Life

Ask Fiona: My stepson's unhappy outbursts are out of control

Columnist and trained counsellor Fiona Caine advises a woman who's worried about her stepson, and another whose boyfriend has anger issues

Your stepson is very angry and confused – he needs someone to help him by talking about his issues
Fiona Caine

MY stepson is seven and visits every other weekend. When I married his father last year, he was clearly upset, but since then things have got so much worse.

He says he hates being with us and goes out of his way to break things in the house. When he really loses it, he throws himself around the house and screams at the top of his voice.

Nothing I do seems to make any difference. I have tried to be calm and talk him down as well as getting angry, but nothing works. Last week he got so upset that he smashed his hand through a glass-fronted cabinet. We spent the rest of the day at A&E and when his mother called to collect him, she gave me such a filthy look, as though it was my fault. I've tried to get my husband to accept that something is very wrong, but he thinks the boy is fine. He says it's only a reaction to the divorce and it will sort itself out over time. I'm not so sure of that. What I do know though, is that I really can't do this for much longer.

AH

FIONA SAYS: This child is clearly in pain and in need of help. He's confused and emotional and, at seven years old, may lack the capacity to understand and explain why he feels this way. Instead, he makes his feelings and frustration known by lashing out. The important thing for you to know is that this is not personal, it's a reaction to the changed circumstances. It's also important that you understand it should not be solely your responsibility to deal with the situation. I sense from your letter that you take on the role of peace-maker whenever problems arise and, if this is the case, I think your husband is shirking his responsibility as the boy's father. If things were perfect, he and his ex-wife would continue to parent their son, so that he understood all the rules were the same in both homes. The consequences of behaviour too, would remain the same from one place to the next, and his father and mother would be cooperating to contain difficult issues before they became a problem.

Things are not perfect though, and whatever the reasons for the divorce, one thing that doesn't seem to have been agreed on is parenting styles.

Your husband may well be feeling guilty about breaking up the family, but he is also deluding himself if he thinks this behaviour will simply correct itself. His son is NOT fine - he needs help and soon, so that this situation does not escalate further. If he fails to act now, he risks embedding behavioural problems in his son for years to come. And if he won't be persuaded by you, show him your letter and my response. His first step should be a conversation with his ex-wife. They need to find a way for their son to get the help he needs. This might involve a specialist child counsellor and perhaps input from his school as well. At the very least, they should contact Family Lives (familylives.org.uk). The charity's website has an extensive collection of advice covering many parenting issues. It also operates a confidential helpline where they can get support and guidance on the best way forward. Your husband also needs to help his son to understand that he needs to respect you and what that means. He needs to make it clear that there is a difference between love and respect, and that he's not asking for the former but that he does expect his son to demonstrate basic respect.

That means, of course, that you must do the same in return. But if this situation threatens to overwhelm you or you simply need someone to talk to, please contact Family Lives yourself. Readers in Scotland can contact Parentline Scotland which is part of Children1st (children1st.org.uk).

MY BOYFRIEND'S TEMPER IS WORRYING ME

I like my boyfriend a lot, but he's got a nasty temper. For the most part, he's good fun to be around, but if something sets him off, he flies into a rage and if he thinks I'm the cause he will shout and sometimes threaten me. It never lasts long and when it's over he always apologises. He says he needs to let these things out because, if he doesn't, they fester and just cause bigger upsets later. He has never hit me and promises he never will, but this doesn't stop me from being scared at the time though. He also says he loves me and wants us to get married eventually, but I am starting to have doubts. Do you think he will ever change?

TH

FIONA SAYS: He might – but it's unlikely because people with quick tempers rarely change, unless they acknowledge they have a problem and undertake some sort of counselling for anger management. If you want to give this relationship a chance to work, you need to talk with him. Explain that you care for him but are worried and often frightened by his outbursts, then ask if he's prepared to get help.

If he can't or won't, then you should think very carefully about what it is you see in him and whether he is right for you. How certain can you be that what is almost certainly emotional abuse now, won't eventually become physical abuse? Doubt, worry and fear do not make strong foundations on which to build a loving marriage.

CAN I LEAVE MY 13-YEAR-OLD HOME ALONE?

At what age can I leave my 13-year-old daughter at home on her own? I have recently been persuaded to join a local dance class, which takes place every Thursday evening. I can't afford a baby-sitter, I'm a single mum and not earning very much. Besides, my daughter thinks she's too old to need a baby sitter anyway. It's only for a couple of hours and she thinks it's a really good idea for me to get out. She also says that if she has problem, she can contact me on my mobile. She's far more sensible at 13 then ever I was.

PR

FIONA SAYS: She does sound sensible and, surprisingly, the law doesn't specify a minimum age at which a child can be left unsupervised. A parent can, however, be prosecuted for negligence if a child of any age is left in a situation where they are at risk of harm. It comes down to a question of judgement and taking sensible precautions and this will obviously depend on the age of the child. For a 13-year-old, this might include arranging for a nearby neighbour or family member to be 'on call' in the event of an emergency, and ensuring your daughter can contact you by phone.

Then, providing she's comfortable with the idea, I see no reasonable reason why you shouldn't go to the classes. I suspect it would be good for both of you.

SHOULD I GET BACK TOGETHER WITH MY FIRST HUSBAND?

When I was only 17, I married the father of my first child, who was then 10 months old. We then had another baby, but then he left me to go and work abroad – I was 19 with two small children and life was hard. Four years later, I moved in with my present partner. He and I have never married, as I have never been officially divorced. We have one son together and my elder two regard him as their dad, but our lives together are very dull. I do care for him but, if I'm honest, I only moved in with him for the support he gave me. Now my husband has written to me asking if we can try and make a go of things again, and I realise that I've never stopped loving him. I am so torn, but he can't come and live here, and I can't just up-sticks and move in with him so I really don't know what to do.

GA

FIONA SAYS: You say you still love your husband, but you haven't seen him for many years – so all you can be in love with is the memory of how your husband was then. I don't know how long it's been but it's at least five years from what you've said here, and he may be a very different person now. You may find you don't like him so much at all, and while I sympathise with your dilemma, you have three children who regard your partner as their dad. What do you think will happen to them? Are you suggesting you leave them all with your partner while you go off and find a new life? He has no obligation to look after the elder two at all. If you are going to uproot them from the only father they've ever known, then you are going to have to be very, very sure of yourself.

It might be easier, I suppose, if your husband were to come back and live here, but what will you do if he does come back, only to disappear again in a few years? He may have grown older, but has he grown any wiser and more responsible? He certainly wasn't very responsible when he left you to manage by yourself with two young children, and he isn't showing a great many signs of responsibility now.

Your partner is, you say, dull, but he's cared for you and two children who are not his own. Could it be worth seeing if you could make this relationship work before making any big decisions? Counselling could help you to sort out your feelings, and perhaps find a way of injecting some sparkle into your relationship with your partner. Perhaps you could consider talking with Relate (relate.org.uk) to see if they can help you find a way that makes everyone happier.

:: If you have a problem you need help with, email Fiona by writing to help@askfiona.net for advice. All letters are treated in complete confidence and, to protect this privacy, Fiona is unable to pass on your messages to other readers. Fiona regrets that she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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