How to Deal With the Problem of Misbehaving Step-Children

Answered by Ustadha Rukayat Yakub

Question: Asalaaamu Alaykum,
My husband lost a custody case of his daughter.  Unfortunately, with her mother she is exposed to marijuana and alcohol use, cursing, anger issues, she doesn’t attend school regularly and many other issues.
The transition for my stepdaughter back to our household is difficult if we only see her a weekend here and there.  We do have a bond with each other.  But when she is home with me and my son I have to deal with her bad behavior and my husband doesn’t because he is at work.

According to our religion is it wrong that I don’t want to take on that responsibility?  I fear that she will be bad role model to my children.  But I also feel bad for feeling this way.  Plus, I am really hurt and it’s hard to be invested in someone and it all backfires over and over again.  Please, help me do the right thing.  JazakAllahayr

Answer: Bismillah

Assalaamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu Sister,

I understand that this is very difficult for you, it is a great task to raise any child, but when you are dealing with even more issues due to being a stepparent, and the home life she is used to, it is even harder. May Allah ta’ala reward you for really trying to make this work.

It seems that there are number of different issue her, so I have highlighted seven points.

1. Getting on the same page
2. Working with your step-daughter’s mother
3. Establishing Ground Rules
4. Behavior
5. Taking Care of You
6. Keeping your step daughter busy
7. Bonding

Getting on the same page

There are two scenarios here, if your husband recognizes the problem then you can do straight into setting the ground rules.  Both of you should separately write out the issues and the positive opposite for each, then compare list.  Then discuss openly and calmly about exactly what the challenges are.  If you need to invite him to spend a couple of days at home with you all, so he can actually see the behaviors mentioned, for many fathers, because they are outside of the home for a large portion of the day, they sometimes  really do not know the behavior of their children, so it isn’t that your husband doesn’t understand or value your concerns, he might just not see it.  Be sure to let him know that you are not blaming him or her, she is just picking up on the circumstances she lives in.  The other scenario would be that he doesn’t recognize the problems.  In this situation calmly state the issues at hand and invite him to spend a day or two with her, and during that time, it might be an idea for you to run some errands so he gets to spend sometime one on one with her.

As a side note, spending some father daughter time is crucial,  if you aren’t already doing this it, this needs to be established, girls really need their fathers, and in her situation, she really needs her dad.  It isn’t necessarily so much about the quantity of time, it is the quality that counts, if your husband is like most brothers he is probably working a job  and working in the community, studying the deen etc so he is probably very busy, but he needs to make time.  Even if it is just 3 hours per weekend where it is just dad and daughter and she has his total attention (i.e. cell phones off) and they do something together, it could painting, fishing, running in the park whatever they both agree on.

We look to the example of the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace.  This is a profound lesson for us, the respect and love he had for Fatima, may Allah ta’ala be pleased with her, is recounted often in the hadith collections.

Working with your step-daughters mother

For your stepdaughter’s sake you (your husband or both of you) need to try to work with her mother to ensure that she has regular visits, she needs consistency. It must be very stressful to not know when you will see your dad. She is 11, and is still quite malleable, even if she may appear to not be, at this age, children still value what their parents say, once she hits 13, this changes and the influence of peers is much stronger.

With regard to her home life, are social services aware of her truancy and exposure to illegal drugs?  Has her father spoken to her school to find out what systems they have in place to deal with truancy?

Establishing Ground Rules

Once you are on the same page regarding her behavior it will, in sha Allah be easier to set some ground rules that the you both agree on.  These are rules she must comply with during visits.  It is true that she didn’t create this situation but she is 11, and she can make choices about the way she behaviors.  She is going through a lot, her negative home environment, general societal influences, living apart from her father, seeing her little brother living with ‘mommy and dad’ while she doesn’t.  I am sure you recognize this, but she needs support, in the form of boundaries and positive discipline.  She needs to know that you both love and care for her, but she MUST follow your house rules.  She is growing into a young lady and needs to recognize that society has rules, and she needs to follow them, whether she is happy or not, where she likes them or not.  Children her age have a natural sense of justice so she knows what she is doing is wrong, but the flip side of their sensitivity to justice, is their preoccupation with injustices done to them, so she needs help realize that her life might not be ideal, but she has to be committed to making the most of it.  Another characteristic of children this age is an eager intellect, so speaking with her to illicit her thoughts is vital.  However before doing on that make sure her and her father are on the same page, as you do not want to send her mixed messages.  Be frank with her acknowledge that things are hard, but let her know that she will be much happier if she does that she innately knows is right.

Identify the rules of the home with your husband, after this I would suggest that you illicit rules from her.  For instance you could tell, your dad an I have identified some rules that will make your stay really enjoyable, I have them written here but I would like to know what you think, you very need to engage, what is termed by some education theorists,  ‘ her reasoning mind’  humor also works well at this age.  So you could make up a fictional character, and give her a scenario, where your step daughter has to establish rules, if she is resistant to this  then you give her the rules you and your husband established.  And let her know that their will be opportunities for collaboration in the future.  .

