How Do I Deal with a Difficult Stepdaughter?

Parenting expert Jan Faull, MEd, on parenting stepchildren.
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Q. "My 11-year-old stepdaughter recently moved in with her father and me after a custody battle. She is acting disrespectful toward me, and her father is not sure what to do. She also says she should not have to do chores, and apparently did not have chores when she lived with her mother. We've tried talking to her, and we have a punishment scale based on the severity of her actions, but now we're almost on our last punishment. What else can we do?"

A. This is a difficult time in your young stepdaughter's life, so it's not surprising that she is acting out. Perhaps most important here is that you let her father be the primary disciplinarian and parent, especially as the three of you transition into your new living arrangement. Your role is to support your husband while at the same time beginning to establish a rapport with your stepdaughter. This will require you to be gentle, yet firm, and most of all, patient.

Let's address the three aspects of your question separately. First is the issue of disrespect toward you. When your stepdaughter talks back, is sassy or rude, respond with any of the following options:

  • Say, "I can't talk to you when you talk disrespectfully. The conversation is over for me." Then walk out of the room.
  • Ask, "Can you say that very same thing but in a nicer way?"
  • When she says something like, "Get out of my face," offer her appropriate words she can say instead, like, "Would you please say, 'I'd like a few minutes to myself.'"
  • Lastly, "That's disrespectful language; it's not allowed in this house. I don't speak rudely to you and I don't expect you to speak rudely to me."

Second is the issue of chores. You and your husband should start with one chore, such as cleaning her bedroom. Set specific guidelines on when and how her bedroom should be cleaned -- for example, it should be cleaned by 10 a.m. on Saturdays. Dirty clothes in the hamper, books on the shelves, bed made, and the room vacuumed. It's important that your husband be the arbiter of this rule, and for the first week he should tidy the room with her. The following week he needs to watch her while coaching her along. After the second week, she's on her own. Your job as the stepmother is to not get involved. This task and the enforcement of it are between daughter and daddy alone. If she doesn't complete the task, he can withdraw privileges: no allowance for the week, no TV for the day, or no shopping trips to the mall.

Third is the relationship between you and your stepdaughter. And this is perhaps the toughest challenge of all. Your main task is to build rapport with your stepdaughter, to develop a loving and respectful relationship with her. Below are five ideas:

  • Spend time with her in a mutually agreeable activity of particular interest to your stepdaughter.
  • Consider her feelings, desires, and needs. You need not indulge her in every whim and fancy; just consider her opinions and points of view.
  • Offer empathy when she faces adverse situations. This child has just been ousted from her mother's house into her father's. She is going through a difficult time in her young life. From you she needs understanding.
  • Show interest in her daily activities. Listen to her practice the piano, go to her soccer matches, ask questions about her hobbies, friends, and teachers.
  • Notice and talk about what she does that's right. By doing so you not only reinforce that behavior but miraculously, you'll see more of it.

These five rapport-building activities build up a relationship reservoir that gives you credibility that will sustain the two of you through the tough moments now and into the future.


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