Click here to print this page

Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 35

It could be you....      

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

'My elder son's behaviour is causing concern with my ex and his new partner'

Linda writes:

'After divorcing seven years ago, my two sons stayed with their father as I was moving away for work. I have my boys fortnightly for the week-end and also phone them regularly. I have remarried and have a two-year-old boy with my second husband. My first two sons adore their new brother.

My ex has a new partner too. Though we haven't met we speak to each other on the phone. I feel we relate well and that she cares for my boys and wants the best for them.

However, my elder son's behaviour at home is apparently causing serious concern. He believes my ex's partner hates him and frequently tells her that he hates her. They have many conflicts. He constantly texts me with distressing messages of his unhappiness and feelings about his dad's partner.

He insists I phone him nightly and will often text in-between calls. He demands my attention constantly. When with us at weekends he sleeps with me, and my husband has his bed in the living room. His brothers lose out on his company.

This emotional demand is having a huge strain on my current relationship and causing everyone stress. My son says he wants to live with me. I would love this but my financial situation is much less secure than his father's where he enjoys a comfortable life style. He wouldn't have that with me. Nor do I have suitable accommodation, as we only have one bedroom.

I have so far given constant reassurance and tried to present a united front with his father and new partner. I feel it is only right that I support her since I know she is deeply concerned. But this does not seem to be working.

I think we all need help over this. Can you advise us?'

Maggi replies:

The strain your son's behaviour is putting on everyone must be extremely worrying for you all, including him of course. It is important that he is made to feel safe and loved, but it will not help him or anyone else if he thinks he can insist upon or dictate how he is treated.

It feels as though there are several strands to this complex and upsetting problem.

  • You left seven years ago, and although you do not say how old your sons were at the time, I imagine they were quite young. They may have unresolved feelings about this huge event.

  • You have remarried and have another son. They could feel that it makes them less important in your life, as a baby or toddler takes up so much time and attention.

  • You talk of your former husband's partner as 'new'. This means that a big shift in their main home structure and dad's attention has happened too.

  • You live in a home that has no bedroom for him and his brothers.

In order to understand a little more about what could be troubling your son, let us look at some of the typical reactions to divorce manifested by children. Although seen as age-related, for all kinds of reasons a child can present these reactions when they are way past the most typical age to show them.

The under-3s have periods of heightened attachments to specific, significant carers. They have limited capacity to tolerate prolonged separations from these carers or for disruptions of significant routines, e.g. mealtimes and bedtimes.

Common behaviours in pre-school 3-5 year olds:

  • Regression to earlier stages of development

  • Clinging possessiveness to people and objects

  • Sleeplessness

  • Help-seeking or aggressive, non-compliant behaviour

  • Attention-seeking.

Main emotional reactions:

  • Fear of being sent away/ replaced.

  • Intense fear of abandonment by both parents - if one parent can leave so can the other.

Pre-occupations for 5-8 year olds:

The 5-8 year old child of divorce is pre-occupied with feelings of loss, rejection, guilt and loyalty conflicts. There is intense grief and concern over the parent who has left home, and intense longings that, one day, he/she will come back.
They may regress into thinking/feeling like pre-school children.
8-year-olds cannot regress like younger children, but don't have adolescent coping-mechanisms either. They may appear sensible and composed, but this may belie confusion or depression.

How 9-11 year olds cope:

9-11 year olds often form alliances with one parent. The child can experience pity, worry, fear of abandonment, and fear of punishment. Forming alliances with one parent offers safety and connectedness.
In this age range, parent-child boundaries are more likely to be crossed and the child may try to become:

  • parent to the parent - nurturer, comforter

  • the replacement spouse/partner

  • 'just good friends' - sibling with parent.

Attitudes of 11-16 year olds:

The 11-16s may rationalise when under stress, saying perhaps that they are pleased their parents are apart as they know how they stand. They may also resort to contempt or denigration - 'stupid, incompetent adults'.
Boys may have discipline problems at home and school, and some may become aggressive and even violent. They may have difficulty in separating from or leaving their single mothers.

On reaching adolescence:

From 16 upwards, adolescents may be compassionate, arrogant, pedantic, idealistic, angry. They are better able to cope but they can regress into earlier types of behaviour.

Without knowing your son's age, I cannot make a direct connection to one type of behaviour, but it does sound as though he has regressed to a younger stage, perhaps, at times, to the age at which you left home and his dad became principal carer? It is quite possible at such a time for even a small child to repress his own feelings of grief, fear, hurt and anger, in order to 'be a good boy' for mummy or daddy and look after his younger sibling.

A new person in dad's life is a blow to the fantasy held by most children that their parents will eventually get back together again. The new partner will need support, as no matter how kind and caring she is, she runs the risk of being the receiver of all the pent-up bad feeling that a child may feel he can't afford to direct towards his parents.
Once your son's feelings are stirred up and coming out, their power could be frightening. He will become very insecure and needy, hence the heavy and divisive demands he is making on you - in the manner of a much younger child creating 'an alliance'.

Most children of eight or over do not expect to sleep their parent's bed all the time. Don't tell him that, but offer a cuddle, reassurance of his safety and your love, along with firm affirmation along the lines of:
"This is our bed and although (step-dad) cares about you very much, I want him to sleep in his own place in our own bed. He will never take your place in my affections, there are special places for you all".

Make sure you say that is you who wants this.

There are good and bad times to say this, and the best is well before evening so that your son isn't faced with the news just as he prepares for bedtime, tired and expecting to take his preferred place in your bed.

Perhaps you fear making yourself unpopular and causing further upset. All parents have to cope with that from time to time. Your son might be hurt and angry, but provided you remain loving towards him he will know it is ok to say how he feels and that you won't reject him because of it.

  • Give him time to adjust.

  • Let him know that you are unable to respond to all of his texts but will talk to him on the phone each evening for a set period of time.

  • Be firm about this but always be ready to talk if you have arranged it.

  • Make it clear it isn't possible to have him living with you but that you always love the time when both older boys come for the weekends.

  • Don't exclude the other boy, for both their sakes.

Encourage him to deal with his 'complaints' about his other home with dad. His father needs to listen and to try to reassure him that he is safe in his main home.
He needs to know from dad that the new partner is not going away, but that he loves the boys just the same, that she is very fond of them but isn't going to try to be their 'mum'. You need to show that you accept her presence and get on well with her.

I wonder if having some kind of family event where you all meet would help. This would demonstrate an extended but united family that could be reassuring to him – and to his younger brothers. Adult anxieties could be approached by a grown-ups-only meeting first, to talk the problem through and plan ways of supporting the boys and each other.

Relate Guide To Step Families
Suzie Hayman

One in three people find themselves as part of a step family or 'second family' at some point in their life. This book offers practical and positive strategies for coping for all the people involved – 'new' parents, established parents, children, the 'ex', grandparents.

Remarriage: What makes it, What breaks it
Helen Franks
(Bodley Head, out of print but available from libraries)



You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

To view previous articles in this series - see the Relationship Counselling Index page



Advertise on

[an error occurred while processing this directive]