A step-mother writes:
My husband's 14-year-old daughter is constantly in a rage. This is accepted behavior at her mother's house, but I cannot tolerate it when she is visiting us. We have a 12-year-old plus three younger children, and I am concerned of them emulating her behavior.
On one occasion I asked her to clear away the breakfast dishes. When she refused, I punished her by taking her phone away. Her father was not at home when this happened and she kept screaming at me, "You can't punish me, you're not my mother." Since then, she has not been back.
I believe she owes me an apology, but I've been assured that there's not one in my future. How do I handle this? We attended a funeral for a family member, and she proceeded to tell the guests how much she hated me. She says I have taken her father away. Please help.
THE TEEN CHALLENGE
A 14-year-old is, by definition, a teenager. Teenagers, either because they are groping for self-identity and/or because they are struggling with hormonal changes, tend to be a handful.
Part of this is manifested in their reluctance to readily accept adult authority – that is, they are resistant to being told what to think, do, or how to behave. Even biological parents, who represent the primary authority figure in their children's lives don't win popularity contests in this season of the teenager's life.
We have to work hard not to take teenagers' flack too personally.
It helps to keep in mind that this is one of the most conflicted times in their lives albeit a necessary passage. We have to work hard not to take the flack too personally. We have to try to go with the flow. On one hand, we must maintain boundaries and on the other not overreact.
The Rabbi of Kotsk gave a very powerful interpretation of this commandment from the Torah;
"You shall not oppress any widow or orphan. If you oppress him so that he cries out to me, then I will hear his cry." (Exodus 22:21-22).
In this verse, in the Hebrew, three verbs are said repetitively: "oppress," "cry out," and "listen." The Rebbe of Kotsk explained that when a person has experienced a traumatic blow in life such as losing a spouse or a parent, and is dealt yet a new blow, not only does the current pain hurt and shake his system, but it rips open the gaping wound of the original trauma. Any offense to these victims is a double offense, one for the current pain and one for the original pain.
Children of divorced parents are vulnerable. Their sense of loss is close to the surface and thereby always with them. If we add a divorce situation to the teenage scenario described above, the reader's description of her situation is fairly predictable. Outbursts, lashing out, and "hating" a stepmother are expressions at some basic level of the profound pain a child of divorce feels.
But these children are true victims; their world has fallen apart. They have lost the feeling of being safe which is essential to every child's healthy growth and development. They live in constant fear of abandonment always thinking, "Who is going to walk out on me next?" They consciously or unconsciously yearn, no matter how unrealistic, for their natural parents to remarry, and thus to be reinstated into a "real" family once again.
Try to alleviate the child's feeling of loneliness and depression.
I would advise the step-mother not to take the situation personally. Instead, she needs to reach out and try to alleviate the child's feeling of loneliness and possible depression.
Engaging the intervention of a third party, such as a counselor or therapist, would certainly be advisable. Sensitive consideration should be given before suggesting therapeutic intervention. I would recommend presenting the therapeutic option as a means of building a constructive relationship by addressing deeper issues that are getting in the way. The natural parents would be ideal candidates for initiating the discussion.
The choice of a therapist is also critical. It must be one that has expertise both in dealing with children of divorce and teenagers.
Concurrently and as part of the process, the therapist would help the step-child understand his or her boundaries such as acceptable language, tone of voice, content of discussion, etc.
The great Chassidic master, the Baal Shem Tov, once counseled a parent distraught over his son's wayward behavior with the ever powerful advice, "You must love him more than ever."
Blended families are an enormous challenge and require an immense investment of time, sweat, and tears before desirable results are achieved. But, take heart: it has been done before, and with perseverance your family will be successful as well.