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My partner and kids have had issues in the past with previous partners/father figures, being abusive, selfish etc., which has left a mental scar on the 3 of them. I have not pried into it yet, as they prefer to keep it in the past and deal with it together (without me) to avoid dredging up too much - they can deal with the problem without dredging it all up and having to explain it all just to deal with the current issue.

The current issue that has been brought up occurred last night; it started with simply saying goodnight. He is 8, and very much ruled by his emotions, and spends little time/effort thinking. Mum had asked if he had said goodnight - he said yes (which he hadn't). I then came in to talk to him about it (about 5 minutes later) and his immediate response to seeing me, before I even said anything was to say goodnight.

The issue here that I was attempting to address is "thinking before speaking". He often immediately gives an answer without any thought, and it is often wrong, so I decided to just work through it with him. The conversation went a little like this:

  • Me: I pointed out that he had told mum he had said goodnight, but then realised he hadn't when he saw me - why was that?
  • Son: I don't know.
  • Me: Well, spend a bit of time - think it through
  • Son: [thinking] ...
  • Me: What are you doing right now?
  • Son: [Getting upset] I don't know!
  • Me: You're thinking aren't you, trying to think about why he had given mum an answer straight away.
  • Son: [Look of frustration and agitation]
  • Me: It's ok, I'm just trying to help. Let's take a breath and try and relax.
  • Son: I'd just like to be left alone.

At that point I decided to leave it, he was getting frustrated and confused which was only going to make him less cooperative. I then spoke to mum about it in hopes of getting her help to sort it out. After 15 minutes of letting him calm down, we came in and spoke to him again.

After some calm discussion, he admitted that he preferred to lie to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear (I'm a good boy, I've done all my jobs, I've made an effort like you asked) so that we wouldn't get upset. We then reminded him that we prefer the truth, we prefer he ask for help, rather than being lied to (we have spoken about this before).

Eventually the conversation came back around to the previous interaction about the "thinking", and why that was making him upset - he admitted that I reminded him of the previous father figure because of the "yelling" (which we have all spoken about and have made efforts to overcome through "taking 10", or coming back and talking about why we yelled, and I hadn't yelled or got upset all week), and because I "looked like him".

At this point mum had to leave the conversation, because she had spoken to him about this previously at which point he admitted hew did like me very much, certainly compared to previous father figures.

I'm at a loss of what to believe, I don't know what the truth is, and I don't know how to find out in order to address/fix any issues that are there.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Jan 19, 2023 at 14:45
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    Without commenting on the rest, attempts to "help" by keeping on telling someone to think about it might be counterproductive. Sometimes it genuinely does take a minute to work out why you did something, if you did it out of habit without thinking. Imagine if you were trying to work out a maths problem in your head and the teacher kept interrupting with "What's the answer? Do you know?" and "Have a good think about it". If he'd been stuck for a long time, suggesting possible ideas like "Were you scared she'd be angry about it?" might help, but sometimes people do just need time to think!
    – A. B.
    Jan 21, 2023 at 6:13

7 Answers 7

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You've chosen to become an instant parent to an older child, and this is wonderful, for both of you.

Just to be clear, recovery is by definition the process of dredging up the past to deal with it. This process cannot be softened or glossed over, and it involves everyone who is currently in the family, which includes you... so... this might be something to discuss with your partner.

It seems like you might be over estimating your 8yo's ability to think under pressure. He's still very young, and you're a new adult in his life, so for the time being you might just share what you think/wish/want/feel first, to start a conversation. This will guide your son's thinking, and help him talk when it's his turn.

Your son has clearly been afraid in the past. A child that is afraid of an adult will tell that adult what they believe the adult wants to hear. This, while appearing to be a lie, is more complicated, because it's an adaptation that the child has learned to stay safe.

This behavior is not personal to you. This behavior may last for a while, because recovery takes time, and you can help by praising any small bit of progress that you see.

It's huge that when you talked your 8yo fessed up and told the truth!!! That shows that you've established a level of trust, and that is also huge, and something you can believe!

