The child in this case is 7 years old. Just as an example; maybe he breaks his own toy, clearly by accident, but right after I asked him not to do whatever caused the breaking.

I would like to calmly tell him that's why I asked him to stop, and to pick up the toy. I figure the breaking of his own stuff would be a punishment in itself.

Instead, he runs - thinking he's in trouble. If I follow, to explain I'm not mad or anything, he gets more "desperate" to get away from me and ignore anything I say. So I don't chase him.

But, rather than this example, say he does something he knows is wrong but also warrants a consequence such as time-out or taking away a privilege like game-time. He runs, and I'm not sure what to do.

I could chase him down, I did once - but during the explanation of what happened and why he is being punished he just looked angry, like he was ignoring everything and internally blaming someone or something else. I don't think anything got through that running doesn't help but rather hurts his situation.

I tried waiting until he has calmed down but he just attempts to avoid me for prolonged periods of time - eventually I go to him and again, it seems like he is making excuses to himself and blaming others, seemingly me, though he doesn't voice it - I'm just going by the anger he shows towards me when he's in trouble.

He is my step-son, I have started having a larger impact on his life about half a year ago. I don't ever discipline him in a physical manner, and neither does his mother. I'm not sure where the running comes from. I also usually let his mother do any disciplining, it just seems more effective. I personally have only had to do it less than a handful of times.

What is the correct way to handle this, both for the case where he's not really in trouble and the one where he is? Should I let him calm down or give chase for immediate consequences of his actions? Is he actually hearing me, or do I need to use a different strategy to reach him?

6 Answers 6


It's fairly simple why he does it: kids don't like getting into trouble, and his avoidance method works because it delays his consequence and there is no additional consequence for running away. Kids will adjust their behavior to fit the permissiveness of the adult in charge. Do you remember in school there would be some classes where the students would misbehave a lot, then the exact same students would be super quiet the next period with the "strict" teacher?

Kids base their responses on their past experiences with an adult. If they don't have much experience with a particular adult, they will extrapolate from similar situations, which might mean he is reacting to you based on past experience with his biological father or other previous suitors.

I remember one time we were vacationing at a relative's house. I asked my kids in a nice tone to please clean up the toys and get ready for nap time. They promptly and cheerfully did so. The relative asked his kids the exact same thing using the exact same tone and wording, as if to prove a point. They vehemently complained, then ignored the request.

What that relative missed is our requests were not identical. Mine carried the weight of many past experiences where the only response I accepted was the prompt one, and I rewarded that promptness by making it a cheerful game, and made non-compliance much more unpleasant than just cleaning up. His carried multiple reinforcing responses that if the kids complain and don't clean up, they'll get to play for 30-60 minutes longer, and it will only cost some minor annoyance. This is why your wife's discipline seems more effective. It's backed by experience.

More to your specific situation, if you want him to stop running away, first and foremost you need to ask him to stay. If he doesn't, there needs to be additional consequences for the avoidance tactics. It takes time, repetition, and consistency to get those sorts of ground rules down about the discipline process, before you'll be able to just focus on the actual behavior.

  • 2
    I would put the last paragraph in bold, but that's all I'd change. +1
    – user11394
    Apr 9, 2015 at 18:00
  • +1. He needs to know things will be worse for him if he does not do the right thing
    – gillonba
    Jun 30, 2015 at 19:06

DD, could he be trying to express a feeling that you don't have a parent's right to discipline him?

That would explain the apparent resentment he's showing.

It seems like you and his mum might - consciously or subconsciously - share that feeling, as you say that it's almost always his mum that disciplines him.

I'd suggest that you and his mum sit down with him - sometime when he's calm and he's not done anything wrong - and ask him how he does feel about it. Try to get to the root of what feeling he's trying to express by running away.

If the issue is that he feels you don't have a parent's right to discipline him, then it could help for you and his mum together to take the approach that when she's not there, you're disciplining him on her behalf. I.e. that you're disciplining him in a role more like that of a teacher or a childcare worker - who has the right to tell him what to do in spite of not being his parent - rather than that of someone usurping (from his point of view) the role of father.

Here's a psychologist's view:

Primary responsibility for parenting should be left to the biological or responsible parent. Children who have lost one parent don’t want to lose another. Children will naturally seek the support and help of a responsible adult. But they don’t want to share a parent with another adult. A couple should begin to co-parent equally when they formalize their relationship and make a commitment to each other and members of the family. This commitment, when accepted by a child and supported by other family members, will provide a helpful structure. Over time this will enhance a child’s emotional and psychological well being.

