In the counseling groups sometimes kids would say:” There is nothing worse than having a “madrastra” (stepmother) or a “padrastro” (stepfather). Jet, a teenage Guatemalan girl disagrees: “Oh, No! Mine is pretty nice. It’s my mother I can’t stand!” It is very common for the parents to have remarried in the new country and the new spouse is introduced to the newcomers at their arrival. At its worse, this comes as a total surprise to the newly arrived youngster as the new relationship was kept a secret. Sometimes this person tries to keep their role in the background. “No se mete en nada” say the kids (“he keeps out of all conflicts.”). Many times a stepfather will totally isolate himself from the drama of re-parenting unfolding in front of him. Other times, he may give advice to the mother about parenting and intervenes only when the youngster is disrespectful towards her. These postures seem to produce the best outcomes in the relationships within the family. Sometimes, however, an overwhelmed mother puts the stepfather in the role of the disciplinarian, with obvious disastrous results. She justifies it to the children as: “he is providing for us and you have to respect him and listen to him.” In other instances, the stepparent may become the “good guy”, the one with whom it is so much easier to communicate because there are no issues to heal or intense feelings to manage.
The most dreadful scenario, however, is when stepparent and child are in total competition and at war with each other. Francisco was visibly depressed and the teachers noticed also his difficulties concentrating in class. His younger sister and he had come a year ago to live with his father, his new wife and his 5 year- old half-brother. At first things were fine, but soon conflict erupted because the little one was very active and into everything, which irritated the new siblings. If they would yell at him the stepmother would get very upset and complain to the father who would in turn scream at them. Francisco’s sister resorted to hitting the little guy if he got into her things and the stepmother would then slap her. That was when Francisco would step in and tell the stepmother she had no right to hit them because she was not their mother. Things would escalate from there. When the father would get home, the stepmom would have a lot of complaints against the newcomers. If the father tried to ask for her patience, she would say that he loved them more than the little one and would threaten to leave. Seemingly, the stepmom needed a lot of reassurance about her husband’s love for her and her child and she also could use some ideas about helping the little one stay out of trouble with the older ones, but she resisted coming in for a talk. This is a very challenging situation for fathers who are usually so eager to parent and nurture these children from whom they were separated for so long. The problem is many times that this very feeling becomes very threatening to the spouse, especially if she feels unsure of his commitment towards her. In the meantime, Francisco and his stepmom were not talking to each other and the sister was acting more and more aggressively at home.
Dennis’ mom left him, the youngest of five kids, when he was 12. His grandparents and an older brother looked after him. The father had always been out of the picture. While his older brother was there, he was a good student and a docile youngster. When his brother left to join the mother, his elderly grandparents were not able to control him and he was in the streets a lot and his grades suffered. At 16, he joined his mother who had now remarried. All her grown children had lives of their own by now. When Dennis was referred to the school psychologist, he was described as a very angry and hostile kid. Teachers recommended him as a good candidate for the Anger Management Group in Spanish. In a first interview, Dennis started sharing very soon how he hated his stepfather and he hated living with him and his mom. When he had arrived in the U.S., he had been so looking forward to being with his mom again. He still had wonderful memories of how close they were when he was little. Now, when his mom came home from work and sat on the sofa to talk to him, an angry husband would call her to their bedroom and lock the door. Dennis would not see his mom again that evening. He would be left feeling rejected, angry and lonesome. This scene would repeat itself over and over. Dennis also revealed that that his stepfather drank excessively and never spoke to him. Finally, things got much improved when Dennis was allowed to move out of the house to go live with his married sister. Unfortunately his attraction for trouble did not stop completely and he was soon being threatened by a local gang and had to go into hiding far away. With this sudden turn of events there was no opportunity to work on neither his loss and new separation from his mom, nor on his anger and worry for her total submission to a frightening and rather unkind spouse.
Sometimes the war between the children and the stepparent ends with the marriage, creating strong guilt feelings for the children. If the mother blames the children for her spouse leaving, or complains about the financial uncertainties she now has to face, they feel like a burden to her and experience an overwhelming desire to run away or somehow disappear from her life, so she can have her spouse back. “Perhaps then, they could stop feeling the pain of being blamed for ruining her life” is the sad words they use. Feelings of rejection and anger are intolerable and acting out is the norm in all aspects of their lives.
If the stepmother is the one leaving, the danger is for the daughter to start assuming the female/ spouse role in taking care of the household. In a father-daughter relationship that is still very recent, the danger is for it to become sexualized, unless some healthy psychological boundaries are in place.
The most dramatic cases are those where the stepparent attempts or actually sexually abuses the newly arrived child. Some mothers react appropriately in defense of their children. In other unfortunate cases, the competitive feelings with their child’s youth and their pain at the husband betrayal create emotional havoc with their perceptions and they end up blaming the young teen daughter for acting seductively with their spouse, ultimately rejecting her: a most painful and devastating outcome for the daughter. This latter situation becomes even worse when other members of the extended family support the mother in her position. In some cases a machista (male centered), very traditional cultural assumption is that men are ultimately not to be blamed for their sexual acts, because “after all, they are men, and they really can’t control themselves.” It is then up to the woman, or girl, to assume the total responsibility for taking care of herself. “If she doesn’t, what can she expect?”exclaim the supporters of this skewed viewpoint.
A different scenario unfolds when a newly arrived teen daughter and a stepfather become romantically involved. This can be seen more often, it seems, in households where the mother is married or living with a younger man. As the bonding and loyalties between mother-daughter are not in place and the adolescent feels lonesome and lost, the special attention she is receiving from the stepfather feels very rewarding and the boundaries become obscured. For the stepfather, this adolescent brings beauty and youth into a very small, crowded living arrangement not very conducive to privacy. The situation becomes an open invitation for trouble if the couple does not have a strong relationship. Yolanda, 15, had arrived only three months before when the scandal came into the open. She had run away with the stepfather. After charges had been filed, the stepfather was incarcerated for four years and psychotherapy begun with the mother and the daughter at a point when there was rampant anger and distrust between them. After some time, progress started to develop and Yolanda seemed to be improving at school. However, as the time for the stepfather’s release came nearer, the mother-daughter relationship again took a turn for the worst and Yolanda run away from home saying this time she would never come back. Sadly, the news came that Yolanda had again run away with her stepfather. This time she was old enough so that the relationship could be pursued without “interference” from the Justice System.