I am breaking my silence.*
I am breaking my silence for any person who is a stepparent, and they are living in a dangerous situation at the hands of their stepchildren.
I am breaking my silence because I know what it is like to scourer the internet trying to find someone or some resource to signal that I was not alone.
I have learned that I was not the only one who was going through this hell behind closed doors.
I am breaking my silence because I know what it is like to run searches of “stepparent abuse” only to find floods of information of where stepparents abuse stepchildren.
The low hanging fruit reinforced from childhood tales of Cinderella to news stories, to popular movies.
I know what it is like when it is the other way around.
Although my life has been free from it for some time now, I have come to grips with what remaining silent does to help those who are not there, yet.
Sometimes we learn from people’s valleys and not just their mountain top moments. I know I have.
I have found that one post in a forum in internet obscurity that gave me hope that I was not the only one going through hell as a stepparent.
It is a touchy subject. I know it is an issue more common than many people care to want to know or admit that needs more than superficial attention.
Many stepparents do not come forward because of shame, embarrassment, and the lack of support they perceive they would receive if they opened up. I experienced this lack of support first hand, although I shall not go into detail about that aspect in this post.
Ego demands us to remain silent-keep the secrets because that is loving and protecting.
Divine wisdom says to speak up out of love to help heal those who cause pain and to prevent others from becoming wounded.
We cannot change issues if everyone remains silent.
Plus, I am about radical freedom. I am free from trying to look like I come from the perfect background and the perfect life.
I love my life. And it is beautifully and lovingly human.
I am writing this post for even that one person who stumbles upon this to know there is hope and to know it is okay to stand for herself/himself. You have permission to live your life to the fullest and ignore the stepparent shamers out there.
Therefore, I am not writing this post for people who conflate enabling and codependency with love.
I am not writing this post for people who use their spirituality to justify both of these behaviors, either.
Oh, and another thing: I am writing this post for all of the really darn good stepparents out there who go above and beyond who are in this situation. Some people think stepchildren or children/ young adults are incapable of engaging in abusive behavior (Hello, school anti-bullying campaigns).
Since I have walked through the fire, most of which I am not writing about, and come out on the other side stronger, I am saying it.
Girls, young women, and adult women are often saturated in a culture that says to be quiet when the boys, young men, and adult men behave poorly.
Many of us have been socialized to disregard our bodies, our spirits, and our souls to protect men.
When these men act out their pain on women, we are taught to bear responsibility for their sick actions.
It is almost like a reflex to forget about the impact on our lives to “think about their future.”
I found myself facing this issue as a stepparent.
It past time to flip the script back to the perpetrators and ask: Why aren’t you thinking about your own future before acting?
In this post, I am sharing part of my experience as a stepparent, who stood up to my stepson’s abusive behavior.
For the sake of space, next week I shall follow up with several considerations for stepparents who are dealing with emotional or physical abusive behavior in their blended families.
Last, this is not an exhaustive account of my experiences or what my husband and I tried as parents. I have shared the purpose of my breaking my silence.
My stepson is extremely intelligent and creative. Masterful at the classical piano, he has performed in domestic and international competitions. He makes friends easily. He was a youth docent for a local museum and active in scouting. He has terrific wit, is easy going, and loves for people to be included. He is the kind of person who lets you be yourself around him without judgment. I admire these qualities about him. I have learned much about God’s love through witnessing them. He has gone through a lot in life, and he keeps going.
When he buys gifts, he is really thoughtful and intentional about it.
There have been times when he would surprise me with some heartfelt notes.
On one Mother’s Day, we wanted to start calling me his mom.
It was when it was time to hold him responsible for actions that need addressing that seem to cause more friction than typical child/adolescent behavior.
Then again, losing your mom after spending most of your formative years not knowing when she will pass away did not make for a typical childhood, either.
Most of my stepson’s formative years were with the backdrop of his mother living with cancer for several years. Stories flood about how she went years living vibrant and full of faith. At the latter end of her life, the physical weight of illness became more pronounced, where a brain tumor led to her passing away.
It is an unimaginable pain for anyone to walk through, especially a young child.
His father and I met and married several months later.
