Living with an abusive step-mother

Building bonds between step-children and step-parents can be quite a challenge. Research suggests that adopted children are generally more likely to have relational challenges with their step-mothers than with their step-fathers.

 Martin (2009) attributes this to the fact that step-mothers are more prone to depression than step-fathers due to overwhelming expectations on step-mothers.

While research generally tends to blame lack of gratitude on adopted children for relational problems between them and their step-mothers, in some cases lack of acceptance by step-mothers can make the home environment unbearable for adopted children. Below is a typical scenario of what goes on in some homes:

Mogotsi* lost his biological mother at the tender age two-weeks-old. Five months later, Mogotsi’s father married another woman, while Mogotsi was being raised by his paternal grandmother.


At the age of three years Mogotsi lost his grandmother whom he was very close to and had to relocate to join his father,  pregnant stepmother and his two-year-old half brother, Motheo*.

Mogotsi had a tough time adjusting to the new environment because while he was grieving over the loss of his grandmother,  the stepmother viewed him as a whining spoilt brat.

Every time Mogotsi and Motheo had normal sibling rivalry, Mogotsi’s stepmother would shout at him, accusing him of bullying the younger brother. Mogotsi became resentful towards both the stepmother and his younger brother Motheo. 

During playing sessions, Mogotsi would indirectly encourage their playmates to bully Motheo and turn a blind eye as a way of avenging.  Mogotsi’s father, who spent long hours at work, would be given a report of how Mogotsi  was not protective of his brother at the playground upon arriving at home. The father who was always getting one side of the story, also adopted the habit of putting pressure on Mogotsi to protect his brother against bulky playmates without getting to the bottom of family issues.

Mogotsi grew up feeling isolated and very unhappy.  During shopping times, the stepmother would buy Mogotsi cheaper clothes while Motheo would get more expensive clothes.

 Mogotsi’s upbringing took a toll on both his academic and social development.  His low self-esteem made him to feel hopeless.  Mogotsi’s presence threatened his stepmother as she viewed him as somebody who threatened her children’s inheritance,  especially that he was the first-born, and to make matters worse, a boy.

Mogotsi’s family were very traditional in the way they handled family resources.  For that reason Mogotsi’s stepmother resented Mogotsi so much that she underfed him and often abused him physically.

Mogotsi who would often go to bed hungry, developed a tendency of secretly walking up in the night to check if there were any leftover food to steal from the kitchen.

Before long Mogotsi’s stepmother caught him sneaking from the sitting room back to the bedroom he shared with Motheo and started shouting at him, accusing him of witchcraft.    

This story shows how some children suffer at the hands of their step-mothers. Mogotsi’s step-mother clearly never accepted him. That might even explain why she insisted on naming her first biological child Motheo which means foundation or first born.

I know of some step-mothers who are doing their best to raise their adopted children well, but I also know of some who have never been accommodative of their older step-children. Inheritance is often the underlying source of conflict here and surprisingly, this is often so even among biological siblings.

Once I was giving feedback to a mother whose child I was mentoring about his resigned behaviour and expressions of hopelessness, despite all the remedial support he was receiving.

 I was taken aback by how this mother, who dropped in unexpectedly and made me to stop the work I was doing under pressure to attend to her,  for the sake of the child, responded to my feedback.

She said to me “This boy is failing because he lost his mother when he was a week old”, with a cold voice. 

It was at that moment that I came to learn that she was the step-mother.  “I’m lost, can you teach me a little bit more about that theory” was my response to her. 

She asked me which theory I was referring to and I explained to her that I was referring to the theory that when you lose your mother at a tender age you are destined for failure and she stormed out telling me she had no time for debates. 

Since I did not have much contact time left with the boy who was in his late teens, before he sat for his final exams, we ended up working on a get-up-and-dust-yourself strategy and he is currently running his own small business and he is also making tremendous  effort to reconcile with his step-mother.

*not their real names.

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