I ran across a story about a very sad and dysfunctional stepfamily that illustrates the problem of repeating cycles of trauma. It’s from a famous Reddit forum, and the person posting was a 16-year-old who says that his stepmother requires him to cook for himself as he’s “not her problem to deal with.” Recently, the stepmother’s sister suffered a serious car accident, and his stepmother texted him, asking him to make a late dinner for the children who would arrive around midnight. The stepson refused and replied that “it’s not my problem to deal with.” The stepmother and biological father were predictably upset and the stepson turned to Reddit for advice.
Most of the replies centered on the unfair treatment by the stepmother and the biological father’s letting her get away with it. Assuming that the one-sided version is accurate, I agree wholeheartedly. But as I scrolled through the responses, I realized that no one (at least that I saw) noted the actual victims in this situation — the sister’s children who, after hours of worry that their mother might die, arrived at a house with a surly teenager who didn’t want them there. The stepson didn’t recognize that these children were in the same place that he no doubt had been, specifically caught as hostages in an adult ( or almost adult) dispute over issues they couldn’t control. Instead of learning from his experience, he followed the same path as most adults with a grudge and used the kids to make his point.
Now, I can’t put too much blame on a teenager who lacks both the life experience and developed frontal lobe to think through this issue. The story, however, was an important reminder to me of two things. First, it’s very easy to become exactly the thing that we claim to despise - in this case, a person who uses vulnerable children to score points in a fight with an adult. Second, children will follow the model that we set for them, no matter how many words we use to try to convince them otherwise.
The Reddit thread is now closed, but here’s what I would say to anyone in the same situation. Family disputes are always ugly and more gut-wrenching than any other kind. It’s all too easy to use whatever tools come to hand, but we need to make ourselves draw a firm and immovable line at using vulnerable children as weapons in those battles. We also need to recognize how easy it is to cross that line and extend grace to the adults that make that mistake. That grace includes even the adults who are perpetual irritants, or worse, in our lives. Furthermore, we need to always remember that our first obligation is to the children within our sphere of influence, whether they are “our” children or not. Finally, we can never forget that those children are watching us and will learn the lessons that they see more thoroughly than the lessons that they hear. Otherwise, we will simply allow our kids to continue to repeat the cycles of dysfunction that caused their trauma to begin with.