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About a year and a half ago I met a woman who was going to school full-time and raising a 5 year old little girl. I really just fell in love with both of them and we all bonded relatively quickly. We spent a lot of time together going on outings and enjoying life together. After about 6 months we began to consider moving in together. We both recognized that things were moving fast, but it felt right and circumstances aligned such that it seemed to make sense. We found a new place and moved in together.

We have been living together for about 8 months. I have committed myself to being a good Parent and partner, and they are both a huge priority in my life. I really want our new family to be happy and to thrive.

The fist month of co-habitation was a little rocky, but we got through it relatively easily. The next couple of months were actually pretty great (in hindsight). However, over the past few months, while my girlfriend and I have grown closer and more connected to one another, my relationship with her daughter has become somewhat un-stable.

She has frequent meltdowns that culminate in her breaking things, stomping around the apartment (wood floors), banging on doors so loudly that the neighbors have complained, screaming at the top of her lungs, throwing things at us and our dog and trying to hit and kick us.

These episodes can last for 30 minutes sometimes and usually happen as a result of either her mom or I asking her to help out with something such as cleaning her room or saying that she can't do or have something that she wants.

Early on, I tended to not get too involved in these situations. I would let her mom handle it, simply because I wanted to focus on building trust and a stronger bond before becoming an authority figure. Her mom does tend to get a little wrapped up in the drama and she is working towards handling these situations with more patience and thoughtfulness. That said, I always support what her mom says and back her up 100%. We are working together on this.

More recently, I have stepped in and have begun to handle more of these situations. Sometimes I'm able to get in front of a meltdown to divert it and other times she seems entirely bent on causing havoc. I never raise my voice or treat her un-fairly. I stick to the original point and focus only on the fact that I am simply asking her to do something or I'll explain why she isn't allowed to do something. That has been my approach thus far.

If she get physical with me, starts pushing furniture around, knocking things over or throwing objects I will tell her to stop and go to her bed to relax. This typically only enrages her further or causes her to out and out mock me. We just can't have a child breaking a bunch stuff in the house, so if she doesn't listen I will pick her up and move her to the bed and tell her that she needs to stay there until she is calm. It is then that she will kick, scratch and hit. Once on her bed, she will jump off it and run around screaming in a piercing tone. It is unbelievably loud! I know my neighbors can here it and one of them has complained about the noise.

I will admit, I am getting frustrated by this. I want to have a calm, loving house and this little girl seems to want the exact opposite (though I know that she really wants love and attention). I spend a lot of time with her doing art projects, playing in the park and building things (she wants to be an engineer, which I'm really excited about). We can have stretches of days that are really enjoyable for all of us.

Lastly, she has never met her bio-dad. The only male role models she has had in her life have been her grandfather who only recently moved to the U.S., a previous boyfriend of her mom's and an uncle or two that she sees periodically.

We did try some family counseling but the emphasis was on play, which didn't seem to address the behavioral aspects. I am completely open to other types of counseling though.

My questions are: What can I do to get this child to treat me with the same respect that I show her, to listen well and to help out? Where should I focus my efforts in terms of bonding, direction and discipline? What kinds of counseling would be most effective in this case?

Thank you.

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    Welcome to Parenting.SE! You have a very thorough question here -- thank you! I hope or community is able to provide some useful advice and ideas for you. – Acire Oct 7 '15 at 20:27
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    I know this doesn't answer your question however this seems like a very normal stage of childhood development (isn't that awful). There's the terrible twos, the the tantrum threes and then 4-5 there continuing to assert their will to see if they can. The best results are going to come from extremely consistent consequences, whatever you choose your consequences to be. – user7678 Oct 7 '15 at 20:49
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    FWIW, I've seen very similar cases happen with birth/biological fathers (myself included). So it may possibly (though not with any degree of certainty) be unrelated to your step- status. – user3143 Oct 9 '15 at 19:48
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This is a pretty common power struggle for her age and situation. The main principle about ending a tantrum is if you want it to stop, there has to be a consequence for the tantrum itself. If you want it to stop rapidly, the consequence has to be rapid. Something like counting to three then taking a toy away, then counting to three and taking another away, until she stops.