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    "... while appearing to be a lie, is more complicated, because it's an adaptation that the child has learned to stay safe." -- this sentence is the most important part of this answer. This is a learned behavior in response to trauma. It's almost like a muscle reflex. It requires a different mindset for the parent. A parent might be inclined to correct the behavior, when in fact the child might act that way on instinct, and immediately know they should have acted differently, while also being afraid to admit this. Have patience. Jan 18, 2023 at 16:12
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    Yeah "we prefer the truth" sounds good, but as far as the kid knows, it could actually be a lie they prefer to tell him because it's what they think he wants to hear. (We're good parents. We're making an effort to be reasonable and understandable.) -- If there's trauma in the past it's going to take time to build trust that now won't be the same as before. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. And what the parents say is going to be less important than what they do. (Previous non-exemplary father figures probably talked a good game, despite their failings.)
    – R.M.
    Jan 18, 2023 at 16:19
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so I decided to just work through it with him

Children are not miniature adults. Their brains literally do not work the same way. They're no more capable of reasoning in the same way as an adult than they are of running at the same speed as an adult. So trying to get them to apply introspective reasoning is hard for them.

For starters on truth-telling, children can genuinely find it hard to differentiate between "I did this", "I think I did this", "I wish I'd done this", or "I once saw this on YouTube". Then there's the difficulty of immediate gratification, where they'll say or do whatever lets them move onto (or carry on with) some pleasurable activity. Children have immense problems avoiding this. And then you get to conflict-avoidance behaviour, which is another level of issues. All of this is simply how children's brains work.

The problem of the "working it through" approach is that you're approaching it as an adult. You're expecting the child to use your kind of reasoning, but the child physically can't. Naturally they're going to get frustrated. And that's before you add the pressure of calling it "lying", which is never going to get anyone on your side.

Then we get to their specific situation. You know, absolutely know, that the whole family have issues with male authority figures. Saying "you hadn't yelled all week" strongly implies that you actually regularly do, albeit on a less-frequent basis. You can't expect anyone, adult or child, to trust that you're not going to get angry with them this time, just because "you hadn't yelled all week". If it's something you do, and they're already conflict-avoidant, how on earth do you expect anything other than more conflict-avoidance? He may well like you, especially in comparison to previous male authority figures, but that doesn't mean you don't set off the same alarm bells as they do - and more importantly, it doesn't mean that you aren't doing some of the same things that they did.

And then we get onto this specific incident. To use your own words, "think it through" - but you do the thinking from the point of view of an abused child. You've taken the most minor of things to catch them out on. You've done it at night-time, the time when they're winding down for sleep, and suddenly you land them with this. You've done it in their bedroom, their safe space. You've done it when they're in bed, where they're most defenceless. None of this is going to end well. I think it actually says a lot for your relationship with him that he didn't get more upset.

The most basic place to start is that you aren't going to fix the issues he has. It doesn't work like that. All you can do is not trigger them, and give him an opportunity to outgrow them. And honestly, decide what hills are worth making a stand on and what aren't. If he says he's done something and he hasn't, remind him again, and don't stress over it. No-one ever died from pants being left on the floor. And if he says he's done something and he hasn't and then he remembers and does it, then hey - we're where we want to be, so let's not worry about how we got there.

If there's a safety issue, of course go to town on "we don't ever do this" to get the message across. But if you save that kind of approach for things which are safety issues, then you can also make sure they know you're saying it because it's really important. That gives you an escalation level between "you left your clothes on the floor again" and "you were playing with matches".

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    Yes, confronting a kid at night time just before they're going to bed as their last interaction is not going to engender feelings of comfort or safety for a child. Quite the reverse. . Couldn't agree more with the hadn't yelled all week part of the story. Jan 18, 2023 at 21:49
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    It actually says a lot for your relationship with him that he didn't totally shut down and give you silence, after you asking why, (IDK) then asked him to think about why, then gave him shit for thinking about why, and then expected them to be able to put it into words... which they did? This kid's going places; already able to navigate this crap world at age 8 while I'm still struggling, 'over the hill', and never even seen... anyone, be abused.
    – Mazura
    Jan 19, 2023 at 3:40
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    "They're no more capable of reasoning in the same way as an adult than they are of running at the same speed as an adult." I'd say that's putting it a bit strongly; introspective reasoning is still a learned skill - and it takes a lot of time and effort to learn, and if you're not really good at it, a lot of time and effort to apply. I'd wager most adults can't do it - especially not when emotionally charged (as in the case of "caught lying while laying down to sleep"). At this point, I'd put it as "asking too much of a human ", not just a child :)
    – Luaan
    Jan 19, 2023 at 8:22
  • @Luaan True enough, but kids do have an extra layer of complexity where their brains aren't wired up to properly link cause and effect. OK, plenty of adults have problems with that at times too :) but for kids it's their default state of existence. I wouldn't disagree with the OP "asking too much of a human", but at least an adult human would have some chance. For a child, it's basically game over.
    – Graham
    Jan 19, 2023 at 13:57
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After some calm discussion, he admitted that he preferred to lie to tell us what he thought we wanted to hear (I'm a good boy, I've done all my jobs, I've made an effort like you asked) so that we wouldn't get upset. We then reminded him that we prefer the truth, we prefer he ask for help, rather than being lied to (we have spoken about this before).

