DEAR KELLY: My parents divorced when I was 6, and I have two other sisters. We live week off/week on between our parents, and my dad was a good dad. I wouldn’t call him strict, but he made us help around the house, do our homework and always behave nicely. Then my dad married “Lisa” a few years ago and they had a baby, “Emily.” Everything changed after that.
Lisa had two kids of her own, and they are fine. We all got along well, and there was never any arguing among all the kids or in the family. Until Emily came along. Lisa thinks Emily walks on water and can do no wrong. She’s like the queen of the house, and Lisa does everything for Emily. Emily is 6 years old and thinks that she runs the house, and Lisa lets her. Everything Emily does, Lisa thinks is so cute. Lisa’s whole Facebook page is pictures of Emily and things she did or said. Even Lisa’s own kids think it’s a joke how like obsessed Lisa is with Emily.
My dad has changed, too. He just lets Lisa run the house and has no say in what goes on.
I honestly don’t want to stay at my dad and Lisa’s anymore. Its gotten to the point where when I do go to his house, I just want to sit in my room so I don’t have to listen to Emily whine or complain or cry until Lisa does whatever Emily wants. When I told my dad this (and why I feel this way), he said he would talk to Lisa. The next time I went over there, Lisa was really cold to me and hardly talked to me all week.
I’ve talked to Lisa’s own kids and they feel the same. They don’t like Emily, either, and think she’s a total brat. They act like they like her because they know their mom would get so mad if they said how they feel.
Should I just start to stay with my mom more and just avoid going to my dad’s house? My grandma said I could stay there if I want because she knows what a brat Emily is and understands why we don’t ever want to be there. I’m stuck and not sure what to do.
Dear MM: Little kids are smarter than you think. Emily has learned to play Lisa to get what she wants without any behavior consequences. Smart kid. She really isn’t the one at fault here. She’s doing what any kids her age would do if they were allowed to. She has learned to get her way by behaving poorly. That’s a learned lesson, and she’s only part of the problem in that equation. She may be the queen of the house, but that’s because your dad and stepmother allow it.
If I’m being fair, we need to look at Lisa’s role in your house. Your dad works more so he doesn’t have to be home, so that makes Lisa the disciplinarian when he’s gone. It doesn’t seem right that he laughs about how spoiled Emily is, but his response is to avoid being home and working on Emily’s behaviors. Lisa probably knows that Emily can be bratty kid, but maybe feels overwhelmed with all she is doing at home to run the house if your dad’s not around to help. If he lets Lisa discipline his kids and her own kids, perhaps she’s tired of being the bad guy all the time so she just lets Emily run amok and doesn’t set any boundaries for her. I’m not making excuses for her, just trying to see both sides of the story.
It’s understandable why you would want to avoid your dad’s house, but you’re just following in his footsteps. He’s avoiding his own house, too.
Have you asked to go with your dad to see a counselor? Perhaps having an unbiased third party to help you share your feelings will enable him to examine the choices he’s making at home.
Instead of blaming Emily for being a brat, focus on how you feel at his house. Use words like frustrated, hurt, irritated, angry or bothered. See if he can work with you to set some boundaries on Emily when you are there to make it a more positive experience.
Try a different approach with Emily. Give her positive attention when you’re there. Paint her nails, take her to the park or play a game with her. When she starts to behave poorly, let her know that special time with you will end when she misbehaves.
Being a big sister is an important job. Build a relationship with her and become a role model for her on how to behave. Your role in her life could end up being a very powerful and important one as she grows up.
Kelly Richardson, a Folsom therapist, works with adolescents.