Help! My Daughter’s Stepfather Belittles Her, and I Feel Powerless to Stop Him.

Advice on manners and morals.
June 17 2013 2:42 PM

Flogging the Issue

In a live chat, Prudie advises a man whose daughter is being verbally humiliated by her stepfather.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Stepfather Shames My Daughter: A few months ago, my 12-year-old daughter stole a book from a grocery store. A security guard caught her, and because the store (thankfully) decided not to press charges, her mom and I handled her punishment. I do not think my daughter will shoplift again, and while I want my daughter to understand what she did was wrong, I don't think it's productive to continue to shame her for her mistake. Her stepfather thinks differently. My ex-wife's husband used to be in the military and is now a cop, and he thinks very poorly of criminals. He continually brings up the shoplifting incident to his friends and his family, and he will discuss the moral demerits of my daughter's behavior. My daughter feels humiliated each time he discusses her crime, and she has begun to think of herself as a bad person. My ex-wife claims she has spoken to her husband about how much he discusses the shoplifting incident, but by and large, nothing has changed. I have deep concerns about my children's stepfather, and I'm not sure how to let my ex-wife know how serious I am about this without starting a major feud. What steps should I take next?

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A: It sounds as if you and your ex handled this situation very well, but it can't be put to rest because the Great Santini of a stepfather keeps psychologically bashing your daughter. I'm wondering if the incident itself wasn't your daughter's way of acting out against this judgmental, punitive person in her life. I agree you're in a delicate situation since attacking the person your wife has married is bound to not go over well with her. I think you should discuss this with a counselor who specializes in stepfamilies. You need some strategy for dealing with the stepfather and particularly for helping your daughter. She likely could use her own counselor to help her sort through this situation. If things get bad enough, you may need a legal strategy for getting primary custody. You need to make clear to your daughter that you don't like what her stepfather is doing and saying, you want her to be able to talk this out with you, and you will do your best to try to bring this up with her mother. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone is being bullied by the new stepdad.

Dear Prudence: 7-Year-Old Holy Terror

Q. Unwanted Comments: I have a skin condition that causes me to look really red, like a bad sunburn. I've talked with my dermatologist, but unfortunately it's incurable with no treatment options. Sometimes if I'm really stressed or if I've been physically exerting myself, it flares up, and I'm loathe to go out in public. I've had complete strangers go up to me and trumpet, "Wow! Your face is really red! I mean, REALLY red!" I try to brush it off by saying, "Well, that's what I get for taking a cruise ... " However, last weekend I was shopping with a friend when an older man came up to me to (loudly) comment about how red I was. He even called his wife over to look! I uncharacteristically snapped and swore at him, calling him things I can't type here and getting in his space until he quickly slunk off. To be honest, it felt good to let him know what I really thought of all of these awful comments! My friend was shocked at how rude I was and told me that I shouldn't have done that. She knows about my skin condition and has heard the comments before, but when I told her he deserved it and I was sick of being polite, she told me she had to go and left the store. Prudie, I'm so sick and tired of these comments. I'm also upset that my friend doesn't understand how embarrassing and frustrating it is to have people constantly commenting on my appearance. What should I do?

A: It is truly astounding that strangers think they have a right to invade the privacy of those with unusual conditions or disabilities or who have children of a different race, etc. Over the years I've had many questions from these beleaguered troops on how to deflect nosy strangers. The most helpful advice has come from others in the same circumstance, who often advise quick disengagement. Simply walking away can be the best strategy. That way you have underlined the rudeness of the inquiry without the emotional cost to you of engagement. Others have suggested a quick, "Excuse me, I don't talk to strangers." But the key is to have a go-to response that allows you to deflect the inquiry and get on with your day. I totally understand that on this occasion this man was so rude that he flipped a switch in you that caused you to make a scene. However embarrassed your friend was, surely she should have been appalled by the crudeness of the man who insulted you, and she should have understood that sometimes things are just too much and we snap. Of course, you don't want to make a habit of letting fly, but if giving this guy the business this one time gave you a sense of relief, then he sounds like a particularly deserving recipient. Now that things have calmed down, you could reach out to your friend and explain that being pointed at like a circus freak simply made you snap and that you're sorry she had to witness a scene that upset her. If she isn't understanding, then she's not much of a friend. I'm also wondering, however, how much of a doctor your dermatologist is. Of course he or she may be right and there may be simply nothing to do about your condition. But I think this requires a second opinion to make sure you are not missing out on any possible new treatments. I also think you should look into temporary cosmetic fixes. There are skin foundations that are used to cover birthmarks that may be a good solution for you. You say your condition is sometimes so bad you don't want to go out in public, but it's terrible to feel constricted that way. It could be with a few minutes of cosmetic art, you could much more confidently blend into the crowd.

Q. Incest: How do I interact with my brother and the extended family who treat him as a hero (he was in the military) when I recently found out he molested my sister as a child? He was 14 and my sister was 11, I was 10. Long story, but I heard a rumor from another sister and confirmed it with the one who was molested. He brushed it off as "playing doctors." My sister has had a long relationship of fear and strange reactions regarding him, which now make sense. She is 54 and he is 56 now. We are a large close-knit family, share a family camp, gatherings, etc. Funny, but I always kept him at a distance even when younger. I didn't trust him. He always teased us in a way I thought was cruel. He is a nice enough guy now; served his country in the military; has a wife, children, and grandchildren. What do I do with this information? Do I bring this out in the open? Confront him privately?