11/28/2011 01:38 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2011

My Daughter's Step-Mom Is A Bad Role Model, Help!

Dear Susan,

My daughter's step-mom is a horrible influence on her. She allows behavior like lying and cheating to get away with things at school -- and with her father. What can I do?


Dear Mom,

I know it's discouraging when the effort you make to teach your daughter right from wrong is diluted by her stepmother's influence. But take heart. By holding to the principles you want your daughter to learn from you, she will internalize a set point that will make it difficult to believe dishonorable behavior is acceptable.

Encourage your daughter to talk about what it's like when her stepmother allows her to lie or cheat. Be careful not to make her feel like you're trying to arm yourself with ammunition you'll later fling at her dad. Don't put your daughter in the middle. Just be there to help her untangle any confusion she's feeling around her stepmother's behavior. You can say things like:

"I wonder what that was like for you when your step-mom told you not to tell dad that she wrote an English essay for you. It must've been hard to keep that a secret... even if you were glad you didn't have to struggle to do the assignment."

"When your step-mom lied to grandma about the reason you didn't go to her house for dinner, I'll bet that felt pretty uncomfortable."

"I think it could be pretty confusing when you really want to watch that 'R' rated movie you know I don't approve of... and your step-mom lets you see it."

Ask your daughter if she would like help in talking with her dad about this, without blaming her step-mom. Even if her father defends his wife or denies her dishonesty, it will put everyone on notice that you've identified a problem that's impacting your daughter -- and that you expect them to model responsible behavior with your daughter.

Most important, tell your daughter that even when people seem to get away with lying or cheating, they pay in other ways. Explain that we all have an internal compass that points us in the right direction. When we ignore it to get away with something, it costs us, whether we get caught or walk around feeling guilty.

Thank your daughter for telling you what's going on. Let her know how proud you are of her for being a forthright person. Even if her stepmother fails to be a good role model, with your guidance, and the presence of other reputable adults in her life, she will discern right from wrong.

Yours in parenting support,

Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.