being a good mom. I am not trying to minimize your pain or position.

But the child rarely sees it that way. It’s merely their mom, and they love her.

Continue to try and build the bridge whenever possible even if you dont think the kids appreciate it. That doesn’t mean putting yourself in harms way, enabling toxic behavior, or becoming best friends with mom. It means loving the stepkids enough to discover why they act the way they do, and discover what you can do to help them heal.

What YOU think they need, and what they might actually need, might be radically different.

Step back often if you need to, go have coffee with a girlfriend and take a break from the kids. If dad doesn’t discipline his kids, and thats why you are losing your mind, thats a separate issue. And I address it in another blog entitled, When the Parent Doesn’t Parent.

Sister, what I’m saying is stop being mad at the child.

Instead, discover what is at the ROOT of the child’s behavior. It will help you to overcome the anger and frustration.

Stepmoms often don’t like to consider the child’s trauma because they don’t know what to do about it. They feel helpless.

I understand.

Here are some fabulous resources that I recommend, they can help you learn.

Split a Video for Kids of Divorce and Their Parents

Between Two Worlds The Inner Lives of Kids and Divorce by Elizabeth Marquart

In Their Shoes by Lauren Reitzma

Copyright © 2020 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved.


Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, divorce prevention, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, The Smart Stepmom (w Ron Deal) 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom, Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul.

Insta #SmartStepmom


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