Before we married, we had a conversation about what he thought about it. He expressed that he wanted us to get married. I suppose on the one hand he did, yet on the other, understandably, he was still grieving. I did not intend to try to replace his mother, either. Nevertheless, I was moved when he came up with the song for our first dance. He even sang it for us.
I knew it would be a tough situation because blending a family is not for the faint of heart. I knew the typical behaviors to expect from stepchildren and biological parents.
Our son began to experience challenges in his life that went unnoticed long before his mom passed away.
He began watching porn when he stayed at one of his friend’s homes while his mom was in the hospital as a way to cope with the pain he felt.
Porn and gaming became his escape and addiction.
If I quantitatively assessed our relationship would say that 95% of our relationship was enjoyable and typical of what to expect with blended families, as well as child developmental behavior. The 5% was disturbing.
I justified this for the longest, but then I began to apply my reasoning to different scenarios. For example, if I had a daughter who said that her partner was beautiful outside of the times she took her anger out on her and threatened her, I would tell her that would not work. If my friend shared with me that every so often, her husband would try to threaten and intimidate her physically, but deep down loved her, I would tell her that was not okay.
So, why was I justifying things that were not okay?
We Are Not on the Same Page
Parents need to be on the same page. My husband and I were not on the same page for parenting. And like any child, our son capitalized on it, which is not unusual in any family dynamic.
Eventually, we got there.
My husband had some typical responses of biological parents in a blended family: He had parent guilt. Because his son had lost his mother, it was difficult for him to hold his son accountable for the things that needed it.
My primary approach to raising issues that I believed needing consequences involved thinking through “picking battles.”
I would think about what the behavior would look like 5, 10, 15, or 30 years from now? If it was something that was a matter of character, then I brought it up.
Typical youth behavior of testing boundaries was expected. Everything did not need a sit-down family meeting or consequences.
My husband had no problem with my praising and supporting our son, but if our son did something that warranted consequences, my bringing it up came across as if I was causing problems. There were times when our son had done something that needed addressing, and my husband would just get upset with me. Our son would quietly watch.
I communicated with my husband several times about this matter.
This situation was not like having my own classroom as a teacher. As a stepparent, the biological parents have more influence concerning the stepchildren.
Like a lot of stepparents out here who are pulling your hair out for the same reason, I became the bad guy for trying to help guide our son’s character.
Outside of the public eye, I got to experience a much colder and concerning side our son.
He rarely showed this side around my husband, too. There was one day where he slipped up, which I shall point out later in this post.
So, whenever I raised issues, it made little sense to my husband.
My response: He is human.
Like all parents, I messed up. I have failed. When I messed up, I would apologize to my stepson, and ask for forgiveness. Then, I would do differently. As the adult, I thought it was important to model how to take responsibility when parents make mistakes (instead of pretending otherwise).
The first time my stepson was physically aggressive with me was early in my marriage. Our family was on a mission trip overseas, and as we were riding on a bus to a destination, my stepson wanted to play some kind of hand game with me. As he interlocked his fingers with mine, he began to squeeze them somehow. I did not get the point of what he was trying to do, and it wasn’t like the game of “mercy” that my sisters and I used to play growing up.
It was clear that he just wanted to hurt me. The look on his face and the smile showed it. After I told him that was enough, he eventually let go. I felt disturbed, and since we were in public, I thought I would talk to my husband later. Then, I saw he was staring at my breasts. Yes, “the girls” were covered up-not that it should matter, anyway. I was wearing my holy missionary for Jesus attire, for crying out loud.
I felt violated and disgusted.
This trip was not my idea of blended family time.
This trip was supposed to be about Jesus. Jesus felt really icky to me. I made the most of the rest of the trip.
Unfortunately, before the trip, another incident had occurred with our son. I was so taken aback, that I hoped that it was him having an off day or something. I felt awkward bringing it up to my husband. I thought, if something happens even remotely closely again, I would say something.
So, this time, I did. Yet, it was not until years later that I brought up the prior incident to my husband. He felt horrible about what happened. I didn’t want to wrap my mind around how twisted the episode was.
I spoke to my husband about the two incidents later. I suggested that he talk to his son, now that he is on the verge of adolescence, about his use of physical strength with women and how to treat women. He did.