Co-parenting requires cooperation between the responsible parents and it requires consistent discipline. Blending a family is not easy. Some children will test the relationship between a man and woman. They will break the rules, ask for exceptions and challenge parents to make a choice between them and the other parent. Children need guidance, instruction, training, choices, consequences and supervision. These are roles that any caring and responsible adult can provide. Regardless of the approach to parenting, couples should never threaten the bonds between a parent and their child.

Parenting In Blended Families, Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

Here's some excerpts from an article on the subject:

Be mindful of your expectations. When blending a family, everyone has expectations. Unspoken or unrecognized expectations can set you up for conflict. Your spouse/partner may expect you to discipline their child at times, but their child may not be expecting that. Now who’s caught in the middle?

You may be expecting your stepchild to love and respect you. That child may be feeling confused or insecure and actually behave in a way that communicates the exact opposite.


Agreeing on how you will discipline your kids—and coming up with a plan together—is a good way to go about getting on the same page. Many families have a system where the biological parent will discipline his or her own child, with the stepparent’s support. This works as long as the two of you agree on a fair method of discipline for all kids.

But remember, all families are different and have different needs. One stepchild we saw in therapy actually complained about her stepfather never providing any discipline for her. She felt he favored her half-brother over her because he would discipline his own son, but avoided giving her consequences or setting limits with her. Although this is a rare case, it brings up the importance of finding what works best for you, your spouse and your stepchildren. Communication between you and your mate is essential for a successful family, in any situation.

Stepchildren Making You Crazy? 5 Ways to Manage Conflict in Blended Families


In situations like this I tend to let it go and focus on something else. Disciplining is easier when he accepts it, while he is seemingly running away from. Disciplining comes easier when he has more respect for you, then he will accept it more. Respect must be deserved in a personal relationship.

I would try showing interest in what he is doing before a situation like this starts. I know you can't look into the future. But give him more attention on a regular basis. He probably feels uncomfortable in some way. I don't know how long you have been together. You say that you usually let his mother do the disciplining. That gives me the idea that you haven't been together for years.

Now he has to deal with your presence, and he apparently doesn't know so well how to (in certain situations). If you build a stronger bond, that will become much easier. He will naturally have more attention for you when your relationship is more intense/intimate. The initiative for building a better relationship has likely to come from the adult. A child is more responsive than strategic in my perspective. So when you show genuine interest in his world he will just respond positively.

I'm not saying you don't care enough about the boy, don't get me wrong. What I am saying is that you don't seem to know how to deal with him in certain situations. When your relationship is stronger that will become more naturally by itself, probably solving the problem/question of yours 'automatically' because you are transcending it with something greater: love.

To summarize: Put more work in loving him (playing, showing interest, do something together, etc.) and your problem/question will be solved.

  • I'm not sure you can really say that 'having a stronger relationship' will lead to 'your son not running'. This doesn't really make sense to me. I have a very strong relationship with my toddler and he runs all the time...
    – Joe
    Apr 9, 2015 at 14:21
  • @Joe, I think Mike means that if OP has a stronger relationship with his step-son then the step-son will be more willing to engage in emotional issues with him, rather than seeking to evade the conversation.
    – A E
    Apr 10, 2015 at 16:54
  • 1
    Perhaps what he means is that the positive experiences need to outweigh the negative ones by a wide margin in order for more trust to be built.
    – Huns
    Apr 11, 2015 at 21:23

If he's breaking a toy by doing something on the wild side, he's probably out of control at that point, I'm guessing. Out of control emotionally, that is. This isn't particularly surprising for a seven year old; it's more common in my kids' age (2 and 3) but seven year olds still sometimes get out of control.

When you're out of control, and then something bad happens, you get nervous and stressed. Did you ever have the experience of your toddler laughing after hurting you (or seeing you get hurt)? Really irritating, because you think they're laughing at your pain. They're not: they're just nervous, and it comes out in different ways. Laughter, running, throwing themselves away from you, they're all stress responses.

While it's possible your son is running away to avoid punishment, I suspect that doesn't really work very well, and by his age he knows it. To identify if this is the case: talk to him. My three year old can tell me why he's done something about 1/3 of the time; I suspect by 7 it should be nearly 100% of the time, if he knows the reason. He probably doesn't realize it's a stress response, but if it's actually being scared of punishment, well, that should be easy to find out.

The best way to deal with this in my opinion, assuming you are in a safe place (not in the middle of a museum or a park or on a street - in those cases, address safety first!) is to let him wear out a little bit and burn off the stress. Then whatever consequences apply, same as before. You shouldn't add additional consequences unless they're natural ones - ie, if he's wasting time getting ready in the morning and this makes you closer to being late, he probably will lose the last bit of playtime or the choice of what toy to take in the car, because the time was lost - but in general, punishing your child for having emotions and dealing with them in a relatively nondestructive way is counter-productive.

