Anger typically occurs when a person (of any age) is feeling overwhelmed and powerless.
Anger is a basic universal emotion. It is natural. It is about our sense of feeling wronged and attempts at boundary setting. As an emotion there is nothing wrong or disdainful about feeling angry. Anger does not have to be toxic or abusive. Although it can escalate to that level, particularly when people don’t know how to express and handle their anger appropriately.
In separated families, various levels of anger and resentment can be common in all. For both adults and children the loss experienced after parental separation and divorce is regularly expressed as anger. In contrast, according to Irene Gerrad in her work ‘Disenfranchised grief in stepfamilies‘, loss experienced after the death of a loved one is typically expressed as grief.
Children irrespective of their family structure can instinctively use anger as a defense against physical and emotional pain. And when a child’s parents separate and their world tilts precariously on its axis, there is a lot of pain, confusion and hurt, not to mention an immense sense of loss.
A whole lot of emotion going on.
When parents separate, adults and children generally have different views about what is going on and about how they feel. It may feel very frightening for a child having a parent leave their home. Children can also experience an enormous sense of powerlessness, which can exacerbate or ignite their grief.
When parents repartner, children can react with a whole host of different emotions ranging from jealousy, anger or pity for their other parent, to happiness or relief that their parent has found someone. They may feel anxious and worried. They may feel awkward spending time with an adult who is not a parent, as well as experience loyalty conflicts between parents and new partners.
That is a whole lot of emotion for a kid of any age to have to deal with and try to make sense of – particularly for young children who, due to their age, do not have the cognitive ability or vocabulary to always recognise, name and articulate their emotions. Instead the thoughts and emotions of young children, toddlers and infants are typically reflected in their behaviour.
Children in stepfamilies can direct an enormous amount of anger and hostility at stepparents.
As with adults, children can behave in a certain way because they are caught up in the emotion of the moment or overwhelmed. Children in stepfamilies can direct an enormous amount of anger and hostility at step parents. The “you can’t tell me what to do, you are not my [insert mum, dad or other here]” is a statement thrown at most stepparent at some point in time. Some children, depending on their age and temperament may also lash out physically as well as verbally.
As the stepparent and as an adult, we can’t kid ourselves that we don’t feel anything when our partner’s children behave in such a way, that we don’t feel rejected or annoyed or hurt. As the grown up however, we are held to a higher standard because we should be able to look beyond the behaviour to what the child may be experiencing and feeling.
Allowing yourself to react and escalate in anger is also not going to improve the situation, nor is it going to teach your stepkids, or indeed any child, how to go about expressing their anger appropriately.
Helping your stepchild learn to deal with anger healthily has many benefits.
A child’s ability to “regulate” their emotions – to express their feelings in constructive, rather than impulsive or hurtful, ways – is now recognized as a critical factor in children’s psychological health. This is where parents and stepparents alike play a critical and influential role. If you and your partner want your children/stepchildren to manage their emotions and anger constructively, you need to try to model what you want. Make sure it is not a case of “do as I say, not as I do” but more like “I’ll do to you what I’d like from you”.
When dealing with an angry or emotional stepchild, whilst it is not always easy, it is important to try to think about how the children might view the situation.
Keep in mind:
- A new adult in their world and in their mother’s or father’s affection may be seen as a threat.
- Whilst it feels personal, rude, disrespectful and hurtful it is more than likely not about you personally but adjusting to significant changes in their world and their parenting.
- It may come from them feeling disloyal to their other parent.
- They may fear that liking you or developing an emotional tie with you may cause a breakdown in their relationship with their other parent.
- Their anger may come from feelings of loss associated with the past.
When faced with an angry and enraged stepchild:
- Try to acknowledge the emotions underlying the behaviour – knowing that they have been heard can often help take the sting out of the anger and lessen or (fingers crossed) stop the behaviour.
- Listening, acknowledging and trying to understand the reason(s) and emotion behind the behaviour may sort out the behaviour more successfully than reacting, punishing or complaining about it.
- Try to recognise that bad behaviour is about bad feelings and not because the child is inherently bad.
- Let your step kid know that their expression of anger is the problem, not them.
- Never try to reason with a stepchild who is enraged, contain the situation and wait until they have calmed down before you or your partner try to reason or talk to them about what might be going on
- Be clear about what it is you find acceptable and unacceptable e.g. telling the child, “It is ok for you to feel angry, but it is not ok for you to swear at me and call me names when you are angry”
- Mean words often push buttons which motivate more mean words and anger escalates. When emotions get out of control, have everyone, yourself included, take a break or a time out.
You don’t have to deal with it on your own.
Most of all, regularly remind yourself that the kids are dealing with the new emotions of having you in their lives and may require time to process these emotions and for them to get used to you. You do not ever have to deal with the situation by yourself. If a child’s anger problems seems out of control or you just don’t know what to do, talk to your partner about seeking professional support and advice – and don’t forget to breath!