How can we set common ground rules for my stepdaughter when she is with us only 50% of the time?

My 13-year-old stepdaughter lives at our home 50% of the time. We have had many issues with unusual behaviours that seem to be getting better, and that we think are the result of different rules and expectations at each home. To select some issues that we are not sure how to tackle: refusal to brush her teeth, or to be kissed goodnight or refusal to take responsibility for actions that require her attention. It does take a few days (sometime a week or more) for her to accept that the rules are different (no TV during the week, no access to facebook, but lots of sports activities) but before she has to leave, she seems relaxed and enjoying herself. Tonight she said she did not want to eat, but we requested kindly that she sit at the table with us and once she was served dinner, she ate it and enjoyed it. Our question is: are there resources online or local groups of parents that we could consult about the importance of some common ground rules for young teenagers? Respectful communication is important to us and we emphasize and encourage it, just as eating together and respect for other’s property, and these are some of our rules.

You are doing exactly the right thing. You are setting expectations and following through in a warm, supportive, but firm way. You are creating family traditions and memories that will strengthen the relationship you have with your stepdaughter. You are creating a shared future vision.

This is the cement that will bind your child to you and your spouse. This is the foundation that will serve her well in the challenges that all teenagers have.

There really are few resources for families with teenagers in how to communicate effectively. But you have hit all of the right issues. The formula is working and you are helping your stepdaughter learn how to manage her life.

My colleagues and I are working on an interactive web program for this exact issue. Please contact me if you wish to participate in the development of the program.

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I have developed a severe germ phobia and it is taking control of my life.

I have a huge problem with germ phobia. Last year I started having this fear of everything around me. I wash my hands in panic, even if I touch my cell phone. I had dogs when I was a kid and loved playing around with them even getting licked and so on.I can’t let dogs touch me or brush against me without using some sort of anti bacterial spray. I see every animal as a germ factory and if I touch it I have to wash my hands. What concerns me the most is that it is now out of control. It might be some mental issue I developed because of my work. My boss is single in his 40’s and has a dog. I have worked for him for four years and there have been times that I have despised his decisions toward me or other workers. Somehow I can’t stand his dog now, either. Could all of this be related to my work? I consider everywhere at work to be dirty, even trees and rocks (I work outdoors), but when I am at home and get out for a run or training I don’t see anything other than animals as a potential threat.

This call for help springs from noticing that when a coworker of mine plays with our boss’s dog, he does not wash his hands and then when he touches me I have to wash whatever clothes he has touched. I see it as huge problem. If I pet a dog and someone calls and I have to answer I immediately have to wash my hands and now see my cell phone as a infected object. If that cell phone touches my pants or my shirt then they are off to the laundry.

I am sick and tired of this mindset, I like animals and I always have. But now I find everything dirty. Please help.

Being concerned with cleanliness is a good idea. However, when this becomes excessive and interferes with your life, it is a phobia. The difference between a phobia and good hygiene is a matter of degree. It is, in my opinion, not a bad thing to wash your hands after petting animals. Being panicked by it, is a phobia.

Actually being too clean is not healthy. We all need some dirt to stimulate our immune system.

Germ phobias are not that unusual. It is hard for me to say what caused your phobia.

The natural response for a germ phobic is to avoid any situation in which there might be germs. As well, it is natural to escape from a situation where germs are thought to be present.  When germ phobics avoid or escape from what they fear, they feel better. However, the fear is increased as a result, so these natural responses are very unhelpful.

Finally, germ phobics think about germs a lot of the time and usually try to stop thinking about germs with little success.

The psychological intervention is straightforward but not easy. The intervention is to reduce avoidance and escape.

In your situation, it would mean not avoiding germ-laden situations. A gradual approach is probably best. You can either delay your cleanup response or make it more sensible. A delay of one, two, then three minutes could be helpful. A quick wash of your hands, rather than an extensive cleaning, would be a strategy.

Not washing your clothes just because they touched your cell phone that touched your hand that touched an animal would be another strategy. If you cannot stop washing then you might delay it for 10 minutes, then 15 minutes, then longer and longer.