Basically, he took a risk to tell you a vulnerable truth and instead of rewarding him for doing so you scolded him.

It's ok, I'm just trying to help.

This sounds dishonest to me. The behavior you described doesn't look like you are trying to help him with what he cares about but more about putting pressure on him so that he behaves better in front of you and his mother.

It will certainly look that way to the child and teach him about what you believe about telling the truth.

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    First quote...did OP thank him for doing as they asked before "reminding" him? Because if so then then it's not a reminder as much as it is a confirmation that is what they desire. However, if no praise was involved then it does indeed come off as a scolding and as described it feels like the latter.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 18, 2023 at 19:15
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    @DKNguyen : The choices about what to include in his description and what not to include likely reflect something about the priorities of the OP. But even if there was a thank you involved, it's quite hard to say "don't lie to us" without being perceived as scolding. The pattern that he needs to the child to learn to stop lying in similar situations is "When I tell the truth, then I can relax and be accepted". Any communication of "you are bad and have to change" creates tension and not relaxation.
    – Christian
    Jan 19, 2023 at 1:04
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    True, it would not the best but it would not be the worst either. A better way would just be to tell him that you noticed the lie and then tell them it's okay and that you and their mother would not get upset at them for telling the truth. And leave it at that.
    – DKNguyen
    Jan 19, 2023 at 2:03
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Not a psychologist, but I have noticed with my FIL (who I think it's fair to say could be verbally abusive with his kids, wife, grandkids, and occasionally even me.) that a typical MO would be to seize on some really trivial transgression and come charging in on someone like a bull about it. In general, when the guy does this there's no right answer to anything. Any engagement whatsoever just eggs him on, and the best you can hope for is the dude satisfies his ire and storms off.

I bring this up because making a huge production about a simple "good night" really looked like the kind of thing he would have done (but with more yelling of course). It's possible if I noticed it resembled the start of an abusive incident, this child noticed that too. If so, he's not going to want to say anything back to you, because that's likely the survival skill he's learned for "dad in face".

Ideas:

  • You might try reserving in-your-face confrontations between the two of you for major infractions, and letting his mom handle the ticky-tac little ones like this.
  • Perhaps a less confrontational approach from you might be more productive? I can't really see why he needs you physically sitting there in his space to think about his actions.
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    I agree with most of this, but I doubt you want the OP to only be involved with major infractions. The child will begin to associate major infractions with the OP. Jan 20, 2023 at 12:03
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    @GregoryCurrie - Admittedly, this is in line with my general philosophy that one shouldn't sweat the small stuff (and its almost all small stuff). If you are a "broken windows parenting" type of person, you'll have problems with this. But you'll have problems dealing with a kid like this because of it. Perhaps a change in philosophy is in order? (And I'll freely admit there are some kids that a looser approach could be disastrous with. As always, you're the expert on your kids.)
    – T.E.D.
    Jan 20, 2023 at 14:34
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It is, even for adults, often very difficult to figure out why a certain thing was done - especially related to talking, which by its nature is something that happens quickly, usually without much thought. Or to put it the other way around, being in a situation where you have to actively (consciously) think about everything you say is very stressful. You might remember it from being called out in school, or in any sort of verbal examination in uni or at work.