I know that sounds more adversarial than you prefer, and you look around at other fathers who can just ask their kids nicely and they will obey, and they might have to add a stern look every once in a while. Or their kid calmly brings up a legitimate objection, which the father takes into account in a cooperative manner.

That's not because we didn't have to do the power struggle thing, but because we resolved it long ago and moved past it (for the most part). Then sometimes new variables enter the picture and you have to do it again. But mostly, if you stick to your guns for a month or two, you can go back to being mister nice guy again.

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    The consequences (in my mind) should be tied to the behavior. Taking a toy away doesn't seem to be related to yelling. If simply punitive is what you're after, though, seems good enough. – anongoodnurse Oct 7 '15 at 22:02
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    Taking a toy away for how long? What demeanor and language should be used to explain this? I don't mean to be persnickety, but would like some insights. The toy thing with my tot unfortunately escalates things, but I haven't tried it with a 5yo. – user11394 Oct 8 '15 at 5:28
  • Ending a tantrum by announcing a punishment seems problematic to me as well - my impression is that a tantrum means the child is overwhelmed and unable to deal with frustration or other negative emotion. Announcing punishment will only add fuel to the fire, I feel. However, direct consequences (such as removing the child from a room full of people) are ok. – sleske Jan 17 '17 at 9:46
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Preface: I faced a situation very similar in details, despite being a biological dad - so there's a chance that you being a step-father isn't a cause/trigger. There's a chance the overall situation causes more stress on her; and I'll cover that as well in #3.

  1. You seem to indicate that the relationship with the child is good outside the tantrums. If so, I would strongly recommend talking to her about this when she's calm and in good mood.

    At 5, she's old enough to comprehend the idea of hurting others. tell her that her actions hurt you a lot - both emotionally ("make me feel bad") and physically ("scratches, bruises, ouchies").

    No guarantee, but she may consciously easily accept that what she did last time was bad.

    This will build an internal foundation for other steps to rely on.

  2. When dealing with the tantrum, always offer her a meaningful choice. My kids' tantrums frequently go quieted meaningfully when they were offered a choice of which parent gets to deal with it (it'll hurt the "other" parent emotionally when that choice is made, especially consistently - BUT, that's what you signed up for when choosing to parent. Sucks to be us :)

  3. Ensure there's 100% consistency of approach with your gf. Never enforce the rules differently (or different rules) from each other.

  4. Part of what triggers this may be her fear of losing her mom's attention/affection.

    This isn't necessarily conscious, so she may have good relationship with you overall - yet have the issue subconsciously. How to deal with that is (imho) a wholly separate question and if you agree it may be of help; I would encourage you to ask a separate question on this site zeroing in on how to help address it. Short short version of my advice is to openly discuss it with her, and keep reassuring her that you're NOT taking her place in mom's eyes/life.

  5. Figure out a safe environment to have her cool down. E.g. a whole room, not just a bed she can jump up from. Many cases, the child simply needs to be alone for 5-15 minutes to work out the tantrum. And before that time, they would be 100% unresponsive to ANYTHING you do/say.

  6. Consider a carrot/removal approach. Establish a consistent reward (something that is minor, can be offered constantly - like a healthy yet luxury snack; or a special "just for good behavior" game - but that can be withdrawn easily without compromizing the child's wellbeing).

    We used - depending on age - healthy "special" snack food; computer privileges; or a "father carousels you around" game for this.

    When the child behaves, they get a star on the wall indicating they trade it in for the luxury by end of day.

    When they misbehave, you take away the star (after counting).

  • Excellent answer. I have also found that just leaving a child alone can help a lot. It's just like with adults - sometimes they just need a few minutes of quiet to calm down. However, if the child is actually feeling lonely / frightened, leaving them alone may make things worse. What I found helpful is to announce you will leave them alone. Then, if they protest, you can stay and console them. – sleske Jan 17 '17 at 9:44

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