Care and Feeding

My Stepson Is Corrupting My Twins With His Alarming Fascination

It’s only gotten worse.

Young boy with spiky hair using his hands while he talks.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by PacoRomero/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 9-year-old stepson has been saying (and doing) some alarming things lately. My husband and I have a theory that at his mother’s house he is allowed to play violent video games and watch TV shows that are way above his maturity level.

He makes morbid comments, stabs toys violently, talks about blood, etc. The big problem is that we have 5-year-old twins. They are around when he does and says these graphic things. A recent example: My husband took all three kids on a hike through the woods that has some small ponds. Stepson points at the ponds and says, “Do you think there are dead bodies in there?” I am very concerned about this behavior around the twins. He also has a history of being a bully and having some violent outbursts with other children at school. My husband and I have talked to him (numerous times!) about these behaviors and how they are not appropriate and not allowed at our house, but it has not stopped and has, in fact, gotten worse. Talking to his mother does not seem like anything will come of it, as she has had a history of not taking his antics at school seriously when teachers have told her about his behavior.

—Rated G

Dear Rated G,

All things considered, I think your stepson needs to talk to a therapist or counselor. The morbid fixation on blood and death isn’t terribly uncommon for a boy his age, but the history of bullying and violence at school are huge red flags and you want to address that sort of behavior in a meaningful way as soon as possible. 9-year-old bullies often get a lot of grace; the same can’t be said for 15-year-olds who act the same way. Without intervention, it is unlikely that his behavior is simply going to improve on its own. You not only have your younger children to protect, but you also have to think about this young man’s future and what kind of person he is going to grow up to be. If you don’t want him to continue to be a violent bully, you and your husband need to take action.

I realize that your stepson’s mother may be challenging to deal with. Your husband should probably be the one to talk to her about this if you don’t have a history of communicating with her directly; even if you do, it should be a conversation between the three of you, not just you and her. She needs to know how concerned you all are about what you are observing at home, as well as the behavior at school. Stress that you only want what’s best for this little boy. She, too, should want to know what’s going on with him, why, and what can be done to help. You can talk about the content he is consuming at her house and why it concerns you; however, I think the headline here should be the violence and bullying.

As far as those alarming comments to the twins, continue talking to your stepson about what is and what isn’t appropriate for sharing with younger children, or for discussing at all. Challenge him when he makes wild statements—meet his comments about blood and gore with questions: Why is this fascinating to you? How do these things make you feel? Try to deglamorize death; remind him that it is permanent and typically a sad occasion, something we don’t want to celebrate or make trivial.

I don’t want the seriousness of this situation to be understated. Again, this is much bigger than the morose curiosity. Your stepson’s future is at stake here. If you and your husband don’t act now to get him the support he needs, you’re likely in for a difficult and long road. Wishing you all the best.

—Jamilah

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