Then there was the first incident with a knife. One night, I was walking downstairs in our house to turn off the lights before going to bed. My husband had already retired for the night. I had this feeling in my gut like something is wrong and to turn around. I turned around, and my stepson was standing behind me with a pocket knife open.
The best way to describe the look on his face was menacing, and the way he was handling it and touching the blade corresponded with his countenance and facial expression. I disguised my being startled, and I thought, “I need to get this knife away from him.”
I played it off the best I can, and said in the best playful voice I could muster up, “What are you doing with that knife? Boy, give that to me.” I walked up and snatched that knife out of his hand as quick as possible. I was shaken up so badly that I could not sleep the entire night.
On the next day, I told my husband about what happened. I spoke with my stepson individually, and we talked as a family.
What my stepson told me changed when we spoke as a family with his dad. With me, he knew he was threatening. Playing with knives gave him a sense of feeling powerful. He knew his behavior was not responsible knife handling that the scouting emphasized.
When we talked as a family, he became clueless- he changed his song and dance and had no idea that what he did was threatening or how a woman in dark staircase might not appreciate anyone walking up on her with a knife. My husband proceeded with explaining to him what was problematic with his behavior and why it was threatening.
I shared that our son knew what he was doing and that it was wrong. I attempted to “call bs” on the conversation to no avail. It was hard for my husband to think that our son would do such a thing, so the only consequence our son had was a good old conversation.
I didn’t push the issue more. That was a mistake.
When our son went to therapy for porn addiction and other areas, I noticed that he was being dishonest on the first day.
It was another performance.
Afterward, I told him that if he did not want counseling, then we would stop, but if he wanted to continue, he was going to have to be honest for it to benefit him.
The psychologist became another person he wanted to impress.
And therapy was just another way for him to get us off his back so he can regain more privileges.
After about three months, my husband and son found out that our son continued to fake his way through therapy and within our family times to support him.
We told our son that he was going to inform the therapist about what he had done.
During the next session, the therapist was glowing and sharing about how excited he was for the progress my stepson had made. He stated that he was ready to begin transitioning out of treatment.
When the therapist found out that it was all a compelling performance, I could tell that he was not only upset but confused.
I reassured the psychologist that there was nothing he had done to demonstrate that he could not be trusted.
I empathized with the psychologist because I had been there many times- wondering what I did to create this kind of response. I saw the look all over him.
He asked my stepson about it.
I reassured the therapist that there was no contending with what our stepson makes up in his head to justify his behavior and that he did nothing to suggest that he could not be trusted.
My husband was out of town and was on the call at one point in the session.
The therapist suggested that our son gets a job to pay back all the sessions of wasted therapy.
He firmly admonished my stepson for what he had done.
He told our son that if he does not turn it around that his next step was residential treatment.
As we discussed next steps, it was determined that he could still go on his trip to DC, New Jersey, Boston, etc. for Spring break.
Sounded like a plan.
Our son got a job, and he diligently paid back all of the money for therapy.
My stepson would play mind games and do things that would make you wonder about reality. He is much more socially aware than might seem.
Throughout the years, he would do things, and I had no idea when they happened.
For example, he would damage my property and would not admit wrongdoing. If he wasn’t caught red-handed, it created shades of doubt, and he played upon that in our family. It created the infamous he-said-she-said with my husband wanting to believe me yet struggling to come to terms that his son would actually do some of the things he did.
Marking the side of my bed and pillow with yellow highlighter and one of my dresses. I did not use a yellow highlighter, and my husband kept it in the living room by his books. I knew it wasn’t a highlighter laundry incident. These markings were intentional.
When I got ready to put on a designer leather jacket my husband bought me on an anniversary trip, it was all marked up with a pen.
It was clear that someone had scribbled all over it. I had not worn it since the previous fall, so I had no idea when my stepson chose to damage it.
It took almost two years for him to apologize.
I refused to believe that Jasper the Unfriendly Ghost was damaging my belongings outside of my presence.
The physical threats and intimidation tactics escalated.
I decided to address another recent knife incident. I made a mistake by not standing for myself to accommodate my husband and stepson. I told him that I should not have dropped the issue because it did nothing but communicate to him that his behavior was acceptable.
