Written by Doctor G

Step Mom Frustrated by Child Talking Back

child, kid, pain, bad, behaviorHello Doctor G, My fiance and I live together and have been dating for 2 years. I am a clinical psychologist who specializes in “merged” families and developmental issues but I cannot understand the constant talking back and unappreciativeness from his 6 year old. At meal time, bed time, homework time, he challenges me. Rudely. If his father tries to support me, he ignores or just focuses on the one time that there was a time out from me.

I tell him that I love him – walk/talk/play ninjas/am a room parent/ you name it – I am involved in it!   His father (and mother) are definitely more permissive, but everything I do and say is with love.   

Could it be the bio mother (who tells everyone who will listen that she fears losing her son to me) talking negatively to the child or is he just a cold little boy.  His coldness is without a doubt the most shocking behavior of a child I have witnessed.   It’s as though he does not connect with any adult.

His father seems consumed with the “trauma” of the separation – the mother cheated and left – that relationship did not work and she is with another man who has a son.   The father’s approach has been to slowly make changes – not sleeping with his son as he falls asleep – and not sitting him on his lap immediately after a meal – trying not to baby his son.  Any suggestions you could offer me in my approach to this young boy would be greatly appreciated.

Missa, in (state not provided)

Missa, this sounds very frustrating. Especially since you focus your work life on helping families merge, it must be hurtful that you are dealing with a situation that is not resolving easily.

That said, the person who is suffering most in this situation is not you, or your fiancé. This 6 year old boy is suffering and, while he clearly needs limits, he also needs your compassion.

The best advice I can give is to redefine your role, and remind yourself what you can control, and what you can’t.

Your role as his dad’s fiancé, is to give him another stable adult to depend upon. It sounds like you’ve been working hard to be that.

Your role is not to fix him, or be the most authoritarian person in his life. It sounds like his father is best suited to draw the lines and limits for this boy, and that he is working on doing just that.

You can’t control how this boy speaks to you. You can control whether or not you answer him or give him what he wants when he’s disrespectful.

You can’t control if he listens. You can control the connection he sees between treating you well and getting more ninja-playing-time.

You can’t control what his mother says or does. You can control your own words about his mom – making sure that you are always supportive of his love for her, and not judgmental in his presence or hearing, ever.

You can’t control his “coldness.” You can control a safe space in which he can, perhaps, grow to be able to express warmth after he learns to believe again in unconditional love.

It sounds like his father is on a great path with helping this boy’s development.  You can’t control the timeline on which father and son travel that path. And you shouldn’t try.

I hear that you are frustrated by this boy’s behavior, Missa.  Understandably so.  But I hear also that this boy is frustrated with every adult in his life. Give him the time and compassion he needs, and hopefully he will learn to trust again.


Have you ever encountered a child that seemed cold? Did you ever figure out why?

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2 thoughts on “Step Mom Frustrated by Child Talking Back”

  1. Dr. G., I live with two tweens who are much like this. Their mother has ‘programmed’ them to dislike me. They use the word hate. There are two truths here. One, they don’t KNOW me. So they cannot hate me. Two, they have been put in a horrible position. They like things I do. They like things I cook. They like things I give.

    They are afraid to like what comes from my role in their lives.

    The child above is younger than the ones I am dealing with. But as someone who works with children professionally, it is hurtful to be ‘hated’.

    It is a big conflict, to work with children and yet have children in your life that refuse to work with you. I feel for Missa. I live this also. Last weekend, I wanted to retreat to my job, instead of living in my own home.

    1. Oh Christine, I feel for you as well. You are wonderful with children, and you’re so clear on the difficulty these children are facing. You are absolutely giving them something valuable even if they aren’t allowed to voice that to you – or to themselves.

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