My stepdaughter won’t listen to me!

I have 2 kids, the oldest being my stepdaughter. I’ve been her stepdad since she was 2 years old. She is now 6. She disregards me and only views me as “the stepdad” which is on a lower level then her real dad, in her eyes. I ask her to pick up her toys and she says “No! You aren’t my daddy so I don’t have to listen!” When I put her in timeout, she gets up and runs away. When I spank her she says I am hurting her and shuts me out more. The more stern I am, the more I am “the mean stepdad.” The more I try to level with her, the more she takes advantage of it. I love her like my own but I really don’t know how to get her to view me as her dad like I view her like my daughter. Please help!

Working out a stepparent-stepchild relationship, even one that has been around a long time, can be very difficult. You are very wise to be concerned and invested in improving your relationship with your stepdaughter sooner rather than later. There are a few first steps that I would recommend. It sounds simple, but one of the most powerful tools in building a relationship is having one-on-one “special time.” If you can build in 10-15 minutes a day that you spend together, that goes a long way. Make this time something where there is not going to be an opportunity to get in trouble, and let her guide the activity. She could choose to play a game, have you read to her, color or do an activity together. Make this time really positive. You need to take time to build your relationship so that when you do need to discipline her, it is based on an existing foundation of trust and respect.

Second, it sounds like methods of discipline aren’t working very well. I would strongly recommend not using spanking, as we know that it does not work to change behavior and it erodes the trust in a relationship. Time out does not seem to be working very well either and may be causing more stress. It might help to focus on rewarding good behavior rather than punishing negative behavior. For the next couple of weeks, when you see her doing something you like (e.g., playing nicely with a sibling, sharing, following instructions), praise her for it.

If you spend more time focusing on the positive, she will be more motivated to behave with you and know that your guidance is based on love and caring, not dislike or meanness. Third, if you find that making some changes to how you respond to her aren’t helping enough, I would encourage you to seek out some expert support. Parents and kids sometimes find that some sessions with a good family therapist (you might want to look for someone who specializes in Parent Child Interaction Therapy) can help transform a relationship and make both parents and kids more confident in how they relate to one another.


Eleanor Mackey, PhD, is a child psychologist and works primarily with the Obesity Institute and Children’s Research Institute. Dr. Mackey is also a mother of two girls.

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