Advice-on-Step-parenting, Parenting Advice from the Archives of ASK DR. J

Disciplining Children

#1 - DORIS

Dear Dr. J.

I have a 4 yr old daughter who, I hate to say it but is out of control. For the past 2 yrs I have tried every suggested approach to disciplining and nothing works. Time outs, spanking, taking away privileges etc. have no effect on good behavior. She is a very loving, caring girl but she thinks she can do whatever and whenever she wants. I've even spoken to my husband to watch my other 2 children for a couple of hours on the weekends so I could take her and spend some one on one time as a special treat for behaving well and that hasn't seemed to work either.

When I try to talk to other family members for suggestions on what to do, they think I'm crazy because she is very well behaved when other people are around. They think I'm too hard on her as well as too soft. I love my daughter and I want us to maintain a friendship as well as the mother daughter relationship it should be. I don't like fighting with her as it winds up being in the end because she destroys my house as well as occasionally hitting her siblings. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated so my 3 yr old doesn't pick up on her bad behavior.


Dear Doris

Your four year old is out of control because you are not consistent with your discipline. Hopefully, your daughter will have many friends in her life are her mother, not her friend.

Your job is to be her parent which means you are to provide for her and guide her toward becoming the best person she can be. Young children need a lot of structure and consistency. The worst thing you can do is punish her one time and then give in to her demands the next.

The only discipline that you mentioned that doesn’t work is spanking. The others are behavioral techniques that have proved effective time and time again if used appropriately and consistently. It’s not the techniques that are the problem here, it’s you. You need to figure out why it’s so important to you that your child like you and why you can’t step up and give her the structure she needs. You are harming your child by allowing her to run the show with bad behavior. You and your husband should be working together on this, and if you need professional help, please get it.

Dr. J

Differences in Parenting Styles


Dear Dr. J.

I am just having a hard time with the fact that my husband is gone Monday through Friday and I have gotten our kids in a routine. But when Dad comes home it all goes to the birds. What do I do? I am going crazy? I just want everything to be normal all the time and not have to spend two days getting the kids back under control. Help!!!


Dear Janette

You say that you just want “everything to be normal all the time”. If you mean you would like things to be the same when dad is home as when he is away, that is not a realistic expectation. The kids haven’t seen dad and he hasn’t seen them, it’s the weekend, and hopefully they want to enjoy some fun time together. If you mean you would like it if your husband had a more normal work schedule, that is something that you two could sit down and discuss. Sometimes it just takes careful planning and some sacrifices for a difficult work situation to change. Work is important, but so is the family.

If every weekend you feel like you are “going crazy”, think about what it is that is really bothering you. Are to trying to control everything and having difficulty being flexible on the weekends? Are you resenting the fact that you’re always the “bad guy” and are the one who has most of the responsibility of the kids? In other words, are you resenting the situation that you are in with this work arrangement? Are you getting enough fun time with the kids or is it all about the “routine”?

Once you have figured out exactly what is creating your frustration, you might be able to make some changes within yourself to make things easier. After you have done some of your own internal work, sit down with your husband and tell him how you feel. Don’t come across as blaming (In fact, use the Conflict Resolution Model on the website). Find out what each of your priorities are for the weekend and see if you can reach a compromise. You have been with the kids all week, perhaps you could take a couple of hours away for yourself and let your husband have alone time with the kids.

You should agree on the basic rules and consequences for the kids (See Parenting on the website), but you each may have a different style of parenting the kids, so it is okay to allow for these differences. It is very hard on a relationship to be away from one another so much. I know family time is precious on the weekends, but be sure to go out on a date together every other weekend to maintain your relationship. The marriage is the center of the family and it is very important to have good communication with this difficult work schedule.

Dr. J.

