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Mother is Fearful of Stepson's Violence

QUESTION: I've been married to a wonderful man for five years and we each have 10-year-old sons from previous marriages. We also have a three-year-old and a seven-month-old together. My husband's son frightens me. At first, I thought his outbursts were his way of expressing his disapproval of our marriage. I believed that with time and love he would accept me and we would begin to function normally, but things have gotten totally out of control. He threatened a babysitter with a steak knife, he has beaten my 10-year-old repeatedly, and constantly makes threats. My husband doesn't understand my fear and sees his son as a poor, misunderstood child. I don't want to see my marriage break up, but I don't see an end to the violence. I can't go on like this.

ANSWER: You are not asking your husband to choose between his son and his wife. You are part of the parental team. You are asking your husband to respond to his parental duties to get his son professional help. His refusal to do so is putting family members (and others!) in jeopardy.

Over half of remarriages end in divorce. The success of a stepfamily rests largely on two factors: the strength of your couples' bond and the quality of the relationship between stepparent and stepchild. You are experiencing great difficulty in both areas. Get yourselves to a marriage counselor posthaste if you want to avoid a family break-up. Your marriage is threatened because you do not have a voice! Child rearing decisions must be made jointly if you are to experience a secure place in this stepfamily.

Your stepson no doubt has reason for his anger, but it is likely that it is his father's guilt that is at the root of his being "misunderstood". Perhaps family members blame your husband for divorcing his first wife. It is possible that your husband has unresolved guilt about the "break-up" with his son's mother. Instead of dealing with his own feelings of guilt and helping his son deal constructively with his emotional loss, your husband may be empowering his son to take his feelings out on others. Unresolved hurt and entitlement to physically rage on others is a set-up for criminal behavior. This situation is not good for you, the other children, or your stepson! He definitely needs help rather than excuses for his violent behavior.

It is likely that emotional residue from the aftermath of the divorce and remarriage has been ignored. Your husband appears to be blinded to the manner in which he has empowered his son's destructive actions. You are right to be concerned, as it is possible that you are the object of such anger and therefore the "scapegoat" for all of the unresolved negative feelings in the family.

Your sense of endangerment is enough to justify your demand that action be taken to make your home a safe place. It is the responsibility of either parent to remove children from a violent situation and take action to prevent potential harm. Failing to remove your children from danger may constitute parental neglect, for which both you and your husband may be legally culpable.

You have an obligation to protect and ensure the safety of all of your children in their own home. Take yourself to a counselor if your husband refuses to go. Report what is going on in the family and seek professional guidance to effectively stop the violence before someone gets badly hurt. Do not feel guilty for addressing this situation, when in fact you are guilty if you do not!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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