Stepdaughter Disrespectful and Aggressive: What Can We Do?

12/14/2010 09:55 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dear AdviceMama,

My stepdaughter recently moved in with her mom because she disrespected everyone here, especially her dad. She hits him, curses at him and recently broke a picture frame over his arm. If you ask her not to act that way she becomes more angry and does it more. She's only 11. Is there help out there for her? What should we do?

Concerned Stepmom

Dear Concerned,

Your stepdaughter is one hurting child. It would be easy to dismiss her actions as simply the out of control behavior of a little girl who needs to be disciplined; I suspect many readers might just tell you to keep her away or punish her more severely.

But what I know from thousands of hours of listening to people as a therapist is that underneath that kind of rage is tremendous pain. While I can't tell you what, specifically, has caused this kind of hurt for her, it's clear that her acting out is at least in part a result of unexpressed anger that's finding it's way out into the world in the form of aggression.

Here's my advice:

Let her stay at her mom's for now, because it does no good to any of you to let her get away with violent outbursts. But do make sure that your husband -- and you, to some degree -- stay connected with her. He should be sure to call her each day, and to take her out for meals, walks, movies or bowling. The more he nourishes a genuine attachment with his daughter, the less inclined she'll be to rage at him.

Consider counseling. Your stepdaughter needs help getting to the root of her anger, and your husband needs to learn how to help her safely vent her frustrations and sorrow. Given the severity of her aggression, I would strongly encourage you to get some professional help before her impulsivity and mood instabilities escalate as she moves into adolescence, perhaps with more serious implications.

Give your stepdaughter the opportunity to feel seen and cherished by you and her father. Even if she's awful at times, she no doubt also has wonderful qualities that deserve to be acknowledged. If all the focus is on how terrible she is, she'll eventually come to believe that she's, well, terrible, keeping her stuck in the cycle of "proving" how bad she is.

Don't give up on your stepdaughter. As disruptive -- and maybe scary -- as her behavior has been, there is a wounded child underneath the tough exterior. The sweet and real version of her is in there; help her rediscover who she is under the hurt, both for her benefit, and that of your family.

This article first appeared in Susan's Advice Mama column on AOL