Managing relations between stepmother and stepchildren

A united family Image source from

A united family Image source from

Peace, harmony and stability are the bedrock for meaningful development in the home. But for this to happen, all stakeholders must be willing to play active roles. Unfortunately, however, this is not so in some cases, where a man remarries after death, separation, or divorce from the first wife. And though it is not general, but the hostility between an average stepmother and her stepchildren is quite proverbial in this part of the world. This situation could be inexplicable and challenging, if not properly managed, as it has taken away peace from many homes.

What is responsible for this animosity and how can it be remedied?
Dr. Isaac Fagbohungbe of the Department of Psychology, University of Lagos, believes that behind every act of hostility between a stepmother and her stepchildren, there is a perception of deprivation, whereby, the stepmother see the presence of the stepchildren as an incursion into her territory.

This suspicion is, however, mutual, as the stepchildren also see their stepmother as someone depriving them of their rights.

“This is because, the stepchildren, regardless of what may have happened, believe that their mother should have been the one occupying that position, but for one reason or the other, she is not there,” Fagbohungbe said. “Even in a situation, whereby the real mother is dead, which may bring the necessity for a replacement, the children still wouldn’t see it that way. This can sometimes get to the extent of holding the stepmother responsible for whatever happened to their mother. So, this suspicious foundation affects whatever transpires between them.

“The stepmother is not spared from this distrust either, as she sees the image of their mother in her stepchildren. She also regards them as a threat, which leads to a perception of enemies. This antagonistic image could be so aggravated, if not well managed. When you don’t trust someone, it generates all sorts of bad thoughts.”

Aside mutual suspicion, a stepmother can also see her stepchildren as competitors with her own children, whether born or unborn. This is especially pronounced in cases, where there is wealth and properties.

“This complicates the issue the more, when the stepmother realises that any child she produces will be a younger sibling to the stepchildren,” Fagbohungbe explained. “This fear is fuelled all the more in Africa, where much emphasis is laid on the first born being the next of kin to the father, with respect to inheritance. Some go as far as ensuring that the stepchild is eliminated or does not find his bearing in life.”

Interestingly, the man of the house can sometimes also be the cause of this animosity. This happens, when the person at the centre of all this commotion is unjust or unmindful of his reactions about issues concerning members of his household.

He said: “As a man, he would want people to believe he is taking care of the children despite the fact that their mother is not there. And so, he might start paying more attention to the children than the stepmother, and because in most situations, the latter don’t have the guts to challenge the man, they vent their anger on the children.

“On the other hand, if the man favoured the wife more than the children, it could also lead to hostility from the children. We have seen a lot of cases, whereby the man favours and prefers the wife to the children, especially depending on what instigated the first wife’s exit. The children feel neglected and will always find a way to fight back, and if they don’t have the wherewithal to face their father, then they will pounce on the stepmother.”

To Nneoma Albert-Benson, President of BEFA, a women and childcare foundation, the fundamental issues behind the hostility between stepmothers and their stepchildren are ignorance, insecurity and misplaced aggression.

She said: “The reason why any woman would fight a fellow woman or her offspring over a man is because she has failed to realise her worth as a woman and the bond that binds every woman together.

“Women need to unlearn a lot of stereotypes that have continually subjected them and set them against themselves. ‎We need to identify our problems and face them squarely.

“These issues between women are never resolved, because we haven’t succeeded in nipping them in the bud. ‎It’s just like trying to cut down a tree and you only remove the leaves, while ignoring the roots. It would definitely grow back.

“Patriarchy is at the root of all these problems, and until we uproot it, all efforts would be limited in scope and longevity. Living apart or together is not the issue. A woman needs to understand that her stepchildren are not her problem.

“In Nigeria, psychological and mental assistance are undermined. These women need lots of counselling and therapy, too. It’s easy to let out aggression on the most vulnerable persons, who sometimes happen to be their stepchildren.”

In his view, Dr. David Emmanuel, a counsellor, said there is one common factor, paramount between stepmothers and their stepchildren, which is the man, who is a husband to one and father to the other.

“In the midst of all this, true love is important and is expected to be expressed. This, of course, leads to jealousy, which if not well managed, would definitely lead to hatred and contempt between the stepmother and her stepchildren,” said Emmanuel. “The sole responsibility, therefore, lies on the father and husband of the house, who is expected to be unbiased and plain in expressing and maintaining good relationship between everybody. He should not support his new wife to the detriment of his children and neither should he support the children against his wife.”

Corroborating Emmanuel’s stance, Dr. Raphael James, a Psychologist, said: “Stepmothers and stepchildren have one thing in common and that is the man, who is a husband to one and father to the other. Love is demanded, which breeds jealousy. And once jealousy is involved, a poor management of it leads to anger and hatred.

“Therefore, the man in question has to be as neutral as possible. He shouldn’t support his new wife against his children; neither should he support the children against his new wife. He has to talk to both parties separately to love the other more. If the new wife supports the children, there will be less misunderstanding in the family. This is, however, not to say there are not stepmothers, who are great.”

On his part, Fred David, a counsellor believes the real issue between stepmothers and their stepchildren is that of a fight for priority and territory.

“Everybody has a place in the family, but once stepchildren begin to struggle for the place of their stepmother, then there is a problem,” he explained.

“The issue of envy, jealousy and hatred are evident. I believe that it is generally a woman’s problem and it is high time women realised that life should be taken easily. This is just a show of smartness and the ‘I am better than you’ syndrome.”

On how the relationship between a stepmother and her stepchildren could be improved, Fagbohungbe was of the opinion that the man, as the head of the family, has a very vital role to play in all this.

“As a man, there are some things you don’t display openly. In a situation, whereby the man prefers the first wife and her children to the second wife’s, he is not expected to display such openly and make it so glaring for all to see. If he does this, he is definitely inviting what is called, ‘Josephic Syndrome’ (culled from the story of Joseph in the Bible).

“Also, the father needs to educate the wife and children regularly, to make them accept and love one another. They should also endeavour to attend seminars and workshops to enable them know how best to relate with the children, especially on how to avoid child abuse and domestic violence and then accept each other totally.

“The government also has a role to play in this. An example is what Lagos State government is doing presently against all forms of child abuse and domestic violence to ensure that it is totally eradicated. If people know that the government is there watching and waiting and that they would be punished, they would adjust and avoid bad things.”

But when a man knows he cannot handle another relationship successfully, Fagbohungbe felt it is better that such a man refrains from marrying another wife, irrespective of any reason he may have, so that peace would reign.

“Most time, men usually give an official reason for needing somebody to take care of the children and the house. But it all depends on how well he, as the head of the family, can manage the home affairs successfully. There are some men, who, knowing their type of nature, would refuse to remarry because he doesn’t want a rival for his children. But we all have our individual differences; hence, one cannot prescribe the same treatment for all.”

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