I think stepchildren have been sexually abused

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

I recently married a man with 4 children who lost his wife a year ago. We are very much in love and trying to blend our families. He has four children who he has full time and I have two children I have full time. The kids all get along great and seem to be adjusting to the blended family situation pretty good. There ages run between 16 and 8. We have 2 daughters and 4 sons.

When we went on our honeymoon, we had a very experienced college student stay with the kids for 10 days. While we were gone his 13 year old daughter bit the nanny and had physically attacker her biological younger brother. She broke skin on the nanny. The nanny said she had asked her to do her homework and chores and that this child just got angry and refused to do it and then the nanny asked her again to do these things so she wouldn’t have to inforce consequences. The nanny said this is when this daughter got this look in her eyes like a wild animal and just started attacking the younger brother and then her. She then shut herself in her closet and would not come out for several hours.
I was a little concerned but blew it off as this child was adjusting to a major change.

Within two months of our marriage, the same daughter continued acting out in the same manner with me and her father. It was always worse with her father. I took this daughter to get her first bra after we got married and she was way past needing one, but didnt have a problem wearing tight t-shirts showing everything (she ended up needing a B cup and had never worn a bra). She also tried to buy maternity clothes the first couple of times I took her shopping for clothes. I thought it was just because she was a little overweight and that she had never really been clothes shopping before and didn’t know what she was doing. Looking back, I think she thought she was pregnant now.
Her roomed smelled like urine and poo within two weeks of us moving in to our new house which we did a week before we were married. I still can’t get the smell out of her room or the 8 year old room and now it is making most of our house smell.

I started trying to teach her how to clean up after herself, by taking showers often, bought wet wipes to use after everytime she went to the bathroom. I did not yell at her but tried using positive reinforcement. We did some job charts with positive rewards. I continued to find soiled underwear hidden in her room under things or placed throughout the house. My 8 year old step son also was showing the same signs. He would come home from school in soiled underwear smelling so badly of poop and pee. I would spend hours doing laundry often washing the soiled clothes 2 or 3 times before putting them in the dryer to get rid of the smell. This son also would threaten to throw himself out of the upstair windows and jump out of the moving car. It has gotten bad enough I can’t leave these two every alone with each other or one of them will be physically hurt and poop will be around the house. I have found poo in the garbage can, all over the toilet seats and sides, in the bath tub. When we visit my parents, my poor mother has called telling me places she has found poopy underwear and ruined soiled quilts.

My oldest step son should be a junior in high school but has flunked everything the past two years and is truly just a freshman. He has physically attacked his father twice while we have been together. He will just leave and then show up 4 or 5 days later. He will physically, mentally, and emotionally abuse the two siblings with the other problems.
The one step child who doesn’t act out is shy and afraid to be hugged, but he is the one the oldest has told me if anyone touches him, I will kill them.

These children act like they have just been left to raise themselves like animals. They don’t know how to act polite in public or even at home. I feel like I am neglecting my own two children this past year as I have spent all my time and energy trying to teach my stepchildren manners and how to be loved.

My husband treats me wonderfully and my children good, but his children he only yells at them or makes jokes about them. He tells me it is my job to take care of the children and he will support me 100%, which so far he does support me in what I think needs to be done with the children, but he truly does not think it is wrong for a 13 year old and an 8 year old to be pooping their pants all the time. I have had to resort to putting the 8 year old in pullups during the day and night just to keep him from ruining so many clothes. The sad part is neither one of these children seems to care if they stink.

My children have always been popular with lots of friends and because of the issues of their new siblings they are now being teased and having a hard time making friends.
My stepchildren also struggle with understanding that they are old enough to be careful who sees their privates. I asked them if they knew what sexual abuse was and none of them did, so I started going over the basics of what I taught my own children at 2 and 3 about the fact that no one should touch you where your swimming suit covers. I have learned that the 8 year old has had one of his girl cousin kiss and touch his penis. I now wonder if all of these kids have been sexually abused.

My husband is very crude at times and very sexual. It is not ok for me to tell him no I’m not in the mood in his mind. He thinks my sexual views are all messed up, because I think I should be able to tell him no and he should be too and that I think that what we do in the bedroom should be between us and that we should both be ok with whatever we do or we don’t do it. My husband has told me he first had sex at 10 and had to masturbate every day 2 or 3 times. He has recently told me he had his 3 year old sister help him masterbate a couple of times as a teenager and he sees nothing wrong with this. I think incest has ran in this family for generations.

I am at my wits ends. I know this is not normal behavior. I personally don’t know any kids this old who still have these kind of issues. I have had them to Drs. and their is physically nothing wrong with them. My husbands keeps telling me it is normal because this was how most of his 8 siblings were and how his kids beat up each other that is how his siblings were. I feel like I am raising animals and I feel so bad that I brought my own two children in to this without having a clue.

