Woman covering ears while teenage girl sings

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Ask Carolyn: How to Deal with a Problem Stepchild

Dear Carolyn,

Did I walk in a landmine or what?  I married the most wonderful man, but his daughter who lives with us half of the time is a nightmare.  She is disrespectful and disruptive.  She will not clean up after herself.  She is always texting on her phone and homework is left undone.  I do not know if I can take it any longer.  I stay home and her father works.  She is fifteen and in the tenth grade.  I am exasperated.  What can I do?

– Exasperated


Dear Exasperated,

Oh boy!  You have stepped on a landmine.  Stepparent relationships are a BIG cause of marital discord and frustration for all concerned; 70 percent of second marriages that involve stepchildren fail.* (*Source: Honorable Anne Kass, author of the article “Second Marriage Can Be As Difficult As The First One.”)    There are numerous issues in building new relationships that actually work between a stepparent and a stepchild living in the home.  And, frankly, sometimes the situations become close to impossible.

There are also multiple points of view when you start addressing stepparent/stepchild issues.  There is the point of view of 1) the biological father and 2) the biological mother, 3) the child, and 4) the stepchild, plus 5) your point of view as the stepparent.  You do not say you have a biological child of your own in the situation, but that also is yet another point of view under those circumstances.

The expectations of all concerned must be realistic. Unless a stepparent comes into the household of a very young child, (age 3 or under), it is generally unrealistic to expect a true parent-child relationship, and this certainly is not realistic with a fifteen-year-old in most cases.  (Very young children are usually easier for the blended family.)  In this case, from a fifteen-year-old’s point of view, the teen may feel like she is betraying the biological mother, if she develops a close relationship with you.  How supportive is the biological mother with whom the fifteen-year-old lives half the time?  How supportive is the biological father of your role and relationship?

Generally, stepparents should not have the expectation of being the direct disciplinarian, but yet you should have the expectation of respect and normal adult-child boundaries.

In my opinion, what you must have in this situation are “Rules of the House.”  These rules must be created with openness and total, but tactful, candor.  These rules, ideally, are established before the wedding, so that all are on the same page from day one of the new household.  In your case, either this did not occur or this teen already had her mind made up on how she would conduct herself in your care.

So, here’s what you need to do.  You need to discuss having a “Rules of the House” meeting with your husband, the biological father.  He must be on board with the process for this to work.  If you cannot get his buy-in regarding a solution, you have bigger problems than simply an unruly fifteen-year-old; you may have marital problems as well.  Work with your husband to write the “Rules of the House” appropriate for all concerned.  The rules are not going to place you as a direct disciplinarian, but rather leave that role to the biological father.  The problem is that you are home in the afternoon with this teen, so you need some “holding pattern” discipline available to you, such as the ability to say, “we each have an opinion about this. Let’s talk this out when your Dad gets home and figure things out for the household together.” At fifteen, a teen girl is often in the mindset of a young woman, thinking about friends, boyfriends and social crises of blemishes, weight and fashion at school. In fact, for now, she may have issues with trusting you at any level at this time in her life.

If the father buys-in and helps you created the “Rules of the House,” next approach the biological mother for buy-in as well if that is at all possible.  If possible, all the adults in the household need to be on the same page.

The final step is the family meeting, where the “Rules of the House” are discussed and implemented.  The meeting should include all members of the household.  Keep the meeting positive, but specific, regarding conduct, expectations and consequences of violations of expected conduct.  Include chore expectations, homework expectations, respect expectations, television expectations, texting expectations and all other expectations of the teen.  Create the consequence for a violation to be implemented mostly by the biological parent. Also develop rewards that offer things important to this teen girl.

Good luck. This is a tough situation, but it can work!


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This blog is an excerpt from a previously published Ask Carolyn column in the Rhino Times.

Send your questions on family law and divorce matters to “Ask Carolyn…” at askcarolyn@rhinotimes.com, or P.O. Box 9023, Greensboro, NC  27427.  Please do not put identifying information in your questions. 

Note that the answers in “Ask Carolyn” are intended to provide general legal information, and the answers are not specific legal advice for your situation.  The column also uses hypothetical questions.  A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need in your unique case.  Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by “Ask Carolyn.”