While he's running about, if the time is not an issue, just be quiet and wait for him to calm down. It will happen. If time is an issue, remind him of the reason it's an issue, and what he's going to cost himself by running around. Otherwise, wait it out, don't try to stop him; let him learn how to manage his emotions by himself. When he's calm, you can talk to him about how to handle situations like this; but not until he's completely calm and removed from the situation.

This isn't quite as related to the question, so I wanted to separate it out. This sort of thing is (for some children) an inevitable outcome of punishment-based discipline. You know you did something bad, and you now are awaiting punishment: of course you're stressed and nervous. Focusing not on punishments but on teaching self-discipline, even at a young age (like my children, 2 and 3), leads to less stress in situations like this - because you aren't awaiting the fall of the hammer, but instead know Dad is going to help you learn how to handle the situation you didn't handle very well. The child still ends up in stressful situations sometimes - but hopefully fewer, and hopefully he learns how to handle them better over time if that's the focus rather than punishment.


This is very long. I apologize, but the subject is complex and I don't want to leave necessary details out.

Before you mentioned being his step-father, I knew why he was running away: He feels provoked. (I just didn't know what he was being provoked by.) The emotional stress of being told what to do by you is so offensive to him that he has no choice but to get away. You will probably find it much easier in the long run to switch to a very different set of tactics.

First, I need to define "authority"/"authoritarian" in the context I use here. Not every "authoritarian" is an ogre who uses intimidation and corporal punishment to solve every problem. I think most aren't, actually. To me, an example of authoritarianism is the scenario in which the child does something the parent disagrees with, and the parent lectures or otherwise corrects the child, as a superior to a subordinate. The difference in power is a key element, and an undertone that pervades the encounter. In other words, it's not a negotiation. During these interactions, the parent's mind is set up to issue one-way communications, and not to listen. If you remember back to when your parents have scolded you over various things - if you can recall them talking in a way that may have cowed you, and certainly didn't invite a calm, rational debate - that would be one example of the authoritarian conflict resolution approach.

Unless you were there in his life from early childhood, he will not accept you as an authority figure unless you have some exceptional emotional bonding experience. (Unless there's an erupting volcano for you to rescue him and his mom from, this is highly unlikely. Situations you will encounter in everyday life don't carry the right emotional context to rewrite those settings in his mind.) This is not a willful, conscious decision, but the result of hard-wired circuits in his subconscious mind; he has no choice in the matter and is simply acting according to impulses he can't understand or control. He believes them for the same reason that you believe your own impulses, e.g. "I love my wife" or "I hate the Steelers" (supposing you do): your subconscious mind tells you so, and you believe it automatically. As an adult, you can understand this, and modify the process a little from time to time. As a child, the part of his brain that needs to be online to understand this isn't fully online yet and won't be for some time.

He will reject the idea of you exercising authority, and he will hate you if you try to force the issue or get his mom to force the issue. He sees you as an interloper; he has to do what mom says, but who the heck is this guy? Mom married him, but he's just some dude to me. He isn't my dad just because Mom likes him.

If he remembers his real father, trying to exercise authority will only make things so much the worse. To this boy, your exercise of power over him makes you a bully. Believe me, I had friends growing up who constantly fought with their step-parents, who never "got it" that they were operating according to a perceived bond that wasn't there.

The upshot is that you have to give up on the idea of him ever accepting you as an authority figure just because you happen to be married to his mother. That is not a sufficient condition. I don't mean that you shouldn't try to stop him if something terrible is about to happen. I also don't mean that you shouldn't be in charge when your wife is away and you have to look after him. However, authority is not something to rely on.

I would sit down and have a conversation with your wife. Tell her what I told you, that this is mostly about a bond that your arrival was too late to create. The paradigm of "I'm the man of the house and you will obey me" will not work; you cannot earn someone's trust by subjugating them, and what makes him feel compelled obey his mom is not going to work in your case. It can't; the psychological layout of the human mind doesn't support such a conversion at all.

You and your wife will need to come up with a way for you to interact with him that isn't predicated on authority. In a way, this is a good thing. Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to have more shrill, brittle thought patterns. They tend to be more demanding, more unreasonable, more insistent that everyone has to comply with their whims, because this is what authoritarianism teaches. Believe me, I know. It has taken years to revise behaviors I learned in my own upbringing, which was often authoritarian.

