A child's problem behaviors signal other problems that need to be better understood before the behaviors will change. Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., says that consistent household rules and a focus on the positive can help the other children stay on a positive track.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
May 07, 2020
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Illustration by Eric Jeon

Dear Blended,

Blending families is complicated! A key part of the challenge is how to integrate children who don't share the same parents. When a family has undergone separation of any kind, younger children have a lot to process but not the skills yet to process it. In your case, it sounds like your boyfriend's daughter may be struggling in ways she can't express, and you are concerned about the effects of her behaviors on your daughter.

Dig Deeper

As a child psychologist, I often hear complaints about "attention-seeking" and "manipulative" behaviors by children. My first step in addressing parents' concerns is to dig deeper into the behaviors, and help parents remember that young children are not as sophisticated as grown-ups. In fact, I stay away from the word, "manipulative," because it implies more power and control than children actually have. I understand adults can feel manipulated by children, but children are designed to figure out how to use their behaviors to get important needs met. It's about survival—not manipulation.

When children display behaviors you are describing, it's usually a sign of other problems. I would encourage you to think about the behaviors from a different perspective; ask, "what is she not getting that she needs?" I mean emotionally, not the newest toy or tech gadget!

Often, children in blended families struggle with feeling a lack of stability because of moving between households, or feeling like they have to compete for their biological parents' attention. In your family, it sounds like your boyfriend's daughter has a lot to compete with for her father's attention: you, her sibling, your 8-year-old, and—the most attention-absorbing of all—an infant.

You might find more success in dealing with her behaviors if you shift the focus from how upsetting her behaviors are, to what underlies them. Of course, she might not even know the reasons herself. This is where a child mental health professional, especially one who specializes in children of divorce, could give all of you valuable expertise. It sounds like your boyfriend could also benefit from this guidance, which could help both of you be on the same page.

The Power of the Positive

I also hear your concern about your daughter learning behaviors you don't want her to learn. Children are definitely sponges, and it's wise to keep an eye on any behavior changes. To get ahead of it, have clear and specific family rules about acceptable and unacceptable behaviors. When your boyfriend's daughter engages in unacceptable behaviors, you and he need to repeat the rules for everyone to hear. If your daughter complains that his daughter seems to "get away" with not following rules, you can explain that you and her father are working with her on it in private.

When shaping child behaviors, positive reinforcement is always a winner too. Noticing the positive behaviors and praising them in the moment can go a long way in making sure your daughter is receiving positive attention, rather than feeling like she should act out for negative attention.

As far as children are concerned, any attention is better than no attention. It's up to the adults to give a good balance of positive to negative. This applies to your boyfriend's daughter as well—make sure to notice and praise even small instances of positive behaviors to help her get the right kind of attention, so she's more motivated to keep up the positive behaviors, which often also leads to a decrease in the negative behaviors.

Parenting is hard. Parenting other people's children is really hard! It can help to remember that being a child to multiple parents is causing similar emotional struggles to your own as a parent to multiple children. The difference is a child doesn't know how to make sense of it all—including her emotions. Yet. With the guidance of involved and supportive caregivers like you and your boyfriend, she can learn.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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