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?

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?

A: The most looming question is whether your brother's molestation was confined to that one sister or whether he has "played doctor" possibly with generations of little girls. At this point, I don't know how much more you can do than keep a close eye on his interactions with the young people in the family and have several of you who know the original story also make sure your brother isn't alone with any of them. It sounds as if your molested sister is still suffering from the after effects of her violation—compounded by the fact that all of you feel forced into jolly family get-togethers. For advice on what to do, I suggest you, and preferably both you and your sister who was abused, contact either the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or Stop It Now. It sounds as if your sister needs therapy to work through what happened and to have a strategy for when she finds herself with her brother. The rest of you need to figure out how to proceed and whether there is continuing danger. Even if a family is close-knit, that doesn't mean you are required to be permanently tangled with someone who makes you ill. But you want to talk this all out with people knowledgeable about abuse and how families react when, or if, these long-hidden secrets are unearthed.

Q. Remarried Dad Upsets Mom: When I was young, my father had an ongoing affair (he is now married to the mistress) that eventually led to my parents' divorce. I don't think my mom ever really moved past it although she is remarried to an amazing man who I love dearly. My father and I have never been very close but have built a cordial relationship in the last few years. I'm not sure how to handle my mother on this, as she blows up whenever she hears about any interactions with my stepmother (dinner, a Christmas party, funerals, etc). I understand that the affair was painful, but they've been divorced for 15 years and she's moved on to a better relationship with a better man and is living her dream life. (I don't know how my stepfather deals with her on this matter; it has to be hurtful to him.) My brother also finds my mother crazy about this but has chosen to generally pretend our stepmother doesn't exist to keep the peace with mom—which I find absurd. How do I maintain my very close and wonderful relationship with my mother while still having one with my father and stepmother? My parents still talk on occasion, so I can't just hide it.

A: Your father hurt her a lot, but 15 years later and living her dream life with a more suitable man, it would be nice if your mother could start thinking, "This all worked out for the best." However unhappy the marriage, it is simply unfair, and very bad parenting, for one parent to try to ruin a child's relationship with the other parent. Your mother is not entitled to dictate how close you are to your father or how warm your relationship is with his new wife. Your father at least is doing you the favor of not trying to harm your relationship with your mother and her new husband. So you need to make some boundaries with Mom, and it would be good if your brother would join you in this. You don't have to rub things in her face, but you can start acting as if it's perfectly normal to see your father and his wife on holidays or at large family events—or even for dinner. If your mother blows up, the first few times you have to say, "Mom, I know your marriage to Dad ended badly, but it was a long time ago, you're both happier with other people, and he's still my father." If that isn't good enough, you have to re-evaluate your "close and wonderful relationship" with you mother because in part it requires your being bullied about your having any relationship with your father, and that's not wonderful. Refuse to listen to her rants or have her dictate who you can and can't see. Yes, this will be hard because you have a long pattern of kowtowing to her emotionally. But it will be better for everyone if you stop. And it sounds as if husband No. 2 must be a saint.

Q. From OP on Molestation Question: Thanks. I'll check into those organizations for sure. I would like to know if I should confront my brother with this knowledge. Also, I am quite certain that he has not molested any other young relatives. He cheated on his wife quite often over the years, but they both seem OK with that, so I've withheld judgment except for thinking, "Yuck." I'm guessing that's how he got his jollies as an adult. Also, I want to let you know that my sister is getting counseling now. She suffers from acute depression and was unable to work last year due to it. Now she has breast cancer. I think the depression may be the childhood trauma surfacing.

A: Talk to the experts, but you have to figure out what you want this confrontation to accomplish, because it certainly doesn't sound as if your brother is going to cop to doing anything more than "normal" childhood playing. Your big, happy family seems to have a lot of dark secrets. (This is a well-noted phenomenon.) It sounds, however, as if your energies should be directed toward helping your sister, not toward trying to get something out of your brother that he is not going to give. It is a relief to think that there haven't been other victims.

Q. When Should I Date?: My wife passed away around January 2012. I am blessed with two wonderful children, a 21-year-old and a 13-year-old. I still wear my wedding ring, and the thought of dating someone feels like cheating on my wife. I am also very nervous about dating. How long should one wait to date?

A: I think you're writing to me because you already know that it has been enough time, and as confused, nervous, and guilty as you may feel—which is all perfectly normal—something in you is saying you're ready to get back out there. Start by seeing what it feels like to put away your ring. This does not have to be something final. Maybe stop wearing it during the work day, but put it back on again at night, if that feels better. But you don't want to go out on dates wearing your ring. That just announces you really aren't ready. Of course you're nervous about dating—you haven't done it in years, and you are only facing it again because of your loss. Tell friends you'd like to meet some nice women. I'm going to guess that they'll have a list of names. Start by having lunch, which has the advantage of being a time-limited event. Be prepared to feel a whole bunch of roiling emotions. But consider if you were the one who died whether you'd want your wife to be alone or to find new love. I'm betting it would be the latter, so accept that you're not being unfaithful to her memory by hoping you can find someone else. That instead this is a tribute to the happiness of your marriage.

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