He felt more empowered to do things like that because he got away with “casting doubt” with his father.
I let him know that it was unacceptable.
He smiled and said nothing.
It got to the point that I no longer felt safe at home. I was in a car accident, and at the hospital, the intake person asked a series of questions. When she inquired, “Do you feel safe at home?” I realized that I didn’t.
But I lied.
And that hit me to my core.
Lying might mean little to some people, but that rocked me.
I could not go on living in a lie, ignoring behaviors because my husband felt sorry for our son losing his mother.
I opened up to my husband a few nights later. I told him that I no longer felt physically safe in our home.
I was in tears. He just rolled over in bed and went to sleep. I went to the bathroom in our bedroom and cried.
And that’s, Girls and Boys, what we call marriage counseling material (I can now laugh about it).
I felt myself growing weary.
I felt like I was on my own because my husband’s denial seemed to fan the flames of what I experienced when he wasn’t present.
I brought it up the last knife incident, again, later. I wanted answers, and I wanted it to stop.
By this time, he had become so emboldened that he slipped up and showed the side that his dad had not seen.My husband was nearby reading and could hear the conversation.
When I asked about why he chose to try to threaten me, he responded, “Because I was mad.”
I stated, “People get angry all the time and do not threaten folks with knives. There’s no excuse for it.”
Then, he said coldly and dismissive, “I wasn’t going to hurt you.”
I responded, “How am I supposed to know that? You know what, if you need this much help with an apology, you are not sorry.”
We shared a two-bedroom apartment, at the time, because we sold our home while waiting for our new one.
After another incident happened, when I was home alone with my stepson, I would lock myself in my bedroom to remain safe.
Snap Out of It
One night, I called three of my closest friends. Things had devolved to distressing levels that I wanted someone to know about the situation should things keep going the way they were. I informed them that if I turned up dead, I wanted them to know who did it.
One call was with a friend was a stepparent, who mentioned that her stepchildren would play mind games with knives. She then said, “You don’t think he would actually hurt you, do you?”
My response: “Yes. If people send me a message that they want to harm me, and have been repeatedly physical in the past, I believe them.”
She seemed uncomfortable with my response. Abruptly, she said that one of her stepchildren needed help looking for something and that she would call me back. She has not called me back.
My other two friends and I were in a different group call, and they were alarmed and concerned.
Unlike the first friend, they were not having it.
They would not accept me shrinking back. And that’s what I was doing- I was shrinking and giving up.
One friend said, “Sam, this is not you. This is not like you. Where is your fight?”
It was like they were saying, “Get up. Snap out of it, Girl.”
By the end of the call, it was like they shook me until I woke up.
As a result, I informed my husband that I was not going to put myself in danger. I empathized with the pain of our son, yet I expressed that it was no excuse for what was happening. I was not going to be the butt of anyone’s unresolved issues.
I let him know that I was going to move out until our son graduated high school, for I thought that our marriage could make it a couple of years in such a transition.
Then, I called him on his behavior. Unlike before, I did not care if he got upset with me.
I was not backing down because it had become a matter of my safety.
Let me put it this way: I did not mince words about what he had done as a husband regarding this parenting issue.
It was one of those “It’s an Effin’ Reckoning” kind of intense marriage conversations that started in the morning and went through the night, with breaks in between.
My husband is a strong-willed man, and I love him for it.
He is often right about many things in our marriage.
On this issue, he was wrong.
I was standing for my life and truth.
My husband started to snap out of it, too.
Love from a Distance
During a family discussion, my husband expressed to our son that if he made any more physical threats, that he will have to leave the house. He told his son to leave me alone, and until otherwise discussed, to refrain from engaging with me.
However my stepson took his dad’s warning as some kind of challenge. As he expressed us later, my stepson didn’t think his dad would go through with it. He had completely missed the point.
The very next day, my stepson decided on another physical threat- he waited for me to leave the bedroom so he could make his move. At this point, I was angry and called my husband to let him know what happened. I left the apartment to walk around until our son was gone.
As I walked by a nearby restaurant, I saw two police officers in the window having lunch together. I weighed if I should go in and ask for help. I really wanted help, yet I didn’t know how things would turn out for a young Black (self-identified) man, too.
