Question: My 12-year-old stepdaughter is extremely verbally abusive to my 13-year-old daughter. She has even gone as far as to have a group of girls physically attack my daughter. My husband has no control over her. I feel like I’m sending a message to my daughter, that we don’t care, by letting this step daughter to continue to come into my home and do this. I would prefer she never come to my home again. This is my daughter’s home.She doesn’t deserve this.
Answer: The best solutions, if possible, will be to protect your daughter who is being mistreated and to find a way to let your step-daughter participate appropriately in your family. Hopefully, with strong limits of acceptable behavior, your step-daughter will discover she can get positive attention for doing the right thing. Hopefully, your step-daughter will learn she “belongs” too. Only as a last resort, would I exclude your step-daughter from your home. She, however, must prove herself capable of following your family rules and she must absolutely refrain from violence against your daughter.
The first step is to set house rules that apply to everyone (daughter and stepdaughter) and are enforced by everyone (parent and step parent). These rules need to be explicit and posted on the refrigerator as a reminder to everyone that things have changed. State the rules positively – for example, “We will use a calm and polite tone of voice”. “We will speak with respect to the other members of this family.” “We accept that each of us has different opinions and different ways of doing things but can still act as a family.”
Discuss the rules as a family and clarify what is acceptable and unacceptable. You can even take the first week to point out what will be considered a violation. For example, it’s easy for your step daughter to say “I don’t do that”. During the first week, everyone should be prepared to listen to themselves and to each other and say aloud “I don’t like those words (or actions) and want to put them on the “unacceptable” list. At the end of the week, get together as a family and make sure everyone understands what the new code of behavior will be.
Decide how to enforce the new behavior during that first week. What consequences can you and your husband enforce when someone violates the rules? Be realistic about the consequences and about your parenting styles. At 12 and 13 years old, a loss of TV or computer game-time is appropriate. (You might try deducting 20-30 minute intervals for each infraction of the rules.) Or, you can establish a more positive consequence. For example, whenever someone is mean to another family member, they must do something nice for the other person For example, make her bed or bring her breakfast in bed on Saturday!
Give your daughter on-going reassurance that she has not been displaced in the family. While there are new problems to solve with her step-father and step-sister, she still matters very much. Your daughter also needs to know what she can do when someone tries to hurt her. Can she walk away? Can she go to her room and close the door? Can she call someone who can support her in the moment? Then she will feel safe and confident to stand up or walk away from any harmful situation.
You may consider getting ongoing support from a family counselor. I do recommend a family counselor to deal with the physical threats against your daughter. Lastly, get united with your husband, two of you are stronger than one! Both of these children could use help from both of you for many years to come.
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.