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Children of Divorce
Rebbetzin Feige

Children of Divorce

When teenage step-children react with hostility, they are expressing deep pain.


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.


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.

March 31, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Anonymous, January 25, 2002 12:00 AM

agree only partially

I tried the Rebetzin's method of loving the diffecult step-daughter despite all of her negativity. Nothing worked. She ignored me for 4 years and rejected all of my attempts to establish a relationship. She also created an angry atmosphere in the home that affected the
other children, both my husband's and mine.
One morning my youngest daughter said to me, "Why did you remarry? Everyone in this family is mean to each other." I then informed my husband that I could no longer continue on this path. I was drawing a line in the sand. My husband hung up a large sign in the kitchen that stated, "We are a blended family. Everyone that lives in this house must be kind to one another or you will not receive the benfits of this family." When my step-daughter asked if she could go on a trip with friends, he said "No, you don't deserve it. You haven't been helpful in this family." The simple word "NO" worked magic. For the first time in four years, she asked, "What can I do to help?" That night, in the kitchen, I had the longest conversation with her that I've ever had. She told me that she was trying to get out of the school play, was studying for midterms etc. all of the normal things that a teenager discusses instead of her typical one-word grunts in response to my questions.
Love, yes. But, first, respect.

(3) Ruth Diamond, January 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Children of divorce

But what we can do when the children are not teenagers and dont live with us ? My husband have 2, a girl 25 and a boy 20. They live away but they dont show me any respect. And my husband find them always excuses to justify their attitude. I feel that I have not only his children against me but also him !

(2) Anonymous, April 23, 2001 12:00 AM

I must take exception to your response. As both a child of divorce myself and the stepmother to a 10 year old boy, I believe the writer was correct in setting expectations for her 14 year old stepchild. There are excuses for us all to have fits and not fulfill our responsibilities. I am curious about the writer's husband, the child's father. Where was he in all of
this? It is he that should be setting the ground rules for his own child.
And one of them should be that while his wife is not the child's mother, she
is the mother of that house and her wishes are to be followed. Everyone who
belongs in that household is that woman's responsibility to love and to
care for. The stepchild needs to learn to accept the love as well as the
obligation of the family or else that child will never feel she belongs
anywhere. This is a hard thing to accomplish. My stepson still, 9 years
after his parents divorce, has his emotional outbursts and a poor
self-image. The one thing we have accomplished is a peaceful family life
together where he is glad he is with us and likes it when we ask him to
participate in family chores. He knows that while I am not HIS biological
mom, I am the mom of the house and I love him and take care of him. This is
what you needed to let her know; not to make excuses for the girl. If you
do that and let her not participate in the household then she really is the
outsider. It is her dad's house and she belongs there as much as she does
in her mom's!!!!

(1) Miriam Smilovic, April 1, 2001 12:00 AM

Thank you

Hello Rebbetzin Twerski.
I was thrilled to see you used my letter for your article. We have made alot of progress with Sarah, my step daughter, since I wrote you. I agree wholeheartedly with your explanation and your recommendation.
Thank you again for addressing this issue. I'll keep you posted.

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