I felt distraught. Something seemed fundamental off-base for me to be thinking about my stepson’s future, while I was the one out on the street for my safety. Was this a mother’s love or something else?
My husband left work early to come to deal with the situation.
We were concerned about sending our son to residential treatment. We looked at different programs.
We discussed all kinds of options.
We chose to try another therapist, while our son stayed with friends, who we compensated quite well for taking him. In this way, my husband can work on this relationship with his son and support him. All of us were in therapy. Already, I had been using a range of professional support.
My husband and son sought family and individual professional help through therapy.
My husband remained actively engaged with his son and, unless either was out of town, continued to spend time in person with him on a minimum of a weekly basis.
I put together a detailed plan to support our son in the college application and financial aid process.
That period was quite a low one for me. I can’t even begin to describe the pain I felt from it all. I had to choose to keep going myself and love myself. I gave myself permission to have joy and live fully, despite our son’s choices.
It was exceedingly difficult.
I took it one day at a time. It took about a year for our son to reach out to me to begin to apologize.
We began to talk about what it would take to start to reconcile the relationship.
After about two years, my stepson gave a full apology for the physical threats, intimidation, and mind games.
Although it has come to my attention that he has performed remorse in front of different people with tearful displays, based on immediate family conversations, my stepson has revealed that he faked his guilt to manipulate people like the ones who took him in so they would think highly of him.
At the time of this writing, he is still developing remorse for his actions. He gets to choose how he wants to live.
An apology with honesty is a step in a positive direction for his life.
He is on his own journey, just like all of us. I love my stepson. I send love from a distance.
I am happy for him that he keeps going and has been enjoying his college experience.
Recently, my husband and I encouraged him to see a counselor on campus, and we, offered, again, to pay for any kind of therapy or support that could help him in his journey.
I want the best for him- a life full of abundance- a life with love, authenticity, and freedom. I want these things for all people.
A lot of us let pain and social programming to get in the way of rising to our most authentic selves and loving in a way that’s healthy and free. I know I have at different points in my life.
My joy in life does not come from waiting for anyone to apologize or, eventually, have remorse.
My husband and I have worked to heal our marriage in a way that brought us much closer. My husband avidly started addressing his parent guilt, other areas of his life, and continued his journey of growth as an individual, parent and spouse.
I adore, love, and respect my husband.
I am thankful for friends who allowed me to be me and loved me through times where it I felt crushed and devastated by what was happening not just to our family, but also what my son was doing to himself.
Sometimes a good laugh over tea was the medicine I needed.
I am clear: I do not need or desire any relationship that’s toxic. I do not feel bound by familial labels- biological or blended- to do so, either.
Closing: You are Not Alone
I want to share with you that you are not alone. You are worth fighting for you.
I share all of this because I have dealt with judgment throughout my stepparenting journey, so I know the fear in reaching out for help. I hope that if you are a stepparent who is dealing with abuse from your stepchild, that you get help.
Learn from this portion of what I shared of my journey. Speak up, stand up, and get help. If necessary, call law enforcement to ensure that you and the rest of your family are safe.
I know what it is like to come across a story on the internet and feel comfort in knowing I was not alone.
And if you ever feel like it, return to these words:
I love you. You deserve to be here. I am standing with you and for you. Rise up and stand for yourself.
Standing for you teaches the world that it is not okay to trash anyone-no matter what role they occupy, including the one of a stepparent.
You became a stepparent because you loved so deeply, and I see it. I see it in you. I appreciate all that you have done. Thank you for being the beautiful human you are.
You do not deserve the hell you are going through, either. I want to reaffirm this in a sea of voices that might insinuate otherwise, including perhaps your own. You get to choose your life. Please do not feel guilty if you decide to disengage from any dynamic that is bound by toxicity. Choose joy. Create space for happiness to overflow in your life.
When I talked to my husband about writing a post about part of my experience in order to let other stepparents dealing with these things know that they are not alone, one of the things he said was, “It is real life.”
See you in Part 2.
*This post is the expressed opinion of the author. It is not a substitute for professional mental or legal support. If you feel you are in an abusive blended family dynamic or if you have concerns, please seek professional help.