Behavior

With regard to getting her behavior under control, there is a fantastic book called the Kazdin Method by Alan Kazdin, which was written by a scientist who gathered child behavior data and complied it into a very readable book, it is really good.  I suggest that you and your husband order this book and read it, one of the exercises in this book is highlighting behavior you want to change but identifying the opposite, ‘positive’ trait you want the child to tae on, for instance, instead of having a no shouting rule, you would set a goal for her speech to be gentle or soft.

The book goes into the details of how you get the child to comply.  The main premise is behavior is learned and children like attention, whatever is give attention increases, so if she misbehaves and gets ‘attention’ she will continue in it, so he gives tips for ‘extinguishing’ non-constructive behavior as opposed to enflaming it.  He also breaks down positive behavior into small achievable steps that encourage repetitive good behavior, which leads to such behavior becoming a habit

Seerah and Biographical Sketches of the Sahaba and other righteous men, women and children

You didn’t mention how familiar she is with Islam, but one thing that helps with encouraging positive behavior is stories, stories of the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless hm and grant him peace, his companions and other great people who lived through the ages, if you think it is appropriate for her situation I would tell her stories of the prophets life and the hardship he endured and such stories so she realizes that good people have hard times, this I believe will help her see that she doesn’t have to respond to her life situation with negative behavior.

Keeping her busy

The summer months can is difficult, is it possible to have her enrolled in a camp for part of the day, there are many reputable camps held during the summer and during other vacations.  Holidays.  Perhaps is if she is in camp during part of the day this will give you some time to recharge and give her a creative outlet. If a camp is inappropriate perhaps there is a sister in the community who is a great seamstress, or cook, or painter. Or you know someone who can make math fun, or can teach fun science activities or is a wonderful writer and is willing to let your step daughter spend a 2-3 mornings a week with her learning from her and doing a few chores.

Taking care of you

It is important not to overload yourself, physically or emotionally, duas and spiritual practices such as regularly reciting the duas of the Messenger of Allah, Allah bless him and grant him peace and regular Quran recitation provides spiritual fortification.

With regard to the hurt, sister make firm your intention that you are upholding the bonds of kinship, you are helping this girl discover who she is, it is true that it is really hard when you invest time and energy and see no results, but consider your results to be your intention, daily make dua for her and for your son.  If need be organize a play date or have a sister (or family member) in your community take your son out for part of the time when she visits, to lesson the negative influences, until you  notice a positive change in her behavior.

Another important this is to make Salat ul Istikara while you and your husband are deciding on what to do, once you have both made a decision constantly read Salat ul Hajat and ask Allah ta’ala to assist you in your intentions and give the best outcome for the whole family.

Bonding

You mentioned that you have had some success with this, but I will suggest that you teach her, girls that age tend to enjoy handiwork like crocheting and tend to love and respect people who teach them.  So if she is learning some skill from you, this will preoccupy her mind and hands, and engender love and respect for you.  This is most probably not happen overnight, it will take time, but all the time you put into this, all your intentions are rewarded by the Most Generous, the Most Kind.  Other craft ideas could be making natural lotions, soaps, lip balm, candle making etc, and if she is able to hone her skills and maybe sell some in your community, this will help boost her self-esteem and in sha Allah reduce negative behavior.

I pray that Allah ta’ala grants you ease in all your affairs and blesses your entire family with His Rahma, and that Allah ta’ala makes your home a place of love and tranquility when she is there and when she is away.  I pray that Allah ta’ala blesses your stepdaughter and guides and protects her always, amen and likewise with all our children.  Please take whatever you find in this that may be of benefit and leave any that is not.  Forgive me for any mistakes I have made in answering this question.

And Allah ta’ala knows best.

Your sister
Rukayat

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Rukayat Yakub has a degree in Optical Management from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge, U.K. During her time as a student, she was able to study Tajweed and Aqidah with teachers in Cambridge as well as Fiqh, Aqidah, Arabic grammar, and Sirah in Morocco and Southern Spain. Upon graduation, she traveled in pursuit of traditional Islamic studies in Mauritania with Shaykh Adud and his daughters. Upon returning to the U.K., she taught privately while working as a web developer and business strategist with an educational e-publishing venture in Cambridge. She moved to the U.S. in 2001.

Being a mother of three daughters, she is particularly interested in the use of multimedia in education and in 2006 founded Empowered by Revelation, an educational company which highlights the impact Islam has made on the lives of women through the ages, and the contribution these women have, in turn, made to world history.  She is a student of Shaykh Muhammad Ninowy and resides with her family in Atlanta.