Adult Children and Grandchildren

#3 - JULIE

Dear Dr. J
What do you do when your daughter-in-law refuses to come to your home for family events because her daughter is allergic to cats? (We have a cat.) She refuses to medicate her or take her to an allergy doctor because she doesn't want to see her get scratch tests, etc. We know that there are many avenues she can take but she refuses. Therefore, our son and his children have missed many happy family get-togethers. We feel it is not about the cat. They seem to have other issues. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Help


Dear Julie
Your question is short but I'm guessing the history isn't. It is very apparent to me that you are in a power struggle with your daughter-in-law. Yes, absolutely it is not just about the cat. Somewhere along the line a power struggle started between you and your son's wife. (Maybe other family members are involved because you said "we know" in your third sentence.)

You acknowledged that your son and grandchildren may be suffering because of this, but my guess is that it is very painful for the entire family. I'm not sure if you are seeing your grandchildren or not....or if it is just that they cannot visit at your home. In any case, it is inexcusable for your son and daughter-in-law to take this kind of stand. It is never right to use children in a power struggle between adults.

Now, you will notice that I said "your son and daughter-in-law". I can tell from your language, "her daughter" and "my son and his children" that you have already separated your son out as the victim and your daughter-in-law as the villain. While she may be the one who is setting these limits, he is, at least implicitly, in an alliance with her. He is, in fact, caught in the middle between the two most important women in his life, his wife and his mother. None of you are happy, not even the daughter-in-law. There is no glory in being the winner in this one.

Now, whatever you've been trying up to now hasn't worked, and I don't know what you've tried. Right away, I assume you tried to reach some kind of compromise about the cat and the granddaughter's allergies. And with this compromise, I hope you focused on what you have control over....your cat. I'm assuming attempts at this level failed. Your daughter-in-law may be dead wrong in what she's doing, but focusing on what she should be doing differently has not worked.

Here's the thing, grandma. You have to do whatever it takes to resolve this conflict with your daughter-in-law. For the sake of the children, you have to take the high road and drop your end of the rope in this tug of war. If there is a grandpa, I suggest the two of you meet with your son and daughter-in-law as soon as possible. You don't want another holiday to go by with this thorn in your family's side.

When you meet, focus on yourselves, and let them know how hurtful it has been not to have them included in the family get-togethers. Tell them how much they all mean to you and ask them what you can do to make the situation better. Tell them you'll do anything, short of getting rid of your family pet, to fix this. Don't blame, argue, judge, or make your daughter-in-law feel she has to defend herself. If you do, you'll lose. Talk to both of them equally, don't let your son off the hook. He needs to step up and assume responsibility too.

The bottom line is you can only control yourself and your actions and reactions. Make sure you and your husband talk together before you meet with them and make sure you are clear on your joint strategy...."We'll do anything to make this better". I've had couples in therapy who completely cut the grandparents out of their lives because the grandparents made some small transgression. The power struggle began and it excalated to a point where two children were deprived of their grandparents, and a mother and father lost their son (or daughter). You've already experienced enough pain with this, don't let it go on any longer if you can help it.

Dr. J


#4 - RENEE

Dear Dr. J
I am the step parent of a 17 year old girl. She lives full time with her mother, and my husband and I see very little of her. The last two years she has done very poorly in school. She has currently only enough credits to be a sophomore, but should be a junior. She dropped out two weeks ago and started at the alternative high school in our area. Now she says she doesn't like that. Any advice on ways to motivate her into staying in school and graduating?


Dear Renee
Early in my career, I worked with adjudicated youth. These were young people about the same age as your step daughter. Most of them came from difficult backgrounds, but not all of them did. As I worked to help them, I came to realize in a way that I hadn't before, that I needed to step outside of what I considered the best (and sometimes the only right) situation for them. I grew up in a working class family where you finished high school. (PERIOD) And most kids still finish high school. But some are not successful in main stream high school for whatever reason. As her step mother, of course, you want the best for your step daughter. The easiest way for her to succeed is to finish high school, graduate with her class, and emerge into life with some success under her belt. I'm sure all of the "Parents" involved want that for her. But some kids don't choose the smoothest road. They seem to always pick the difficult path. That doesn't mean that in 10 years she won't be successful. No parent wants to see their child stumble and struggle through life, but it's not possible to protect them from mistakes.

