Push Comes to Shove: When Stepchildren Get Violent
While researching my book Stepmonster, I interviewed a number of women from all walks of life who described being on the receiving end of aggressive and even violent behavior from teenage and young adult stepchildren. They described not just nasty verbal attacks but shoves, pushes, and in more than one cases, slaps and punches, usually in the context of a “showdown” when the stepmother demanded better treatment or an end to disrespectful behavior, asserting herself as an adult authority in the household. In many instances, the woman’s husband or partner was actually in the home (but not in the room) when her stepchild got physical with her. These women were not describing protracted altercations, and were not in serial heated disputes with stepchildren; nor had anyone who described it to me ever been physically violent with a stepchild or child herself. In short, none of these women had a history of being physically violent or in physically violent relationships. And none of them were “mixing it up” with stepkids on a regular basis in any way or returning the shoves, pushes, and more. These blows came out of the blue, in a charged situation, shocking and humiliating them.
It is shocking to think of being profoundly vulnerable in your own home, but I was not entirely taken aback by this finding, and I suspect many women with stepkids share my sense of understanding, on an intuitive level, how such scenarios might unfold. Indeed, the very facts of stepfamily life suggest that episodic physical violence against stepmothers might be much more common than we think. This is because even those stepfamilies that will end up feeling healthy and normal are frequently, at some point, a breeding ground for the kind of contentious and charged emotions that can erupt physically, combined with a permissive parenting style that may well fail to prevent it. Now add in another all too common reality–a mother who communicates to her kids, explicitly or implicitly, that stepmom should be treated badly–and you have a tinderbox ready, in some cases, to explode. Throw into the mix an angry, resentful teenage or young adult stepchild testing the limits, and it is easy to see how this wire gets tripped.
But how often does it happen? If the emails I have been receiving from women with stepchildren every day since the publication of my book in early May, plus the findings of stepmother authors like Cherie Burns are any indiction, all too often. When we control for the fact that this is the kind of information one wouldn’t not eagerly disclose and may keep secret, the number of incidents I have been told of is very significant.
So then why don’t we hear about it? Why isn’t it in the headlines and on our lips? Why aren’t we talking about it to our counsellors, our husbands, our friends over coffee? Because stepmothers are steeped in a mindset of self-blame and shame with regard to anything that might be perceived as a failure on the stepfamily front. We all know the formula: “If there are problems in the stepfamily, it’s stepmom’s fault. If she were nice to those kids, they’d warm right up to her.” The women I interviewed and who emailed me told me, in many cases, that they hadn’t even told their husbands about the incidents, out of fear of being blamed or accused of exaggerating. They also told me they feared being judged responsible (“You’re the adult. What did you do to make him/her want to hit you?”) by friends, clergy, and even their therapists when it came to the incidents of their stepchildren getting physical with them!
Let’s be clear: physical violence in the household is never okay, and your duty as a stepmother does not ever extend into the territory of feeling or being physically menaced or attacked in your home. We’re not talking about a four year old who lashes out during a tantrum, or a five-year-old who hits on the playground and in the house out of frustration. We’re talking about teens and young adults who should and do know better than to strike an adult. They also know that they can probably get away with it, if stepmom is firmly on the outside of the family structure, if she and dad aren’t a team, if there’s a history of the stepchild being able to manipulate his or her parent, or play parent and stepparent off one another.
Without more research on stepmother families (the three most recent longitudinal studies have focused, as most stepfamily research does, on stepfather families), we will not know the extent of this problem. And that means we can’t help these women with stepkids who lash out physically. Which leads to more stepmaternal burnout and more partnerships and families dissolving.
If you are a woman with stepchildren who has experienced physical violence in your household at the hands of your stepchild or adult stepchild, or know someone who is, I would like to hear from you for research purposes. My email is email@example.com. I also encourage you to find support so that you can feel and be safe in your home.
Tags: Francesca Adler-Baeder, Kermyt Anderson, Margo Wilson, Martin Daly, National Stepfamily Resource Center, physical violence against stepmother, physical violence in stepfamilies, stepmonster, stepmother, wednesday martin, woman with stepchildren