My 9-year-old step-son is aggressive and rude towards me..

Salvador Minuchin, a family therapist said “A child cannot be as powerful as an adult unless he’s standing on someone’s shoulders”   

So, if you are experiencing this behaviour, whose shoulders is your step-child standing on? Who is giving this child the permission to feel entitled? to be rude and aggressive? Or cold, entitled and very rude? 

Often as a step-parent on the receiving end of this behaviour from the child, the step-parent naturally blames the child. Sometimes there are more than one step-child, and only one of the step-children are that rude or entitled.  

Instead it may be more helpful to look a little wider, further back, further up to the adults in this child’s life and further down into the history. But one key helpful thing, is not to take it personally. You may be the one who is getting the rudeness, but this is not about you.  

This problem is one of the key differences between families and step-families. Step-families are born of loss. Loss of what has gone before. With recovery from loss comes grief (sadness) and anger.  

Could your partners ex be giving the child permission to not accept you? Giving them permission to ‘do as they please’, to say things to you that are not okay, and to behave in ways that no normal child should ever do? 

Could it be your partner? They have often had a special relationship with their child post-divorce. They may have had a while together. They may have treated the child more like an equal than if they had remained with the child’s parent. You may be moving in to their home. The parent has a real and genuine difficulty in working out which has higher priority you, or their child.  

Grand-parents can also give entitlement. Over-reacting to the child’s parents divorce, or the death of the step-child’s parent, that they allow the child to not have to take responsibility for their actions. 

My feeling is that it is helpful to see the child as the deliverer of difficult emotions, not the originator of them. My belief is that certainly in child step-children, (adult step-children are possibly different in this regard), don’t have the power to be like this without this permission.  

Children can have problems and difficulties: they can be on the autistic spectrum, or they can be neglected, or they can be suffering from anxiety, depression, or various illnesses, – but behaviour from these tend to manifest in other ways.  

So what to do about these problems? 

1) Difficult and hard as it might be, do not take the behaviour personally. As it is not about you. You need to look beyond the anger and rudeness to a poor pathetic child who is struggling. They do not want to be this way. They do not want to be disliked. They will be drawing all the wrong sorts of attention by being so. Their rudeness, aggression and entitlement just tell you the degree to which they are suffering. 

2) Address the problem with the person who is allowing them to be this way. If this is your partner, realise that the discussion needs to be between you and them, not you and the child. Does your partner even recognise there is a problem or do they feel you are the adult and you should be able to handle it? There may be many reasons why the parent doesn’t feel able to address the problem. They could feel guilty about the divorce, sorry for what they have put the child through, sad that the other parents they chose for the child didn’t work out. But allowing the child to be rude, entitled and aggressive is not the answer to this. 

3) If you need to address the problem with your partner’s ex, then this is approaching parent alienation. Where the other parent Your partner’s ex is the alienator. Aligning the child with them, and giving the child the thoughts and rights to express the poor behaviour. Making you and sometimes your partner the targeted parents. When there are co-parenting agreements these state that one parent should not speak ill of the other. There is lots of evidence that speaking ill of the other parent is bad for the child. This needs to be addressed, either in person by your partner, or the courts. 

At the end of the day, this is a deceptive problem, where you can be encouraged to really dislike your step-child, but really these behaviours are the remains of emotions born of loss by the adults in the original family as a result of the divorce.  

One final point in solving this problem.
It is very easy to feel antagonistic as the step-parent. You are antagonised toward this step-child who is horrid to you, and try as you might, their parent, your partner does not see it. So, you are antagonised against them regarding their child. Many step-parents say, “I have a great relationship with my new partner, but I can’t stand their child or children”. The parent knows you are not getting on with their child so will become defensive. They will support their child against you. “Oh, they are not that bad, they are only young, the step-parents should be more understanding etc” You will have a go, lose your temper, insist things are done a particular way, not help the child as a consequence of their “atrocious” behaviour. This then drives you and your partner to polar opposites. To resolve this problem with your partner, you need to step-put of the triangle (the persecutor, victim, rescuer triangle). Let your partner take the full brunt of the poor behaviour. Do not criticise the step-child. See the problem for what it is, an issue with their parent. When things go wrong, and the parent has seen it go wrong, discuss in private, away from the scene and time, when you are calm and out of ear-shot of the child. You and the parent can then agree what to do when this happens again. Agree the rule or boundary, and consequences and rewards for this particular transgression. Communicate this to the child and make sure they understand. Together you can deal with the child when a transgression happens again. But this time back each other up. Take one transgression at a time, and build slowly. It takes patience to see beyond the problem and not react. But sooner than you will realise, the problem can get less, and then fade away.      
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