Now, you don't say what kind of relationship you have with her or how the family system works with her living with her mother. But, you do say that you don't see that much of her now. Obviously to me, you care about her or you would not be writing for advice. But, I wonder what kind of relationship she has with her dad. Teenagers don't listen to people who haven't invested their time, attention, and caring in the relationship. And sometimes, even then, they don't listen. Adolescents are tough on parents who they believe "don't care" about them. Because of the developmental stage they are in, adolescents are hypervigilent about perceived hypocracy and inadequacy from those in authority. It's part of their job to find fault with, question, and separate from the adults in their life. That's why noncustodial parents, especially, need to go past the half-way point to stay connected to their children. By the time children are teenagers, they will be suspicious and challenge you. I comment on her father's relationship with her because you cannot make up for that, nor can you make a better relationship happen between them.

This 17-year-old is lucky because she has adults who care about her. So, let's concentrate on what influence you can have with her. Depending on how she feels about her dad which could influence how she feels about you, your best last chance on this school situation is to sit down with her as a friend and see what's going on with her. But, you have to have a relationship with her in order to have any influence. It would be a mistake to wait until she gets into trouble to try and connect. If, by chance, you do not have a relationship with her, I really doubt that you can provide any motivation at all regarding this school thing. What you could do, is use this as a wakeup call to try to reconnect with her as a friend.

If you do have a relationship with her, great! First you have to let go of your own expectations about what you think she should do. When you meet with her, listen a lot. Of course, be sure to tell her all the good things you like about her and how much you care. Ask her what you can do to help her achieve her goals (whatever she says they are). Offer to be a support person, but don't try to take the lead. If she does ask your opinion, that's your cue to give it! If you think she should finish high school, say so. But, as you can see, you need to lay the ground work before you jump in with advice. With a teenager, you just don't have the power to impact her life right now unless she invites you to. Stay direct and honest, don't talk about her relationships with any of the other players, namely, her mom and dad. As the step mother, you probably do not have the direct authority to make decisions regarding your step daughter. Actually,at 17, her parents can't MAKE HER do anything either. On the positive side, you can be an important adult in her a friend. If you two can strengthen a friendship, you can give her guidance through that relationship. If she is unwilling to reach out to you at this point, keep trying. But don't take this on as a parental responsibility. This responsibility belongs to her mother and father. I'd like to see her invest in a positive relationship with you because she can really benefit from it, but it's really up to her.

Dr. J

#5 - DUSTY

Dear Dr.J
I've been in a relationship with my partner for 3 years. Recently she got custody of her two children, a 14-yr-old daughter and a 16-yr-old son. We talked about this before she went to court to get custody. The kids were in an awful situation living with their dad. They've only been here for 3 weeks and I'm ready to scream. We live in a pretty small apartment, and I'm sick of the chaos, the fighting, their stuff laying all over the place. Even when they're having a good time, I can't stand living here with the kids around. I want to be supportive of my partner, but I didn't sign on to raise two teenagers.

Dear Dusty
If you haven't been upfront with your partner, talk to her immediately and tell her how "on edge" you've been since her kids arrived. I can guess that she has already observed your frustration in your behavior. I would imagine she feels caught in the middle between your feelings and those of the kids. Let her know if you are willing to work on the situation. Believe me, it's going to take some work to make this happen. And it's not going to happen overnight. What you don't want to do is whine and complain to her about the situation. If you're going to stay, step up to the plate and be part of the solution. To take care of your own lack of space, plan some things for yourself outside the house. Spend a little more time with friends if possible. If you're going to stay,you two would benefit from couple or family therapy. If you're not going to stay, let her know and stop making everybody miserable with your attitude. It doesn't have to mean the end of the relationship, but you may need to move out and get your own place. When your partner knows how you feel, she may have some ideas of her own.

