Step-Parents can Ruin Children’s Lives

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

My downstairs neighbor was arguing with her boyfriend again last night. I say arguing, but I could only hear him shouting. He has a loud angry voice and it’s the third time in as many months. I know all couples come to blows, but there is something about this guy that I do not like.

He takes the bins out and brings them back for all four people who have flats in the building, which is kind. But there is something I can’t put my finger on and I’ve learned to trust that feeling over any charm a person might have.

When I first moved here after fleeing an abusive relationship, I was told by my other neighbor that the lady and her son downstairs were also recovering from domestic violence (her son’s father). Not long after, on a night with a full moon, I noticed she had left a plate filled with crystals out in the yard to charge up, and felt happy we shared the same witchy vibe. Plus she has cats.

However, despite a few chats at the shop and on the stairs, we have remained just neighbors.

Anyway, last night he’s shouting, it’s nearly 9 pm and my son is asleep in bed. I feel like going down there and telling him to shut up. Last time they had a fight I was tempted to message her to let her know she was welcome to come to my flat anytime she needed to, but then I felt like a nosy neighbor and decided every household is entitled to fight in their own space without interference.

Last night though, his shouting reminded me of The Conman (the guy I was with) and the abuse I suffered in silence at my last address. Even on the final day — the day I ran and never looked back — when he was outside my house in broad daylight shouting and trying to break in, not one neighbor or passer-by stopped to see I was okay.

I was terrified.

He’d taken my phone and my house keys. And yet a couple walked past arm in arm chuckling to themselves saying “oh, look at them having a domestic”, and kept on walking. I remember them vividly. I was an hour away from running for my life.

So I messaged my nice neighbor privately on facebook:

“Kate, if you ever need a friend or to get away then my door is always open to you. Sorry, but it’s just I can hear your boyfriend shouting and want you to know if you ever need anybody then I’m here x”

I figured that I’d rather risk looking like an interfering busy-body than her feeling alone and scared with nowhere to turn.

Ten minutes later she replied:

“Hi Kore, thank you very much for kind words, Andrew [her son] and Peter [boyfriend]are not getting along well . I feel like I’m in the middle and we argue all the time about what he believes Andrew should do or not, unfortunately, we had a different upbringing and different views on how children should be raised. I am sorry that all this happening…..we have already split few times because of this….a lot of work in progress in this relationship…… Thank you xxx”

My hackles instantly rose when I read that. Because my brothers had suffered at the hands of our step-dad(s) too. And worse for Andrew downstairs (aged 10), he is an only child who is suddenly having to fight with a new guy in his own home. It seems that some men can’t handle sharing a woman’s attention with her children and get jealous and nasty when they don’t feel in control of the family — even if they’ve only just appeared on the scene. I responded impulsively:

“Oh, please don’t apologize Kate. It’s just that I left a bad relationship before I moved here(not my sons’ dad, someone else) and none of my neighbors checked on me when I was in danger. I don’t want to interfere but just know you have a friend here anytime day or night. Men always seem to have a problem with son’s that are not their own. Don’t let him take over. Mother knows best xxx”

Maybe it was wrong of me to say what I said — because I do know of amazing step-dads out there, not all of them are like this. But in my own experience, the ones who have little emotional intelligence and are controlling are dangerous to a family, and especially the sons who get in the way of the new guys’ access to the mother.

I’ve seen it first hand with my little brother who was the apple of my mother’s eye — within months he was pushed out and hardly dared go near her for fear of ridicule for being a ‘big baby’. The kid was 5.

It is an actual thing, called the Cinderella effect. Where the step-parents, due to the partner being clouded in a love-haze, doesn’t see the insidious and coercive abuse that is going on right in their own household. The step-parent plays the child off against their mother/father and creates a divide so they can muscle into that special spot. If this carries on it creates long-term damage in the child can lead to PTSD, anti-social behavior, addiction and thoughts of suicide.

Is having a new boyfriend/girlfriend really worth bringing into the household when you are raising your children alone? When they are only young and needy for a short time?

Here are some facts from studies carried out on the subject of children in step-parent families:

  1. “A child under three years of age who lived with one genetic parent and one stepparent in the United States in 1976 was about seven times more likely to become a validated child-abuse case in the records than one who dwelt with two genetic parents” Their overall findings demonstrate that children residing with stepparents have a higher risk of abuse even when other factors are considered.” — Wilson and Daly 1999

Frances Childs is a teacher at a comprehensive school in southern England, and writes in an article for the Daily Mail:

“Desperate to please, to fit in and belong to the new family foisted upon them, youngsters take the name of men who at best tolerate and at worst actively dislike them.”

“ Whenever we have to call in social services over a blackened eye or the suspicion that a child of 12 is left alone night after night, almost invariably that child lives with a step-parent.”

“ In the staff room, however, teachers acknowledge, sometimes openly, often in code, ‘Mum’s met someone, be worth keeping an eye out’, that children are at risk from step-parents.”

As a single parent myself, this research has been shocking. I had recently been having a look at online dating, mainly to boost my ego and window shop. After writing this though, I deleted the app and am going to remain single until my son has grown. It’s just not worth fucking his life up for the sake of some regular sex and fine dining.

My advice to others who are in a similar situation is:

Engage in new relationships with mindfulness and clear boundaries.

And some further advice from Frances Childs who wrote the Daily Mail article above:

“Your child is YOUR responsibility.” Given that your child “didn’t choose a divorce,” she or he needs “MORE from you as a parent [when dating or remarried], not less.”

And one final quote to sum it all up, from Brad Wilcox, a University of Virginia Sociologist:

“This is the dark underbelly of cohabitation. Cohabitation has become quite common, and most people think, ‘What’s the harm?’ The harm is we’re increasing a pattern of relationships that’s not good for children.’’

It’s funny, just after writing this draft I read a beautiful post by a step-dad who has brought up his step-daughter — I do know that there are some good people out there. But when it comes to your children, YOU are the gatekeeper and you are their protector. Please choose wisely.

Forewarned is forearmed.

English woman and mother writing about mental health, parenting, addiction and recovery. Email:

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