Anger is a basic universal emotion. It is natural. Everyone feels it. It arises in many contexts and the experience of anger ranges from mild irritation, frustration to all-consuming rage. It typically occurs in both adults and children when we feel overwhelmed or powerless. It is often about a sense of feeling wronged or threatened.
Anger is frequently a secondary emotion.
Before anger, we often first experience a primary emotion like fear, grief, disgust, or sadness in response to an event or stimulus. Because these emotions typically create a feeling of vulnerability and/or loss of control, they tend to make both adults and children uncomfortable. One way of attempting to deal with these uncomfortable feelings is by subconsciously shifting into anger. Children (like many adults) often instinctively use anger as a defence against physical and emotional pain, including loss and grief – which is present in bucket loads when parents separate and divorce or if a parent dies.
In relation to the formation of a stepfamily, loss is almost an unavoidable precursor. Death, divorce, or the ending of a relationship happens before the new relationship begins. Anger in stepchildren is often an expression related to that profound sense of loss. For some children, the introduction of a parent’s new partner into their world or a parent’s remarriage worsens or re-ignites grief felt in relation to their parent’s separation. It can be exacerbated by their sense of powerlessness. After all children generally have no say in their parents’ separation (or death of a parent), where and who they will live with, their parents’ choice of new partners and a myriad of other life changing decisions that impact them, their experiences of family and sometimes their sense of safety and connectedness to their parents.
Children in stepfamilies can direct an enormous amount of anger and hostility towards stepparents.
When swamped with all sorts of thoughts and big feelings a child might say or do things that they would never say or do when they are feeling happy, safe and calm. The “you can’t tell me what to do, you are not my [insert mum or dad here]” is a statement thrown at most stepparents at some point in time. Some children, depending on their age and temperament may also act out their feelings in physical, inappropriate or problematic ways.
Whilst there is no justification for lashing out and hurting someone, young kids don’t always have the vocabulary to talk about how they are feeling or the cognitive ability or maturity to accurately recognise and name their emotions, to cope and self-regulate. Instead they communicate what is happening in their emotional world in other ways, through facial expressions, through their body, their behaviour and play.
Nevertheless even with a bucket load of sensitivity and patience, we can’t kid ourselves that we don’t feel anything when our partner’s children give us a hard time, that we don’t feel rejected or annoyed or hurt or frustrated by the situation. However, as the grown-up, stepparents like parents are held to a higher standard than children in terms of emotional expression and how we act on our feelings or respond to the emotional expression of others. Reacting to anger with anger is unlikely to improve the situation, help your stepchild adjust to your presence in their world or cultivate an environment of trust and security.
Supporting your stepchild learn to deal with anger appropriately has many benefits.
A child’s ability to “regulate” their emotions – to express their feelings in constructive, rather than impulsive or hurtful ways – is recognized as a critical factor in their psychological wellbeing. However, children are not born with the knowledge or capacity to self-regulate. They need to be shown how to manage their feelings in positive and constructive ways and given space and time to practice. This is where parents and stepparents play a critical and influential role. If you want your stepchild to learn to manage their emotions and anger constructively, it helps for stepparents and parents to model appropriate anger management and conflict resolution skills. This includes taking responsibility for your behaviour when you lose your cool in front of them, (stepparents are after all very human!).
When dealing with an angry or emotional stepchild, whilst it is not always easy (or fair), it is important to try to think about how your stepchild might view the situation.
Keep in mind:
- It’s normal for all kids to struggle to manage their anger at times.
- Showing compassion and empathy towards your stepchild does not mean you agree or disagree with their feelings or behaviour.
- A new adult in a child’s world and in their mother’s or father’s affection may be experienced as a threat. Some children worry that they will lose the love and attention of their parent. Your presence is likely taking some of their parent’s time and attention away from them, and they may feel resentful.
- As a stepfamily forms, adults and children may have very different fantasies, hopes and dreams. While adults may wish for a new and happy family, children often still want their original family to be reunited.
- Whilst it feels personal, rude, disrespectful and hurtful, a stepchild’s anger (and subsequent behavior) is more than likely not about you personally but an expression of their grief and/or ongoing adjustment to change or something else unrelated (e.g., tired, hungry etc.)
- A stepchild’s anger can stem 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 or cause their other parent pain (or that they have forgotten a parent who is deceased).
- Their anger may come from ongoing feelings of loss associated with the breakdown in relationship between their parents and the family unit as it originally was.
- 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.
When faced with an angry and enraged stepchild:
- Mean and hurtful words, physical aggression, broken or damaged items understandably often push buttons. When anger seems to be escalating, use your pause button to calm yourself. Stop what you're doing. Drop any agenda (just for now.) And breathe slowly and deeply so as to give yourself a choice about how to respond.
- Differentiate between feelings and behaviour. Remind yourself that bad behaviour is about uncomfortable emotions and not because the child in front of you is inherently bad.
- If it is appropriate to do so, acknowledge their anger and the feelings underneath it – feeling heard and understood can often help take the sting out of the angry feelings and help a young child to move through anger towards calm.
- Be firm and clear about what it is acceptable and unacceptable when it comes to anger e.g. “It’s okay for you to feel angry. It’s not okay to throw blocks and hit me”.
- Depending on the child and the situation you may offer a healthier alternative way to express their angry feelings e.g. “would you like to go outside and kick your soccer ball?”. Suggest only one option and then wait sometime before speaking again.
- Never try to lecture or reason with a stepchild who is enraged or try to get them to clean up whatever they just threw onto the floor in anger or insist that they apologize for their tone or rude words. In such a state they can no longer think rationally. First, contain the situation, make sure they are safe and wait until everyone is settled down before trying to talk with them about might be going on for them.
- Where possible take an auxiliary role and allow their parent to take the lead in managing the child’s feelings, behaviour and delivering or explaining any consequences.
And last but not least remember, being a stepparent is hard. Managing an angry and distressed child is hard – even more so when that child is a stepchild.
You don’t have to deal with it on your own.
If your stepchild’s reaction to the situation and expression of anger seems out of control or getting worse and/or you just don’t know what to do, talk to your partner and discuss seeking professional support and advice.