Scapegoating Teenage Stepson

My husband and I have been married for 13 yrs. My son from my first marriage was two and a half years old when we got together and my husband has basically been the only father to our son, he even legally adopted him. We have two other children, a girl and another boy. Through the years we have faced many challenges, had some real rough spots and wondered if we were going to make it.

My oldest son has always had trouble in school staying on task. We have grounded him from TV, going places, everything you can imagine. Since I started classes in Social Work and Psychology I have begun to understand our approach is actually perpetuating our son's problems. My husband seldom talks kindly to him and has absolutely no emotional bond whatsoever. My son is now in tenth grade, barely passing with D's, has few friends, cannot stay on task at home or at school but is not hyperactive.

I feel he is suffering from poor self concept. I think he has developed a learned helplessness. I feel a lot of his problems stem from my husband's harsh treatment of him and his indifference. I feel desperate to take a new approach with my son, to build his self esteem and help him learn social skills that come from interaction from peers. My husband is livid and thinks I am being soft.

My husband feels I am too permissive with my son. My other two children have often asked me why dad hates their older brother, why is he so mean to him. When I approach my husband on this he becomes very defensive and tells me he'll just stay out of it. This is not acceptable of course, as that is not a family. This issue almost caused us to divorce a year ago, but we all promised to work harder. As time passed we all slipped back into our old pattern with me as the go between.

How can I approach my husband? How can I get him to see the pain he is causing my son? Not to mention the damage that could be irreparable?

Thank you for your time,


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

You have gained strength and vision over the years which has opened your eyes to the fact that your husband is scapegoating his stepson. Siblings in the family also are experiencing your son's pain and suffering from it. You are right to cry out against this maltreatment and require a healthier vision of family!

Invite your husband to become a part of the solution to your son's successes rather than a major contributor to his failures. Confront him with the reality that his behavior is noted by other siblings in the family who also hurt from the "hatred" he exhibits towards his stepson. It is understandable that your husband may harbor negative feelings about your first marriage which conceivably have taken the form of hostility towards the child of your former marriage. When your son developed problems in school, rather than searching for answers that worked, the two of you floundered in providing increased punishment rather than effective support. This no doubt gave your son the message that "he just wasn't being good enough" rather than that he was a great kid who needed help.

It is possible that your son has learning disabilities which made concentration difficult. It is also likely that his adoption by your husband did not change the fact that he endured emotional stress related to his identity and his biological roots. It is not too late to secure educational testing and provide him with appropriate tutors who can help him gain needed skills to improve his academic performance. It is also important that he be supported in understanding his biological father rather than ignoring this fact of his identity. Individual counseling with a supportive male figure may be useful in assisting him with improving his self-esteem.

Your "permissiveness" is a response to your husband's "harshness" and vice versa. The two of you have been engaged in a battle to "cancel" out the other's influence. No doubt this has led to unproductive escalation with no resolution to the very real problem that your son is experiencing in the family.

Your husband has adopted your son legally, but not emotionally. Though he took on economic responsibility for your son, he has lagged in his commitment to his adopted son's welfare. Insist that your husband consult an experienced stepfamily counselor with you. Couple and/or family therapy is critical to help turn this family scapegoating pattern around. Let your spouse know that you do not want to be "in the middle" anymore than he wants you to be. But that his negativity towards your son requires you to do so!

If your husband refuses to participate, continue to take parental responsibility by assisting your son with tutorial and psychological help. Your efforts will convey the message to your son that you acknowledge the mistake you made in the past in not addressing his needs, but that you are learning! And he will experience your esteem and value of him through your actions as well as see in you a role model for change. Do not expect immediate success for your son, but do realize that your efforts will hold tremendous power for change that will continue to help him develop and get him on track for reformulating his self-esteem in the future.

Refer to my articles on the Making Healthy Families series, "Making Healthy Stepfamilies" and "Communication and Problem-Solving". Emily and John Visher's book, "How to Win as a Stepfamily" may also be useful. You have all promised to "work harder" this year. But this promise alone has not eased the family pain. You are the emotional leader in your family at this time, and you hold a vision which has been lacking in the past. You see clearly that your son is the recipient of hostile feelings he does not deserve, and the deleterious effects on all family members.

[Editor's Note: "How to Win as a Stepfamily" can be ordered online at Click the book title for more information, or to order the book.]

Over half of all remarriages end in divorce. You and your spouse may be interested to know that family research has identified the quality of relationship between stepparent and stepchild(ren) as a major factor in predicting the success or failure of the marriage.

You are right to take the lead in turning this pattern around. But it is bigger than the both of you and you need help! It is your job as a parent to take action on your son's behalf. Invite your husband to take his place by your side. When he signed on as a step-father and an adoptive father, he accepted responsibility for his son's emotional development. It is time he step up to the plate to accept full responsibility for helping his son rather than blaming him.

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