Dear Virginia,

When I met my partner, his daughter was six. I was very happy to have her in my life and we have had two more children together. Ciara is now 13 and lives with us half the time. And she has turned into a monster. There's been constant lying, stealing, the police at the door and, I suspect, drugs. At 13! I dislike her mother, and won't speak to her because I'm sure she's partly responsible for all this. But it's ruining our family life and I am tempted to ban her from the house. What can I do? Yours sincerely, Philippa

Anita Ashford

Do you remember yourself at 13, Philippa? How would you have felt if someone had judged you and abandoned you at that age, when you'd done wrong? Isn't this just the age when she needs support and guidance, rather than rejection? And is rejection the message you want to teach her? That whenever people get difficult or stressful, you just chuck them out like a pair of laddered tights?

And what is all this stuff about how you dislike her mother? You may well not like her, and I'm sure she doesn't like you, but I can't believe she's so loathsome that she doesn't care about her own daughter. And you care about Ciara, too. Or, you did until you suddenly decided you'd had enough. Shouldn't this concern and affection for the child – because this is what she is, a child – at least unite you in trying to help her through a difficult time in her life?

And what about her father? Does he want to abandon her as well?

I'm starting to feel it's no wonder the poor girl is taking drugs if she's surrounded by people who only love her when she's on her best behaviour, and loathe her when she's troubled, distressed or naughty. I think I'd have been driven to taking something to blot out the pain at that age had I been in a similar situation.

It's essential you put aside your dislike of her mother, and that you, your partner, her mother, a teacher at her school and, if you can get hold of him or her, the policeman who has been at the door, and Ciara herself, have a proper consultation about what's going on, and show a concerted effort to get this poor child out of the clutches of whoever has been leading her astray. It might be worth visiting your doctor with Ciara as well. The result might be that she should move to another school. It might mean her living more with her mother, and less with you. It might – and this is a possibility you've got to take on board, whatever your feelings – mean she's got to spend more time with you than her mother. Whatever action you decide on – and remember there are all kinds of drugs helplines you can ring to help you as well – it has to be in Ciara's best interest. By behaving appropriately now to her, you will be setting a good example to your own two children and learning a lot about parenting children in their early teens – a stage your two children have yet to go through.

This girl is part of the family you took on when you got together with her father. You can't keep and love a child only when she's good and sweet and then chuck her out when she's vile. Ciara not a yoghurt that's gone off or is past its sell-by date. Ciara is a member of your family. She deserves to be treated like one.

Ciara needs your help

This girl has been your stepdaughter since the age of six. She has been part of your family, so surely her behavioural problems are not entirely her mother's responsibility now. Even in the most perfect of families, children do go astray at this difficult time in their lives. This is when they need love, guidance and stability more than ever. Whatever has caused her problems they need to be sorted out with both families in an adult way. If you cannot bring yourself to talk to her mother, then your husband must.

You cannot ban her from your house, you are still her guardians and she needs your help. She needs to know that she is as important to you as your other two children, but she must also realise that her behaviour is unacceptable. Talk to her and try to find out why she is acting like she is. Does she feel insecure, bullied, unloved? Tell her that if she continues in this way, you will have no alternative other than to take her to see a child psychologist who might possibly be able to help where you have failed. Knowing that you care might just turn her life around. Don't give up on her, she is a troubled adolescent.

Anita Ashford


Don't give up on her

Your attitude makes me very angry. What you see as a monster, I see as a confused child, flailing around trying to get attention and somehow make a place for herself in fairly difficult family circumstances. You were happy to have Ciara in your life when she was a cute and biddable six-year-old, but now the going is getting rough, you want to wash your hands of her.

You are her stepmother and hence have responsibility to her as a parent. I assume you don't plan to eject either of your biological children if they become difficult when they reach adolescence. And as you hint that her mother may be part of the problem, to leave your stepdaughter in her sole care sounds like the worst of all worlds.

You need to face her problems as a family, and get professional help if necessary. But whatever you do, don't give up on her.


by email

Keep loving her

Your letter reminds me of when my daughter was that age. For two years, it was as though she was possessed and we had no end of trouble at school, with her awful friends and even the police. I still don't know quite what hit us or why. But as she was my daughter, I had no choice but to keep talking to her and loving her no matter what, and we weathered the storm. You have no choice either.

My daughter is now 28, happy, successful, charming and has just become a mother herself. I feel for you, but please believe that your family will come through this, and have faith in the lovable girl you know, deep down, to be lurking under the monster.

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Next week's dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I am 22 and I have just returned from a visit to Africa, where I worked with a voluntary agency. I feel really depressed. The lives of the people there are so desperate and impoverished, and there are so many unhappy people in the camps that I saw, I feel so guilty returning to my comfortable life with my family and then taking up a very good job in the city. I'm torn between continuing a successful career and giving up everything to go back and work with these desperate people. What can I do? I find myself crying every night, I'm so torn.

Yours sincerely, Geraldine

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