Dealing with a preteen's growing anger

I am the stepmom of an 11-year-old boy. I have been raising him since he was two. His mother has always made promises to him and never kept them. He hasn't heard from his mother at all in a couple of years. Over the last year my stepson has been showing very poor behavior in school. He has also started going into our bedroom and going through our drawers and lying about it. What can we do to deal with our child's growing defiance?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Your stepson does have reason to be angry and adolescent hormones and changes may be bringing past emotional pain of all kinds to the surface for resolution. Still, he has learned patterns of lying to get around situations and is challenging the authority figures in his life to a self-defeating battle. He did not learn these coping patterns in a void.

It is possible that your stepson "got away" with breaking rules from an early age. Feelings of guilt or sadness for his plight with his mother may have encouraged his father and yourself to compensate by allowing him to "get around things" instead of working through problems. It is also possible that his behavior reflects the patterns of his mother, who clearly ran away from her own parental responsibilities. Somehow, he learned that it was possible to use "lying" as a means of dealing with conflicts. Either way, it is not too late to reinforce which patterns work in the world and which do not.

The emotional meaning of his "battle with authority" and other outrageous behavior is no doubt a cry for help. It is likely that his externalized conflict reflects his anger at his mother who is nowhere around to receive it. Repressed rage often surfaces for healing during adolescence. Attacking the Christmas lights may indeed be a sign of retaliation against an absent maternal force. And it is true that it is most difficult to express and resolve anger at someone who is not there. Still, it is possible to help him tame this dragon instead of be consumed by it!

The nature of his actions echo a young "out of control" part of him, very much akin to the two year old who was abandoned. It would be wise to secure the guidance and treatment of a child psychologist who specializes in teens. Perhaps with your support and professional guidance he will be able to confront his painful experience with his mother in a more direct and productive manner.

Though it is difficult, safe containment is possible with angry preteens. It will require teamwork and a dedication to believing in him. It will be necessary for you and his father to work together, and for his Dad to take the lead in setting clear rules, expectations and consequences for "breaking" rules.

Talk with your husband to establish clear rules and consequences. At the same time, his father should set up some activity time to share with his son, regardless of what else is going on. In other words, if your stepson is not allowed to go out with friends or watch TV for several days because he did not follow house rules, it should in no way interfere with his father-son activity.

Relating time should be kept sacred between father and son, as well as any family time that the two of you share together or as a family group. Sports activity, going to a movie and taking a walk afterwards should be times that allow for interaction between father and son. Even a weekend away could set the mood for sharing and relating about the past, the present and provides an opportunity to absorb your stepson's anger in the consistency of a loving and caring parental-child relationship. Do not let him "win" by pushing you away. Set limits. But show him that he is still cared for, not abandoned. Providing a safe container for the expression of his anger is the key to taming the angry two year old inside.

Increasing his father's involvement by no means implies that you as his stepmother should disappear! It does mean that if you have stepped forward to fill the "mother" role, it may be wise to take a step back and take a break from this position. It may be time to revisit the past by reaffirming the original father-son bond. Doing so may provide opportunity for your stepson to process unresolved feelings about his mother.

Still, you remain a parental team. It is important that the two of you decide on actions and that you are backed by your husband in all ways that revolve around the care and interactions with your stepson. Attending family and individual counseling sessions for working through feelings may prove helpful at this time. However, individual counseling for your stepson should in no way cause your husband to retreat from engaging his son in strengthening their relationship.

Filling the role of "Mom" may be particularly thankless during this period. Garner your husband's support and understanding through this trying time. Establish a safe plan for your stepson to confront his feelings about his mother in a more tangible manner. Working through his grief and abandonment is a natural part of his development. Support your stepson to confront his demons instead of run away from them!

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