The Stepmom Shuffle: When Your Stepchild Takes Out His Anger on You

Posted March 18, 2011 by

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I have had many challenges being a mom — more than your average due to the fact that both of my children have mental health issues. I have battled the school system. I have navigated the complicated mental health systems maze. But NOTHING could have prepared me for the challenges of being a stepmom.

I thought I had it down. I have known my stepsons since they were 2 and 6. (They are now 11 and 14.) I had never had any incidents like I read about where the boys have said, “You’re not my mom!” and refused to comply with any requests. I have always understood and respected that I was not their mom. The boys regularly visited with us every other weekend, a week at Winter break, 2 weeks in the summer and at various other family events. In fact, things were all hunky-dory until my youngest step son moved in with us at age 9.

At first we had a wonderful honeymoon period. He was happy to be with us and seemed to understand why he was no longer living with his mother, half-siblings, brother and stepdad. He had behavioral issues and mental health needs that his mom could not keep up with. He even knew that because she shared with him that she was unable to do things for him that he needed. He seemed to understand and accept that. OR SO WE THOUGHT.

In reality he decided that if he was “as bad as he could be” we would send him back to his mom. He had decided we had taken him from her and that even though she did not keep up good contact with him by calling or scheduling regular visits, (sometimes she’s out of touch for weeks at a time), it was somehow our fault that she was not seeing him. Let me rephrase that last sentence. It was MY fault. I was “replacing” his mom and he wanted no part of it.

He tells us he completely understands how busy she is and that she cannot call him, and then he is angry and nasty towards me. We are dealing with this together, he and I, in therapy, and he is starting to explore his feelings towards his mother although he is still too young to understand how he is projecting those feelings onto me. Let me stress that we never say anything negative about his mom. In time he will figure things out for himself.

We have seen some progress, but not as much as we had anticipated. We have seen a lot of backslides, especially after he has extended contact with his mother. It is a lose-lose situation for everyone. He needs his mother. He loves her and he should see her and talk to her. She has her own issues that prevent her from being able to meet his needs and so the cycle continues. We certainly would never keep her from seeing him, but the inconsistent nature of her contact is doing more harm than good. When we do approach her, she will vow to do better, and she will try for a little while but can never keep it up — and we go right back to where we were.

So in addition to dealing with my stepson’s anger and feelings towards me, I have to deal with my own feelings about his mother. This is a mom who clearly did not nurture her child. He did not form proper attachments as a baby and toddler and has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. Then she sent him away and does not contact him often, yet when she does want to see him she demands it be on her terms because she is THE MOM! When my husband tries to explain his needs or direct her to the doctors, she claims she knows what he needs because she is the MOM, in case he forgot.

My stepson feels abandoned. Although he cannot say this, he only shows it by his self-defeating and destructive behavior. He feels unloved and unwanted and displays this by wetting himself and destroying property, lying and stealing. I am doing my best to understand why he behaves the way he does. We are working with doctors and therapists and everyone is on the same page. We implement consistent, clear consequences, although at times he simply does not care. He has told us he feels he deserves punishments and that he was sent to live here because his family hated him.

Each day I try to see as a new day. I know my anger at his mom sometimes gets in the way of how I feel about him, but I am doing my best to care for him  and do the mom things just as I do for my own children.


I am a mom of two boys, ages 16 and 22, both with ADHD, bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression. I have remarried and my husband has 2 boys, ages 13 and 16. The 13 year old lives with us, and has some behavioral problems and attachment issues. There is always something happening at our house!

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  1. CahTheeCee (Edit) Report

    This article is powerful as I empathize with your situation and am going through something similar. Thank you for sharing.

  2. devilchild (Edit) Report

    Hey Emmie i’m glad you found a way to deal with things. I’m 14 and i have problems with my mother. Of course i’m a girl so i deal with them differently. i consider my “step” mom my real mom because my real mother only deserves to be called a “mother” not a mom. What you said really helped. thanks.

  3. Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    Dear kbroadbear: It sounds like this situation has you feeling really worn down. It can extremely difficult to support your partner when you disagree or even dislike his parenting decisions. James Lehman felt that in blended families, the biological parent should be the one to take the lead on setting and enforcing limits for their own children. He suggests that the most effective response for the step-parent is to try to support and uphold the biological parent’s decisions—as tough as it may be. It would be a good idea to continue to utilize local supports to address the toll this is taking on your relationship with your spouse. You might also refer to these articles about step-families in which James offers more recommendations: “My Blended Family Won’t Blend—Help!” Part I: How You and Your Spouse Can Get on the Same Page and “My Blended Family Won’t Blend!” Part II: What to Do When Your Stepkids Disrespect You. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

  4. kbroadbear (Edit) Report

    i am a stepmom to 2 children ages 10 and 12.the 12 yr old is a girl and has abslutely NO respect fpr me ever and rarely for hrt father. I blame my husband alot because he is an enanbler. He does not know how to day NO to his children and they will manipulate and throw tantrums till they get what they want. My husband and i are in counseling but i dont feel it id helping. there is alot of fighting and tension in our home. they constantly lie. i have a 7 yr old of my own and i have rules, structure, and consequences with her if she acts up. my stepkids do not and my daughter is starting to see that and wonders why she’s the only one who gets in trouble. i am just at a loss for what to do with my marriage and my stepkids. it is pushing us to the brink of divorce. Their mother just recently passed away for unknown causes at this time bu their behavior has been going on for over 3 yrs. SOMEONE PLEASE HELP ME!!!!! Im on medication for all this strtess now and dont want to have to rely on medication just to get through the day…..