In terms of the thinking about germs, it is best not to try and get rid of the thoughts but to accept them. Trying to banish them won’t work. If you can adapt an attitude of curiosity, it will help and the control the thoughts have over you will be reduced.

Although the intervention is simple in concept, it is difficult to do. A psychologist may be able to help.

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My twelve-year-old son is showing increased anxiety and sadness.

My twelve-year-old son is in his first year of Junior High School. He has had a bit of a rough time settling into the new school, quite a change from elementary. He is a wonderful son, caring, compassionate, and loving. He is also very sensitive. He does well in school, enjoys the outdoors, video games, reading, spending time with friends and family. He dislikes commotion. He has been showing increased levels of anxiety and sadness. This happens mostly at school and has been discussed with me by the teachers and guidance staff. He gets overwhelmed and upset easily, sometimes not even knowing the reason why. He was diagnosed with Hypothyroidism almost two years ago and has been on a regulated dose of Synthroid. When he began showing increased signs of anxiety, etc., I had his TSH checked and the doctor had to double his Synthroid dosage. In your opinion should I wait until his TSH levels are checked again (due in the next week) or should I seek medical attention for a possible mental health issue?

It is important to get his thyroid under control. When his thyroid is under control, his symptoms may remit. However, they may not.

He may be a caring, sensitive child whose anxiety was ramped up by a thyroid condition. He may not immediately calm down when the thyroid is controlled.

It will help him to understand that these feelings may take time to calm down.

At his age, he can learn to talk himself down. First, he can Acknowledge the issue  saying things to himself like: “OK, I am upset now. I don’t know why” or “I think it is because the teacher yelled at someone else in the class.”

Second, he can Describe what he is feeling: “My heart is racing and I feel scared and sad.”

The third step is for him to Assess the situation: “OK, I am a bit sensitive and my thyroid has made me more so.”

Fourth, he can Present Alternatives: “Just take it easy. Nothing terrible is happening. I can breathe slowly and deeply to slow down and relax” or “It is normal to react but I am particularly good at reacting to these types of things. I can calm myself.”

The final step is to Think Praise:  “Yes, that is a bit better” or “OK, I showed myself I can help myself in this situation. It isn’t perfect but I managed.”

The first word of each step spells ADAPT. You can help him practice these steps at home.
He will need your support to learn how to toughen himself a bit. He will also have to be careful not to avoid situations because of his sensitivities.

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My mostly happy teenager has many periods of sadness where she hates her life. How do I help her?

My 13-year-old daughter is struggling with some issues. Although she seems happy most of the time, she sometimes says she hates her life. She is very active, laughs and jokes easily and seems to enjoy lots of what life has to offer. I do know she longs for a “best” friend and doesn’t have one. Although he has lots of casual friends, she doesn’t spend a lot of one-on-one time with them. I think she is well liked and accepted. She is very intelligent, and sometimes can’t deal with teenage girl nonsense (gossiping, etc.), but sometimes longs to be a part of it (this is my take on it). She agrees when I tell her that she has so much great stuff in her life, but says that often, something always happens, even during the good stuff, to make her feel sad. I want to acknowledge that she feels the way she does, but I also really want her to realize that her life (and the way she lives it…she’s a really great kid!) is pretty great. Any suggestions?

The most important thing you can do is listen. Listen without judgement. Listen without telling her anything. Just listen and show that you are listening. You are most valuable as a sounding board.

By listening, you will allow her to fully express how she feels. This may not always be the happy carefree teen.

If you offer solutions, you may short-circuit the discussion and her exploration of the issues.

I am sure she already knows that you think she is a talented, wonderful, incredible person who will do well. Don’t stop telling her these things but let her express her doubts and her fears without reassurance. She will figure out the solutions. Indeed her figuring out the solutions is the only way she will implement them.

Reassurance is a very funny thing. In most situations it doesn’t work well. Telling a child a needle won’t hurt, makes the pain worse. Telling anyone that what they fear won’t be so bad, makes it worse.

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My son is impossible to deal with since his baby sister arrived.

