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Child Caring

To get rid of step-daughter's behavior, don't reinforce it

Hello Barbara –

I was hoping you could offer some insight or resources into an on-going issue with my 5 ˝ year old step-daughter. Her Mom & Dad have been divorced since she was 2. They have evenly split custody, so she spends 50% of her time with her Mom and 50% of her time with her Dad and I. We all live in close proximity in the same town, and although there is very little interaction between households, she knows both her Mom & Dad will be present at all school events, activities, etc.

Our concern is regarding how she handles her emotions, specifically that she “hides” behind certain ingrained responses without sharing her real feelings. For example: if she gets upset and starts crying because doesn’t get to play with a video game because it’s too close to bedtime, she’ll automatically say, “I miss my Mommy,” when you ask her why she is crying. If you mention the actual reason she is likely upset (in this example, not getting to play the video game), she insists that it’s because she misses her Mom, not the video game. We think it is highly likely that she does this at both houses, as occasionally she will slip and say, “I miss my Daddy,” when she is at our house. I don’t doubt for a moment that she does miss her Mom or Dad when she’s at the other house, and we always reassure her that it’s okay to miss the other parent. However, she will vehemently refuse to acknowledge what caused her to be upset in the first place. Her Dad and I try not to push her, but we worry that if she isn’t recognizing what is actually upsetting her she may not be able to develop appropriate coping skills. How do you recommend that we encourage her to acknowledge things that are bothering her?

From: Christine, Midwest US

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Dear Christine,

She's likely doing this for attention, even though it's negative attention. Kids don't make the distinction, so the more you give attention to the behavior, the more you are inadvertently reinforcing it. Try this instead:

When she says, "I miss Mom," react in a matter-of-fact affect. Even if you suspect it's not the real reason, echo it back it back to her, "OK, I hear you, you're missing your mom." Keep your tone even, not overly sympathetic, but certainly not disbelieving. Pause. (The pause is important.) Then move on: "It's time for bed, no more videos." If she continues with her tantrum, repeat repeat repeat that it's time for bed, always in the same calm, matter-of-fact tone. Don't let the interaction get drawn out or get the best of you. This will be a process -- she won't quit right away! -- so the more matter-of-fact you are, the better. Be consistent each night.

Trying to get her to identify her true feelings is also a process and it's likely you are expecting too much from her at this stage of development and, with every conversation, reinforcing her behavior. Instead, wonder aloud about it: "I wonder if you're wishing you could play the video game longer." "I wonder if you wish we would change the rules about video games before bedtime." Don't make it about mom, or dad. Don't expect her to respond or answer although if she does answer and says, "Yes!" then find a way together to create a new schedule (or whatever it takes) to expand the game time. (It's OK to say, "We can try this for three nights and see how it goes." Make a deal that includes her dictating what happens each night, and then evaluating together at the end of the time. The more she buys into the deal, the better it will work.)

Hopefully, by labeling her feelings for her, she will eventually be able to identify them herself. This is a good strategy with any child under 8 or 9. One of the reasons this language is so helpful, btw, is because it doesn't put a child on the defensive.

You're probably right that this happens in reverse at mom's house. Kids are smart; they learn how to work the odds. That her strategy might work at mom's house just means it might take longer, and require more patience, to undo at your house. Don't get into the trap of comparing one home to the other. A child understands that rules are different in each home.

Lastly, since this is an attention-getting behavior, help her to realize that there are other (positive) ways for her to get attention. Praise her -- but don't over-do it! -- when she does a good job at something. Most of all, build in a short period each day, even just five minutes, where she has your or dad's full attention. Call it "Dad and me" "Christine and me time," and turn off your phone, allow no interruptions, and give her a few activities to choose from, including cuddling.

If there are other behaviors like this one and it begins to add up to a bunch of problems, I'd recommend professional advice, an evaluation with a child therapist, a parent support group/workshop for divorce/step-parents, anything along those lines. These are not unique problems, sharing them with others in the same boat typically helps.

Whatever you do, check out this book, "Mom's House, Dad's House," by Isolina Ricci. It's been out for a while but I still consider it the best on the topic.