One evening after work, my husband sat me down for a conversation about his ex-wife. Although they had been divorced for years, she had become increasingly territorial with him and their son from the day we got engaged. I had grown tired of the manipulation and drama that always seemed to stem from contact with her, and did what many stepmoms have contemplated: I took a step back in parenting my stepson. My husband did 100% of the communication with his ex, and I busied myself in other parts of the house during exchanges. The decision made a huge difference in our marriage and family, at least for a little while.
It turns out that my stepson’s mom had noticed my absence, and she started quizzing him about where I was and what I was doing. I learned from my husband that when our sweet nine-year-old wasn’t giving her the ammunition she was looking for, she started asking things like, “Why doesn’t your stepmom like me?” and pressing him for every detail about me – to the point that my stepson came home from visitation confused and upset. When my husband confronted her about it, his ex issued an ultimatum: either I was going to be conspicuously present and warm to her during pick-up and drop-off, or she was going to continue what seemed like malicious behavior.
You already know what choice I made – I would have done whatever I had to for this kid. I wasn’t walking with Jesus at the time, and the bitterness that took root in my heart that season has taken years of soul-mending to dig out. I have forgiven my stepson’s mom for the way she treated the three of us, but the scars are still there. We often hear Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS) discussed as a key factor in step or blended family dynamics, while the damage of bullying from an ex-pouse or other parent is overlooked. I’m not an expert, lawyer, or counseling professional; my goal is simply to help you identify and counter this destructive behavior based on my own experiences.
What could bullying look like in your step or blended family?
- Scheduling activities on the other parent’s time. These could be extracurricular practices or games, sleep-away camps, or even birthday parties. The defining factors are that these events were scheduled without the other parent’s consent or knowledge, and the child is often made to feel like this parent is the bad guy. I have a stepmom friend whose stepson was consistently scheduled for Boy Scout trips and campouts on their two visitation weekends each month – and when her husband objected, his ex would say things like,”I thought you would want to spend time with your son!” or “Why wouldn’t you want to take him camping?”
- Bribing the child to discourage visitation. When we arrived to pick up my stepdaughter for birthday dinner (per the CO), she came out to the car and said her mom and stepdad had invited extended family over for an impromptu backyard barbecue – and that she’d rather stay home. In your situation, this may look like the ex-wife planning a fun weekend at an amusement park or on a family trip, and telling your stepkid, “It’s too bad you have to go to your dad’s and can’t come…”
- Withholding information about school events and extracurriculars. Is your husband the last one to find out about open house or soccer games, often after it’s too late to attend? Here’s another scenario: your husband’s ex threatens to stop telling him about future band concerts, unless he agrees to stop bringing you, the stepmom.
- Punishing the child for adult disagreements. When my husband wouldn’t switch weekends (after getting burned too many times), his ex would take it out on my stepdaughter – not letting her shower before school the next day or forcing her to go to bed with wet hair as “punishment.” The message? “Let me have my way or our child will suffer.”
How can I combat the effects of bullying in my stepchild’s life?
- Follow the Custody Order (CO). When an ex-spouse bullies the other home, the goal is often to gain control and dispel feelings of powerlessness over their former spouse and the children. Although a CO can seem rigid at times, it can also be a valuable tool to fall back on when communication breaks down. My husband would often send over screenshots as backup in disagreements with my stepkids’ moms over visitation schedules or ability to contact medical offices.
- Align with other authority figures. I’m not talking about airing your dirty laundry with your stepchild’s teacher or counselor. Rather, give them the tools to help make your stepchild successful. For example, if the ex-wife withholds information like school events and report cards, approach the teacher with a heartfelt request to send duplicate info to your home. Also, check out the school’s policy on stepparents in the classroom, attending events and/or contacting the teacher…most embrace any parent that wants to be involved in a child’s education, and are sensitive regarding children with two homes.
- Consult an attorney. Although bullying isn’t usually an actionable offense, there are other items (like preventing access or visitation) that could be held in contempt. Even if you don’t go that route, a modification of the custody order to include more enforceable language may be beneficial.
Be agreeable, be sympathetic, be loving, be compassionate, be humble. That goes for all of you, no exceptions. No retaliation. No sharp-tongued sarcasm. Instead, bless—that’s your job, to bless. You’ll be a blessing and also get a blessing. – 1 Peter 3:9
I’ll close with this: don’t be a bully, either. This one may seem like common sense, but the temptation for revenge can be overwhelming in the face of manipulative behavior. Instead, be the great spouse and stepmomma that we both know you can be. Pray, and give it back to God.