I have a five-year-old son, and a two-and-a-half-month-old baby girl. My son has been the centre of attention for five years and we have tried to prepare him for having a baby in the house. He was excited to have a sibling. I had to stay in the hospital with her for over a week after the birth. Not having mom around was hard on him but we managed. We knew that there would be an adjustment and he had some attitude problems and not listening. It didn’t last long, and we figured that it would be the end of it. The last two weeks, it has been hell in our household. The attitude has gotten worse, he doesn’t listen at all. We tell him that he would loose his toys or the Wii if he didn’t smarten up, then he would say the same thing back to us, as if he can take our stuff away from us. The other day, I received a call from the school about him having spent the money for his milk on the juice vending machines at school. I was furious when I got this call, not only did he lie to the teacher, but he stole from me. I made it clear to him what he did was wrong.  We ask him why, all of the sudden, the last two weeks have been hard. He said that we can’t help him. He said that he wanted a brother not a sister. He is acting out and we cannot discipline him, I keep thinking to myself what am I not doing? Why can’t I get him to see what he is doing is wrong. I feel like I failed at this point as a parent. But I am not going to give up, but doing the same thing over and over again for his discipline is not working at all. We have been trying a lot of one on one with him, he is happy. But then the next day the attitude and not listening is back again. What can we do to get him to smarten up? I don’t want this to continue as it is hard on the family, but I think as well, he will be one of those troubled kids as he gets older and we don’t want that. Please help.

Your son needs to feel he is an important, valued part of the family. There are two critical issues. First, it is important for you to have clear expectations of what is the right thing to do. It sounds that you have done this quite well. I would suggest you continue to be firm and tough on his misbehavior.  Be calm but firm. Don’t get angry. Don’t tell him that he is bad. Just have clear firm expectations and consequences for his misbehavior. But this is not enough. You need to make him feel needed, useful and wanted. You have to rebuild your relationship with him. There are three things you can do:

  1. Spend special time with him. During this special time do things that he likes to do with you. During that time, he should be number one, the centre of attention. Do this two or three times a week for 30 to 60 minutes. It could be playing lego with him, going to the local library.
  2. Notice him when he is good. Pay attention to good behaviour. So if he is pleasant to you, tell him how much you enjoy him when he is like that. If he has a positive interaction with his sister, tell him what a good big brother he is.
  3. Make a fuss about him every once in a while. Surprise him. Maybe cook his favourite meal. Have a special treat for him. Tell him you are so pleased he is your son.

The positive aspect of this approach is critically important. Unless you build your relationship, he will continue to feel left out.

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My pediatrician is not taking my concerns seriously.

I’m concerned about my four-year-old daughter. Since she was old enough to sit up she has had what I thought were spasms in her arms and legs. She holds her arms out away from her and flexes her fingers, her feet turn in circles and she opens her mouth. She doesn’t breathe when she does this, to stop herself, she will clap her hands hard one time or scream shrilly, then she goes about her business. When she was two-years-old, I talked to her pediatrician about it and he blew it off saying she had developed a habit and she would grow out of it. Well, she is four now and it seems to have gotten worse. The thing is, I don’t even think she is aware she is doing it. I’ve thought about Tourette’s syndrome, it seems like a tic or involuntary spasms that she can’t control. How do I talk to her pediatrician about this? She is getting ready to start school this coming year and I’m very concerned about this. Should I be concerned since she is four now and it hasn’t gotten better?

Your description might be a habit or it could be something more serious.  I would encourage you to videotape your daughter during one or more of these spells and show the video to her pediatrician.  Many cell phones can video well enough for her pediatrician to see what is happening.

This is unlikely just a habit. She has not grown out of it over two years. There are several possible causes for this. If you feel that your child’s doctor is not taking your concerns seriously, tell them.  Tell the doctor you appreciate his or her skills but you are very worried that your concerns are not being taken seriously.

You may need to change doctors if you continue to feel ignored.

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My eleven-year-old daughter is struggling with friendships at school.