Dr. J

#6 - MEG

Dear Dr. J

I am a 22 year old college student, and my boyfriend is 28. We’ve been together for about a year and a half. He has a 6 year old daughter from a previous relationship. I’ll refer to her as “H”. She lives with her mother, and we have her every other weekend as well as once a week. His daughter and I have a wonderful relationship, and “H” has a wonderful relationship with her father, and my boyfriend and I have a healthy relationship as well. However, I have several concerns about his daughter’s emotional well-being due to the stressful tensions between my boyfriend and her mother. Her mother is manipulative and tries to alienate her from my boyfriend and I. After we’ve had our visitation with “H” and it’s time to go home to “Mommy’s”, “H” starts crying and gets very upset. It’s very difficult for everyone because we hate to see her go, there never seems to be enough time to spend together. Her mother will go as far as to throw away “H’s” homework that she and I have done together and then make “H” do it over because “Mommy doesn’t like me” or “I’m not supposed to sign the homework.” I know that the most I can probably do to help the situation is to just ensure that “H” has a good time when she’s with us, and make the best of it. Is there anything that my boyfriend can do to try and hinder her mother’s behavior? I feel like the situation is out of control and out of our hands because it all occurs when she is at her mother’s house. I feel like her mother doesn’t see the big picture and that her anger and resentment towards my boyfriend is hurting “H” and only making the whole situation more stressful and harder on everyone involved. I think it would help for them to see a counselor or a mediator, but I’m afraid it is highly unlikely that all parties would participate. My parents divorced when I was 12, and it kills me to see “H” going through a similar situation. Where should I stand when it comes to these issues. I certainly have my own opinions about it, but I know that it’s not my responsibility to resolve the issues at hand. My boyfriend doesn’t want to deal with “H’s” mother at all because it doesn’t get anywhere, and I’ve never met her in person or spoken to her. She puts “H” directly in the middle of her and my boyfriend. What is the best way to handle this situation? And is there any advice you cold offer in terms of how my boyfriends should deal with her mother? Any advice would be much appreciated! Thank you,


Dear Meg

You have good insight....there is nothing you can do about this situation except to maintain a good relationship with your boyfriend’s daughter. Don’t underestimate the power of this relationship. You can provide love and care while she’s with you and your boyfriend. Of course, he should be the primary parent because only he can provide her with a father’s love. What you can do is try to take a look at your old issues around your parents divorce so you do not project your unresolved feeling and issues onto “H” We know that the single most important factor in a child’s adjustment to a divorce is the ability of the divorcing parents to get along and put the child’s needs first. It always breaks my heart to hear of a selfish, immature, parent who doesn’t have a clue about how to focus on the needs of the child. There could be two sides to this story, but from what you’ve told me, H’s mother is not emotionally stable. Now remember, you can’t get your boyfriend to do anything regarding this, but I hope you two have good communication where you could share your feelings and concerns with him. This doesn’t mean that you should constantly make comments about how he is handling the situation. You should sit down when H is not there and have discussions that result in understanding and a plan of how to handle the situation that you can both agree to. If you can’t do this, you need to work on your relationship with him. It sounds like your boyfriend has a traditional custody arrangement for his daughter. Perhaps it would be possible for him to spend more time with his daughter by petitioning the court for joint custody or more visitation time. If the mother really is as unstable (enraged) as she sounds, he could also try to see what he can do to get her (and him too) into parenting classes through the court or a community agency. When a child’s wellbeing is at stake, it should not be a choice for mediation or counseling, it can be mandated by the court. I’m a bit worried about your boyfriend’s response to your concerns. He does have a daughter and if it requires “dealing with” the mother, then that’s what he needs to do. It’s interesting that he’s not the one asking for advice here, you are. So, be sure you don’t enable him to be a passive participant in his daughter’s abuse. He needs to step up because he’s contributing to the problem. Oh, and don’t sign the child’s homework, have her father sign it. Why add fuel to the fire with somebody who is angry and resentful?

Dr J

Advice-on-Step-Parenting: Parenting and Step-parenting

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