Many parents default to authoritarianism because that's easier than trying to explain, and possibly losing an argument that would make them look ineffectual - and also because they allow themselves to become upset, which doesn't exactly motivate a calm, rational conversation. I don't know how many times that happened when I was growing up. Hundreds? Thousands? I could've done without the need to un-learn all those behaviors. I've been working on it for over a decade and I still have a long way to go. Imagine if your son was completely spared this, and entered adulthood with the skill to resolve his issues with words rather than authority and so much stomping around. You'd be doing him a huuuuuge favor.

Despite the difficulty of learning new ways to parent, I would argue that it's worthwhile to figure it out. Children raised by parents who use reason instead of authority learn to see multiple points of view automatically. They learn that being reasonable and thinking about others is a better way to get things done, than to yell and stamp their feet and insist that everything has to be done their way. In fact, if you do this well enough, you may find that there are times he'll come to you instead of his mom. He'll know that you're on more equal footing with him, if not exactly equal. You'll stop him if you have to, but only after trying to reason with him. He'll know that you won't pull rank on him the second things get mildly difficult, which unfortunately is a mistake that many parents have unwittingly copied from their own parents. He'll see you as someone who's willing to leave him the hell alone about things every now and then, to let him make a mistake from time to time without making a big deal about it. I can't begin to tell you how valuable that is.

Every time your son cuts up and you give him that look, you reinforce that sense of being provoked. You trigger his emotions; the running behavior is brought on deck because his subconscious mind knows it'll be needed very soon. Don't trigger him. If you feel yourself getting upset, don't just follow the same pattern you always do. That won't help either of you. Redirect your exasperation into a purposeful plan of action. You'll find it difficult at first, and you'll want to revert to the old behaviors. Don't revert. If you do, figure out what triggered that reversion and remember it the next time you feel yourself about to revert again. Over time, you'll get better at it.

Think in the long term. Use cause-and-effect thinking. The more you do this, the more the old habits of sighing and putting your hands on your hips (or whatever you do that triggers him) will fall by the wayside... and he will appreciate the hell out of you for growing in this way. He won't expect it. It'll be head-and-shoulders above his wildest dreams. His friends who have step parents will gape with jealousy when he tells them about how you treat him.

Now, I'm aware that this may sound somewhat flowery and idealistic. There are hard parts, one of which is figuring out the edge cases. When do you step in and throw your weight around, and when do you reason with him? What's worthwhile to reason with him about, and what doesn't require your correction? If he breaks his toy, you don't have to chastise him; you can just say, "Dang, that really sucks." The toy being broken is already punishment - it does suck. You don't have to make it worse; if he expects to break toys and have you replace them, don't do it. He'll eventually learn from the consequences if they're reasonable, and not something that's forced down his throat.

You will probably mess this up a few times. Don't let yourself slip back into authoritarianism and displays of exasperation. It will be tempting, but if you want to be more than a houseguest in his life, that's the direction you have to go in. You and your wife can figure it out.

Good luck. I wish I'd been raised by people who cared enough to reach out and ask questions like these, rather than just shouting and arm-waving and punishing any time something went wrong.

PS: Whoever downvoted this, will you post a comment about why? If you think I got something wrong, I'd really like to know what it is. I like to learn, so let's talk about it and maybe figure something out, okay?

  • 1
    I think there is some good advice in your post, but most of it is arguing against authoritarian parents, which I'm not really trying to be - I'd prefer to talk to him about it, but he runs - I don't (usually) get upset when he does something, I don't give him that look, I keep a very straight face. You might still have a good point though, it might be that the trigger is simply that he doesn't know what I'm thinking, and assumes the worst. (also, I'm not the downvote - I'd assume its just because of the length of the post) Apr 9, 2015 at 15:14
  • I should have been more specific about what I mean when I speak of authoritarianism. I think a lot of people have different views on what would qualify. I will edit the entry right now.
    – Huns
    Apr 11, 2015 at 20:48
  • OK, I put in a paragraph to explain myself better. Re: triggers, you have to be meticulous about this. His subconscious will pick up on the tiniest things, things you wouldn't think about. The slope of your shoulders, the tilt of your head, some tiny variation in how you inflect your voice. It's even sensitive to places - if he was scolded in a place before, he may expect to get it again just because he's near where he was then. Just remember, when he seems to be "making up reasons to hate you", that's secondary - a response to the emotions. The emotions are what have to be fixed!
    – Huns
    Apr 11, 2015 at 21:09

Use real consequences immediately and every time he does it. All this ' try to understand him" is bologna. If you're an adult who's responsible for him, discipline him. If his mom has a problem with it, she should stay a single mom and raise herself an asshole. You're a parent, not a friend. He doesn't have to understand that running off is unsafe and disrespectful in order to obey you. He certainly doesn't have to like you. It's perfectly fine for him to have feelings. It's your job to make him learn how to behave in spite of his feelings.


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