How to step-parent in a home with conflict

Johan-dad asks: Hello. I’m married, 2nd marriage, to a beautiful lady I’ll call C. She’s got just as beautiful little girl, M. I’ve been in C and M’s life for the past 3 1/2 years and we’ve been married now for just over 1 year. M, my stepdaughter that I love like my own, is 5 years old. C and M have this love-hate relationship, and I’m saying that because one minute they can love each other to bits and the next they scream and shout at each other like hateful teenagers. My question is not that simple, but I’m going to try and break it down to simplify. M sleeps in our bed as she refuses to sleep in her bed. Mom is saying that she doesn’t want to fight at night getting M to bed so she rather give M what she wants to keep the peace. However, when it’s long past sleeping time, M is still awake and mom is then fighting and screaming at M to sleep. I feel that the fighting and screaming at night is worse than telling the child to go to bed and letting her cry in her bed until she falls asleep, because she will learn to after a while. Unfortunately this is not an option and I’ve been told that I should stay out of their fights and mind my own business. If I do make mention of the fact that I feel it is wrong, then mom goes and sleeps in M’s bed and returns to ours during the night, and the next day all I hear is how bad it is sleeping in M’s bed. Now this is just one example and there is a lot more, but I would like to know what is my right as a step-parent and how do I deal with this. If my wife is unable to discipline, and I’m not talking about giving hidings or verbally abusing the child, how do I intervene and what is my responsibility? I feel that our, my wife and I, relationship is taking a big knock because of the fact that mom either fights with the child like she is her enemy or she gives the child her way to avoid a fight and I am sitting on the sideline seeing how they destroy each other and I can not do anything about it. My wife has even mentioned it that she considered to kill herself because she can’t handle M and life, but still she doesn’t want to allow me in that circle to help her. I don’t know what part of parenting is “allowed” from a stepparent’s perspective, and what should I do as a husband to get my wife to understand that I am not the enemy but can assist her if she allows me. I always try to be calm and not get involved too much, but sometimes I’ll come in the crossfire unwillingly. Please help me to understand my role where two people I love are falling into this pit and it feels like my hands are cut off.

Hi Johan-dad –



There are those who will tell you that you’re in a very common position for a step-parent.  But I’ll tell you, you’re in an even more common place for a DOG!  This is exactly the position we find ourselves in all the time – we love everyone in the home, they’re fighting, and we want to jump in and do something to stop it, but whenever we try, they yell at us and throw us out the back door!


My solution to this is simple: I write this website. After years of being frustrated with no one paying attention to my thoughts on the matter, I’m now able to get people all over the world to listen to me, and it looks like, a lot of the time, I’m able to help.


But that doesn’t change how people treat me when we’re together.  Then I’m still just a dumb old dog, or maybe they see me as vicious because I’m barking at them… and out I get tossed.


And the truth is, in this case of yours, they’re right: this is between them, and you don’t get to have a say in it.


But I’m not suggesting you give up.  I’m just saying you’re too close to them to be the one to take charge.


What this really looks like is a situation where your wife has spent five years mostly doing whatever her daughter wanted, or expressed she needed.  Which is, of course, a lot better than being cruel, abusive, or neglectful.  But it’s created a situation where your stepdaughter has learned to go after what she wants by demanding and crying.  It’s very similar to an untrained puppy who whines all night till someone lets her out of her crate and onto the family bed (where they’d sworn she’d never be allowed).


And what you need is a good puppy trainer!


You might have heard the old rule in dog training, that the trainer spends much more time training the humans than the dogs; if the humans would just take charge in the right way, the dogs would easily follow their commands.


Similarly, your wife needs to change her role in the family.  She needs to become the parent, in a way she’s not.  (Ironically, this means that, when you intercede to help, you’re actually making things worse in a way, because you’re showing your wife to need help; what she needs is for her daughter to see her as in charge.)


By far the best method for this is family therapy.  A good family therapist will befriend all three of you, but work to help the mom learn ways to be a good, caring, giving, but boundaried mother.  And this will include working with you and your stepdaughter, to help change the dynamic, so that Mom is in charge, at least of her kid.


Now if you guys do this, am I saying that that kid isn’t going to do everything she can to fight and keep her place of power?  Not a chance!  Haven’t you seen dogs fight in every way to not be leash-trained, including rolling around on the ground screaming as though someone’s pouring boiling water onto their tummies?!  She’s going to do just that.


But if you’re doing things right, it’ll all pay off beautifully in the long run.


And once things are better, then maybe you’ll find a situation where you’re able to have some say in things too – not as a replacement father, but as a caring adult.


If this sounds like something you and your wife could embrace, I really do think it’s the best method to help.  If you’re in an area where there are lots of therapists, you can almost certainly find some who do family work pretty easily.  And if not, please write me back and I’ll get my human, Handsome, to look some up in your area (which will stay secret between us; I won’t post any of that information on the website).


You see, he and I have things worked out really well.  I do come and sit and shake hands when he tells me to.  But then I can also ask him big favors like these, and he’s very happy to do them.  In a lot of ways, our relationship is just what you would like to see in your home!


Let me know if this idea works!



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