Aside from the fact that an 8-year-old might very likely be not at all capable of being in a constantly-alert mode all the time, and will certainly not be able to tell you after-the-fact why exactly they said something, it would also be exceedingly poisonous for your relationship. You want the exact opposite - the child should be confident that whatever they say, no matter how wrong it is, there will be no yelling or other punishment (or for that matter, ridicule).

Sure, you can discuss things, break errors down factually and such, but this should be on an objective level, not in a way that shows the child that you're angry or worthy of hate. Also, there are levels of escalation here. The child stealing money from the neighbours would be high alert, big reaction situation. A child forgetting to say good night and not admitting it outright would be, well, less so. You have to decide where your "red line in the sand" is.

So, in this very particular situation, I would suggest that the child was just totally out of his depth; which, together with the difficult history, put them into fight-or-flight mode, high-stress, adrenaline, etc.; at this point I would not expect anything useful to happen in any further immediate interaction, and - were I in that situation - would hopefully recognize it and try to de-escalate first and foremost (which you did, seemingly - congratulations).

Since the topic of your question is different from the concrete situation: I would not think too much about whether your step-son "hates" you or not. In my experience as a parent, this kind of insecurity (on the parent's side) is pretty normal, even with own children and no difficult past. I would not expect a child (or anybody really) to give truthful responses to that, or even know themselves. At that age, humans are a chaotic bundle of primarily emotion-driven brain cells trying to figure things out; not cold little logical Mr. Spock's.

Instead, be honest, straightforward, supportive, helpful, friendly with him; check your own emotions at the door. Try to be more of a mentor than a formal parent. In short, you should care about how you are behaving, not about them. Eventually he might come around to know you better and trust you with fewer and fewer setbacks. Yes, I know that changing yourself is not in any way easy and may be a yearlong process - it certainly was and is for me.

Finally, when you notice signs of your step-child being scared, then they probably are scared, and the previous advice holds doubly strong. Do some heavy self-inspection. Avoid giving them reason to be scared (yelling, overly hard punishments, bickering with your wife; things like that). You can't always know what makes them scared, so think about what happened just before they reacted that way. Then avoid doing that. Fear is a deep, basic emotion, and there is no way on earth an 8-year-old can be discussed out of this with words.

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I don't know if my step-son hates me, is scared of me, or likes me?

He probably doesn't know himself yet.

Before your step-son can bond with you, he needs to trust you. And building a trust relationship takes time. Children who were traumatized by a father figure before will have an especially hard time building a trust relationship with a new one.

A good way to build a trust relationship with an insecure person is to show them love, without demanding love in return. By demanding love, even through expecting small gestures like saying "goodnight", you are pressuring the child into the pattern of "pretending to give love to avoid conflict" that was apparently prevalent in his relationship with his previous father.

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  • I was looking for an answer involving love. Unfortunately I don't know how one learns love but by example. Jan 20, 2023 at 19:24
  • @akostadinov How to show love to family members is a subject that is so broad that you should asks a new question about it.
    – Philipp
    Jan 20, 2023 at 21:00
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If I were you, I would concentrate on my own behavior, not on his.

I agree with Philipp that trust is the key point here. So far, your stepson has learned to survive in a hostile, perhaps violent environment. He has survived because he has learned early to say what people want to hear, no matter if it is true or not. This strategy was absolutely necessary, and it has worked out well so far.

Now, whenever he feels threatened or reprimanded, he turns to this strategy again. And he certainly feels threatened if you come into his bedroom at night, reprimanding him of a lie and trying to force the truth out of him.

At the moment, he is unable to change his behaviour, but you can change yours.

Children like him need an ally, a person they know they can trust, no matter what happens. Somebody who does not threaten them, but who supports and loves them just the way they are. Only if your stepson learns that he does not need a survival strategy any more, he will be able to give it up. Slowly, but gradually. This is a difficult process that takes time, so be patient.

A little lie is no crime, nothing to make a fuss about. Next time your stepson claims that he has said goodnight, just go over it. Or even agree with him, smile and wink at him. You know that he has lied, and he knows you know, but he can also be sure that you are on his side and nothing will happen to him.

If it is something more serious and you feel you have to talk about it, stay calm. Wait until the next day, then talk about it in a relaxed atmosphere and always be supportive, not reprimanding. If your stepson has learned he can trust you, he will not have to lie any more.

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