Now my stepchildren’s biological mother died a year before we were married and I know this would affect these children and cause some major trauma. We talk about their mother daily and have tried to make her a normal part of life. I can’t see her death causing all this acting out though. Are these signs of sexual abuse? What should I be looking for and what should I do? My husband is fighting me on counseling because he thinks this is all normal behavior.

I now never leave children home alone and I also make sure my own two children are never ever alone with the 16 year old. My two children have been taught all about sexual abuse and what to do and are both confident children who would tell me if anyone ever tried anything on them. I have had to tell my 11 year old son that after he has tried all the appropriate skills of talking, removing himself from the situation, and the 8 year old is still coming after him physically that it is all right for him to stick up for himself and hit him back. I absolutely hated resorting to telling him this.

My husband is now getting mad at me because I will not go on dates or long weekends away and leave the kids at home. I am worried about their safety. He thinks they are just fine to be alone and to let them fight it out. After all his mom left them all the time and they all turned out ok. I have to disagree on “they turned out ok”.
I really don’t want to go through another divorce and I really do love my husband, but his children have some major emotional issues that I don’t think can be fixed without some serious mental health help. But until I can get thier father to see that this kind of behavior is not normal, nothing is going to change. I now have seen that animal look the babysitter explained in two of my step children on a regular basis.

Is this normal behavior? Do 13 year olds and 8 year olds poop their pants daily and hide the underwear. Do they threaten to throw themselves out of windows and hide in closets for hours? Do they solve all problems with bullying? Whoever is the meanest is who gets to decide who controls the TV, Gamesystem?
Help!

A: I am very glad you wrote. You’ve been nothing short of heroic in your efforts to help these children. No. This is absolutely not normal behavior. These kids are telling you that something is terribly, terribly wrong. They are apparently too frightened or too ashamed to tell you in words. Sometimes this means that kids have been threatened with frightening consequences if they tell what has happened to them. Sometimes it means that kids have imagined that they will get into some kind of trouble. And sometimes, as you suggest, it is because they have never been socialized. Whatever the reason, they are telling you in the only way they know how that they are in a “sh–tty” situation and that they question their own worth. The fact that so many of the kids are acting out suggests to me that more is going on here than grieving for their mom or an adjustment to their dad’s remarriage. Even the child who is less aggressive is a frightened child.

One way to understand the persistance of the behaviors in spite of all your efforts is that they don’t think you are getting the message. It’s also possible that they don’t feel deserving of your love and support so are doing their best to push you away. This is a test that you and your husband can’t fail if these kids are to grow up normal and strong. The first step on the road to recovery for these kids is to be taken seriously. They all need to be evaluated by a mental health professional. You are right not to leave them alone until you understand what is going on and have some concrete ways to intervene.

You and your husband absolutely need to get on the same team about how to help these kids reclaim their self esteem, to heal from whatever emotional wounds they’ve suffered, and to learn to behave in ways that will help them succeed in the social world. Clearly, your love and care hasn’t been enough (which only speaks to how serious the problem really is).

I’m surprised and concerned that you didn’t understand fully what you were getting into before you married. I’m equally surprised and concerned that you apparently didn’t understand your husband’s views on sex before you tied the knot. If you are right that incest is part of the culture of this family, you have a long and difficult road ahead. Your husband may not understand that it is just plain wrong to think there is nothing wrong with a teenager getting a three year old to masturbate him. He is wrong to think that it’s okay to put his own children down. (It must be very, very hard for these kids to see their father treating your children differently than they are treated.) It is wrong for him to think that you should be ready and willing to have sex with him whenever he wants it. You are not messed up about sex. It looks to me like maybe he is.

If your husband won’t permit an evaluation of the kids and won’t consider counseling for the whole family, you may have some very difficult decisions to make. You do have your own children to protect as well. You can’t sacrifice them in order to rescue the stepchildren. Worst case, I suppose, is that your husband continues to resist intervention and you are forced to leave him. In that case, I urge you to report what you know to child protective services. Your husband will be furious, it’s true. But my position is always that the most vulnerable people in a situation have a right to expect adults to take care of them since they can’t take care of themselves. Your husband can survive being mad. These kids can’t survive how they are feeling.

I’m sure that you are very disappointed in how this new marriage is turning out for you. From all you’ve said, I can only admire your perseverence and diligence in trying to manage this household. At some point, though, continuing with the same solutions makes no sense. They aren’t working. Do give yourself a lot of credit for trying hard to do things on your own. But maybe it’s time to face the fact that you really do need to involve some experts if things are to improve.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 May 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). I think stepchildren have been sexually abused. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 22, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/05/02/i-think-stepchildren-have-been-sexually-abused/