  5. CitySitter (Edit) Report

    Man, I’m really glad you found a way that works for you. Me and my new wife are in a some similar situation. We are still trying to find something for us. Two stepchildren and a newborn is what we have and it’s hard. the 2 older boys are haveing bad abandonment issues from there mom and us because of the new kid. This gives us hope that we will find a way. thanks and good luck.

  6. Emmie (Edit) Report

    It does feel good to hear I am not the only one going through this. I understand it is hard to be the step-parent, but I feel that what we are dealing with, like so many out there, is more than that because the biological mom has undiagnosed mental health issues. She clearly does not have any clue how she has harmed her children. I try to balance that knowledge with my seething hatred of her, LOL! We discuss this often with my step-son’s therapist (alone). My issue is that I have trouble wrapping my brain around a mom who has these behaviors. She will say one thing and do another, she will “rewrite” history, she will do something once and claim it is a rule, yet when it is time for her to follow her own rule she will change the rule. She will write something in an email and then deny it, even when we have it in black and white. She will insert herself into our lives and then disappear again. It is her inconsistent nature of caregiving that has caused so many of his problems. The doctors say this is a clear case of nature vs nurture. All of his mental health issues are symptoms of trauma. He takes medication to relieve anxiety and depression caused by this. I have been told over and over that he treats me the way he does because I am the “safe” one. I am not going to abandon him. I am not going to hurt him if I get angry or upset with him. WAY WAY in the future, maybe he will figure this out, that his dad and I have always been there for him. Obviously he is not ready to deal with his angry feelings about his mom and her abandonment, but she has been to two therapy sessions recently (a totally new development- my husband has taken him to therapy for 5 years and she’d pop in every few months or so, or go to two in a row and then none for a year…)She claims she is ready to accept more responsibility, keep visits without the step-dad present and call him regularly. So, again, after going up to 3 months without a call, she is calling several times per week. Obviously this should be good, but I am not hopeful she can keep it up (it has been two weeks so far) and it has totally thrown him for a loop and made him angrier at me. He cannot deal with his loving feelings towards me when she is back in the picture. <>

  7. Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor (Edit) Report

    Dear Bridgette: It sounds like you are very hurt and frustrated. It can be so hard when you don’t agree with your partner’s parenting decisions. James Lehman felt that in blended families, the biological parent should be the one to take the lead on setting and enforcing limits for their own children. He recommends that the partner or step-parent find a way to take on a supportive role to uphold the biological parent’s decisions—as tough as it may be. It would be a good idea to continue to utilize local supports to work through your feelings of disrespect from your husband. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this.

  8. Carrie (Edit) Report

    Hi Emmie. I am the mom of four boys, one has been diagnosed with ADD and another is possibly ADHD. I am also step-mom to a 12 year old boy with ADHD/Bipolar and a 14 year old boy with ADD/Aspergers. I am having the same issues with the younger boy. His mom has had no contact with her boys in a month and a half and he is taking it out on the whole house…not just me. It is a hard road and I am being as patient as I can be about it. I don’t know if I believe what Never a Dull Moment posted about his behavior being a compliment…I know how you feel. He is not only hurting the people who love him, but himself as well. It makes me sad and mad and confused when it comes to the way his mother treats him. I call her his mother because she is clearly no mom. I am his mom. I love him and care for him as I do with all the other children in this house…she does not.

    Our situation is a different one in the fact that their mother left the house and left her kids behind. It is all new to them and the wounds have yet to begin healing. Up to a month and a half ago, their mother only saw them and talked to them when it was convenient for her, and it was never more than a few minutes on the phone and when she would take them to her house it was never for more than one night. Just when we thing we have made some headway, she would call and the attitudes would start all over again.

    Their mother has her own issues, and the boys dad has tried to get her the help she needs, but she denies having any problem at all and claims she knows best what her kids need.

    I agree that the boys need their mother, but at what cost? One acts out while the other sits and acts like he just doesn’t care…he now is starting to lash out at others.

    I was beginning to feel like I was the only one going through this as a step-mom…while I hate it for you, at least I can feel better knowing I am not alone. My fiance is wonderful support for me and us a great step-dad to the boys I brought into this family.

    I actually hate the term “step”. My boys have a dead beat dad for a father, so to keep the term “step” positive, I’d like to think it simply means a “step-up”.

  9. Bridgette (Edit) Report

    What does one do when husband shows no support or respect (besides divorce) towards his wife because of his daughters and grandsons behavior?
    His daughter is basically a manipulative, rude and disrespectful person who has no clue on raising a child , hence the child is just like her and her father and grandfather who they use only as an ATM is constantly on their side and shows me no support or respect. His daughter is selfish and self centered, she is irresponsible and gets her father to do for her son what she as a mother should be doing like feeding him, taking him to school and spending time with him. These step kids rent an apartment from us however are ALWAYS in our home “borrowing” groceries which are never replaced. The grandson comes into my home and has no manners what so ever, he has told me he hates me, he tells me to shut up,(he is 11yrs)
    These kids have a grandmother, aunts and cousins that all agree that they are rude and disrespectful but husband won’t do anything about it. We all see counselors which do NOT help at all. I have just decided to try harder to ignore their behavior and live in misery as I can not afford to leave, any suggestions?

  10. Never a Dull Moment (Edit) Report

    Good parents often bear the punishment for bad parenting done by someone else. Of course it’s even harder to “step.” Step-parents get blame but rarely credit. Take heart – he punishes you because he trusts you and knows you can take it. This is a compliment, even if it’s one you could do without.



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