My eleven-year-old daughter is struggling with friendships. She is very outgoing but has trouble forging close friendships. She goes to a private school with a no bullying policy. She is not bullied but comes home in tears often because she has no close friends. She says they aren’t mean but they aren’t nice to her. She makes friends in the neighborhood, at karate and at church, but not school. Yesterday she said sometimes she wants to die. But after she cried and I told her I knew how she felt, she was laughing and playing with her brother. I have an appointment for her with a counselor next week. I am just worried about her long-term self esteem and worry that she will fall in with a bad crowd in high school just to gain acceptance.

Your daughter appears to have social skills. She is able to make friends in the neighborhood.  Encourage these friendships. Good friendships are valuable no matter where they happen.

Helping a child to make friends is difficult. You can provide opportunities for her to have friends over to your house. She may choose to bring school friends or community friends.

Your support of your daughter is very important. Keep up the communication. Be the person she can go to and discuss her feelings.

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My girlfriend has a severe germ phobia. How can I help her?

I have a girlfriend that I really want to help, but don’t know how. She is afraid of everything that she thinks is dirty, even if it’s not. Not only that but she is also afraid of her own bed and she won’t  sleep on it because she feels dirty and thinks that she will get it dirty. She washes her hands before and after she touches something, whatever it is, and I feel that she really needs help but I don’t know how to help her.

It is a challenging situation. Your girlfriend appears to have a significant germ or dirt phobia. It is interfering with her life.

The natural thing for your girlfriend to do is to avoid anything that she might think is dirty. If she finds herself in a situation she thinks is dirty, the natural response is to escape from it.

Although these reactions are natural, they make the problem worse. Avoidance and escape encourage the phobia to increase.

Your girlfriend needs to gradually expose herself to things that she is afraid of. She needs to reduce her avoidance and escape. This is not easy. Some people are able to do it on their own. Many people are helped by a psychologist.

You should be supportive to her. But you cannot be the person she needs to help guide her in this process. She should work with her family doctor or her parents to get some help with this problem.

You might check with a librarian at your public library to find a good book for overcoming phobias that you can share with your girlfriend.

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The teachers at my son’s school call him an idiot.

My 16-year-old son is often called to the principal’s office for his behaviour in class, his class teacher has been constantly calling him stupid and an idiot in front of his classmates. My son is an above average student and good in sports and extra curricular. He was diagnosed with arthritis three years ago and is on medication. Every time we are called to the school the principal himself calls my son stupid and an idiot in front of us. They never let our sin speak up for himself. My son doesn’t misbehave at home or at our social gatherings, he is very proper and disciplined at home, cleans his own room, takes care of his belongings and helps me in my household chores. He asks permission before going out and if I refuse then he never makes an issue. I am very confused. As a mother I really don’t know where the problem is.

No teacher or principal has the right to call any student stupid or an idiot. This is unprofessional and unethical behavior.  There is no excuse for this.

There are two things you should consider.  You will have to decide if it is best to do these.

  1. Enter a written formal complaint to the Superintendent or the Chair of the School Board about the behavior of the teacher and the principal. You might want to have a trusted friend read your letter to make sure it is clear and well written.
  2. Change your son to a different school. You would have to consider if this is what your son wants. It may not be possible or helpful for your son to change schools.
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How can we get our daughter to follow the rules?

My 15-year-old daughter seems to repeat stupid activity. She knows the house rules but gets caught violating them over and over again. She will argue with her step-mom constantly. She has had her cellphone taken as punishment. She acquired a friends IPOD and was caught texting late at night. She knows this is wrong but does it anyway. She is told not to eat and drink in her room but gets caught doing it anyway. When asked why she disobeys, she answers that she doesn’t know. Her grades are slipping. She plays high school sports and I am tempted to take that from her. But I want her to look at sports as a future in college. We have grounded, taken things away, she gets things back eventually.

Punishing negative behaviour can only be, at the very most, 20% of the solution.

At least 80% of the solution is to find ways to build your relationship. The best ways to build your relationship are to notice the good and to do things with your daughter that she enjoys.

You must find ways to tell her truthfully that she is a good kid and find ways of her enjoying you and you enjoying her. This will be the basis of your relationship.

You have seen how punishment is not working.  Increasing punishment will only make it worse. It will drive her away from you. Do not take away her sports.

You clearly love your daughter and are very frustrated by her behavior. Give her reasons to want to obey the house rules.

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