Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend’s Son Is Impossible

His 5-year-old and I used to have a positive relationship, but lately he's been nothing but rude and mean.

An illustration of a boy looking at a woman with a scary shadow.
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Dear Therapist,

I am 38 years old and have been dating my boyfriend for a year and a half, during which time he has gone through a divorce and begun co-parenting with his ex. We have lived together for a year in my home. He has 50/50 custody of his son and I have my daughter the majority of the time. Both of our children are 5 years old.

In the past six months, his son has changed how he treats me. We used to enjoy our time together—he’d snuggle with me and tell me he loved me. Now he tells me he doesn’t have to listen to me, or that I’m mean, and he even told me to get out of his room when I tried to help him after he had an accident. I used to pick both kids up from school so they could play before dinnertime, and take them to school in the morning since they enjoyed each other’s company. But I haven’t been able to handle him, so I scaled back on caring for him without his father present.

In addition to his changed behavior toward me, he has been having issues at pre-K: biting, punching, and choking other children. To top things off, his mother has a drinking issue, and child protective services has gotten involved, including an interview with me and my child.

Although the son has never exhibited these behaviors toward my daughter, I don’t want to jeopardize my own parenting time because I have this angry little fellow in my home sometimes. I am also uncomfortable with some of the exchanges between my boyfriend and his ex. She is verbally abusive and has mental-health issues on top of the alcoholism. He will say he is going to speak to her only via email, then go back to texting and calling. He even offered to attend AA with her. I feel that he puts her feelings way higher on his list of priorities than he should. He is always verbally appreciative and grateful to me, but I almost get jealous when I think of his behavior toward his ex.

My boyfriend and I plan to get married soon, but I am not sure how to deal with his ex and his child’s behavior. I suggested therapy for his son, but my boyfriend doesn’t think he needs it.

I’ve been in several long-term relationships, so I truly value the one I have now with my boyfriend, but it feels like these issues are growing out of control. I go back and forth between wanting to be helpful and understanding toward everyone involved, and angry that I am involved in this circus and wondering whether I should continue to be. I don’t know what to do.

Cherry Hill, N.J.

Dear Joy,

Even in the best of circumstances, blended families tend to be complicated for all involved—the parents, the exes, and the children from both families. In your case, though, you have the added layer of an unstable family member, and you’re wise to consider the implications for you and your daughter because if you marry your boyfriend, he (like you) is going to be a package deal.

The fact that both of you are package deals may sound obvious, but so many people I see in therapy tell me that, for some reason, they hadn’t anticipated how different dating would be the second time around. Many imagined that they would meet someone and fall in love, and that while there would be some adjustment in store for their kids and those of their new partner, everyone would eventually get along fine. But what they come to discover is that it’s not just the kids who might become a challenging part of their world—it’s also their partner’s ex.

This last part is worth highlighting, because a blended family isn’t just two adults and their children. It consists of all of these children’s parents, even the ones not in the new marriage.

So let’s look at your situation, starting with your boyfriend’s 5-year-old son. I have a feeling that your frustration with your boyfriend and his ex is potentially getting in the way of a greater understanding or empathy for what this boy may be going through. Young children don’t have the language or cognitive sophistication to articulate their feelings, so they tend to express them through behaviors, which would explain his acting out at school and also the change in his behavior with you. If his mother is struggling with addiction and mental-health issues that have required the involvement of child protective services, he is going to be affected by this. I imagine that he feels some combination of scared, confused, angry, sad, and unsafe around this person he loves who is supposed to care for him. Meanwhile, he’s expected to acclimate to a new parental figure and her child. The combination of these events would be a lot for anyone—but especially a 5-year-old—to manage.

It’s worth noting, too, that he’s not acting out with your daughter, and the behavior you mentioned at home—his saying that you’re mean or that he doesn’t have to listen to you—is par for the course with kids adjusting to a potential stepparent. So is the shame he may have felt when he had an accident and sent you away. Yes, he didn’t used to react this way, but children are very good at sensing how adults feel about them, and I imagine that it would be very hard to separate the frustration you have toward his mom and dad from the way you feel about their son. For instance, if your daughter said that you were mean or that she doesn’t have to listen to you (as kids sometimes do), you’d probably try to understand where she was coming from rather than decide that you couldn’t “handle” her, distance yourself, and tell your ex that he should take care of her from now on because you can’t be alone with her. Yet you’ve done just that with your boyfriend’s son—and this, too, will affect his behavior.

What this boy needs is stability, love, and understanding, but it doesn’t sound like anyone is talking to him about his experience. His father may not think he needs therapy, and in one sense, he’s right—the boy has become what therapists call the “identified patient” (IP) in this family system, the person who acts out the family’s struggles. The IP, while seeming to be the troubled family member, is actually the healthiest one in the sense that he’s having a normal reaction to an untenable situation. But it’s the IP who suffers, unless the family gets help.

The problem here isn’t the ex-wife, or your boyfriend, or his son. The problem is that this family—and by “this family,” I mean this entire blended family—needs support and guidance. Sending a 5-year-old to therapy when the adults in his life are struggling so much right now wouldn’t address the bigger issues swirling around him. But family therapy would benefit all of you greatly.

In family therapy, a therapist would see you in different combinations—both kids with you and your boyfriend, just the two of you as a couple, your daughter with you, your boyfriend’s son with each of his parents, your boyfriend with his ex, perhaps the three of you adults together, depending on his ex’s level of volatility—and help bring some balance to the new family system. Through this process, you’d gain a better understanding of and deeper empathy for why it might be important for your boyfriend to support the mother of his child in her recovery by accompanying her to AA meetings, taking her calls, and being an available co-parent when his child’s safety and well-being are at stake. Your boyfriend will get support for what he’s going through, which will in turn open up communication between the two of you. The kids will have the opportunity to be seen and heard in a more effective way. And you will have a safe place to negotiate rules and boundaries as you navigate this new chapter in all of your lives.

You may decide that you’re not willing to put in this kind of effort. You may dig deep into your capacity for joining a family that includes a troubled mother to your potential stepchild and candidly conclude that it feels too risky for you and your daughter and that you must leave. But you say that you value this relationship, and if you do, family therapy may be worth a try. In the end, you can’t have it both ways—you can’t complain about the circumstances but do nothing to improve them. At the very least, taking a positive, active step will lend clarity to your decision, whichever one you ultimately make. And at best, it may help create a strong foundation for the more peaceful home you’re seeking.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.