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Self Abuse and Abuse Towards Others

Question:

My 10-year-old son has been showing some very disturbing behaviors. In 2004, his dad and I split and were divorced four years later. Both of us have started new relationships. My son has had behavior problems since we’ve entered these new relationships.

At school, his grades are failing, and he started stealing from school, friends and both his father and me. My fiancé and I have done most of the disciplining. His father lets him get away with anything. He tells me all his dad does is play on the computer all day.

I know my son is angry, and it shows. He retaliates against his younger brother by belittling and hurting him. He says he hates my boyfriend’s daughter, who is only 6. He is also very hurtful verbally to her. Recently, after he got in trouble, we noticed that he was hurting himself by scratching his arms, and we heard him say he was going to break his foot. His dad has custody of both the boys. Since I only have them on weekends, everything I try to do is undone during the week. I am afraid for him and our other children. My fiancé and I are afraid our relationship won’t stand up to the problems we are experiencing due to my son’s behavior. I pray for your help. We have tried so many things, and nothing is working.

Answer:

Thanks for reaching out to us. Divorce is a difficult situation that takes time to work through, regardless of fault or the reason for its occurrence. This is especially true for children who may become caught in the middle — or at least, feel that way. Add to this, adjusting to new relationships for both parents, and it can be incredibly overwhelming.

Because of the behavior problems you son is displaying, it is clear that he is unhappy with all or parts of the latest family arrangements. If you haven’t already done so, now may be the time to sit him down and ask him exactly what he feels and thinks is wrong. It does not mean that things will change or be readjusted solely for him, but it will allow him the opportunity to be heard. When kids are hurting and angry, they act out in ways that are usually negative. Sometimes they mean to act this way, but other times it’s a way to get attention because they feel ignored or unimportant. Although the result is that he’s in trouble, negative attention turns out being better than no attention.

It is going to be critical for you to reach out to him on an individual and family basis to help him work through his thoughts and feelings so he can begin to fully accept the changes that have occurred and better manage his frustrations and behaviors. Keep in mind, this may include his father in the process, as the source of stress was the divorce. Despite the living arrangements, it will require effort from the both you and your ex-husband to remind him that even though things are different, you both still love and care for him very much and want what’s best for him.

Because your son’s behavior includes self-harm in addition to threatening and harming his younger brother and future step-sibling, it will be important to consider taking him to individualized counseling. This would be a way for him to express his feelings to someone who is neutral and could look objectively at his experience in the situation. The counselor could also thoroughly evaluate whether his behaviors are just a reaction to his feelings or if there is something deeper going on.

It will be important for you to remain vigilant about his behaviors toward others and himself to try to ensure that no one is hurt unnecessarily. Working with a therapist can help him learn coping strategies to use when he becomes upsets and feels like he wants to harm others or himself. You can also reach out to us for help if you believe that he is in danger of harming himself in any way.

Just as your son deserves to heal from all of his past hurts, so do you. It is evident that you have started this process. I understand that you have apprehensions about having a future with your fiancé, but with time, patience and preparation, your story can end happily. You and your fiancé might consider blended family counseling, as well. Just as it is important for you and your children to work through the past, it is equally important that you lay a strong foundation for your future.

As with anything new and challenging, the process can and may be frustrating at first, but the connectedness you desire is achievable.

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