Fatherless Son Angry That Half-Brother Has A Dad

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Dear AdviceMama,

I have two sons, 14 and 8. The 14-year-old is from a previous marriage -- his father abandoned him. The younger one's father is around although we are not married. I found the older was getting aggressive towards the younger one because the young one was telling the older to stop saying "Dad" to his dad. I spoke to both, and tried for peace, what else can I do?

Aching for Fatherless Son

Dear Aching,

Reading your question, I am reminded yet again of the fact that despite every parent's hope that their children will have an easy time growing up, childhood can be difficult. As much as it pains us to see our children suffering, there are times when we simply can't fix what's wrong.

Your older child is struggling not only with the absence of his own father (perhaps more painful as he moves into adolescence), but the constant presence of his little brother's dad. Frustration has only two outcomes: Aggression or adaptation. I'm not surprised that his frustration is coming out in the form of aggression towards his younger brother, who has something he longs for so deeply. The solution isn't to force your younger son to "let" his big brother call his father "Dad." Depending on how close this man is to your oldest son, it might offer the 14-year old an important sense of belonging, but it won't (and can't) completely heal the pain of your boy's loss. For that, he needs to grieve the sadness he feels about not having a father of his own.

When kids are upset, parents often try to talk them out of their unpleasant feelings. Rather than rushing to remind your son that his dad wasn't a very good guy or that you'll always be there for him, give your son an opportunity to really feel and express his sorrow and pain. When the two of you are alone and relaxed, ask him this question: "What is it like for you, honey, to see your younger brother with a dad around?" Let him tell you what's true for him. I call this Act I. If your son says, "I hate that my brother's got a dad and I don't", or "It's not fair," resist the urge to come at him with logic and explanations. Slow down, and encourage him to keep talking-and perhaps, crying. "That's hard for you, isn't it, to see your brother having something you want so badly."

By addressing the source of his frustration, rather than trying to control it or sweep it under the rug, you'll help your son move through his anger and hurt towards a recognition of what he does have: A loving family to offer him comfort during the hard times, and with whom he can celebrate the many good things that life also has in store for him.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.