Confused Stepmom with 12Yr Old Who Still Has Toddler Behavior?

Updated on April 15, 2017
L.L. asks from Los Angeles, CA
15 answers

Hello, I've never written in before, but I have received some great insights via this site.
I'm a stepmom of a soon to be 12 yr old girl who is a great kid. But I find her behavior very confusing at times. She still talks like a baby often and pretends to have a lisp and she still carries an old stuffed animal around that she's had since she was a toddler. Today, she spilled some water on the table and even though neither myself or my husband got mad about it, she still pretended to cry like a baby, with full on crocodile tears. This kind of behavior, I struggle with because often she acts completely like a 12 yr old, in her voice, in her body and then she slips into this thing that feels like an act and neither one of us know what to do about it. I've tried talking to her, but she won't open up, so has her father. I've also tried to encourage therapy for her, but my husband thinks her mother should take her since she lives with her primarily. Her parents divorced when she was 6 1/2 and she used to split time between both parents until her mother moved out of our county and has had primary custody for the last couple of years, so we only see my stepdaughter once a month and then 6 weeks in summer & usually all the major holidays. She skypes with her father five times a week when she's with her mom. She & her father have a great relationship, her father & I have a great relationship. I also have a great relationship with her. Unfortunately her mother & father do not have a good relationship. They never speak, only email about the basic travel details. I wish they did have an amicable relationship and could talk about these issues, but neither one of them is open to it. My husband & I sought counselling at various times to help with some of the transition when she moved. We also took her for counselling a few years ago when she was still talking like a baby, but it hasn't stopped. I keep thinking as she gets older, she will start to act her age, but its almost in reverse. She's been asking for dolls (she's obsessed with the "Reborn dolls) I've heard the way her mother talks to her on the phone at times and her mother still talks to her like she's a baby, in a very high-pitched voice and in very sugary-sweet fake way. I find it puzzling. I have been doing my best to have compassion for the situation, but I also do not want to enable this kind of baby behavior. She is growing up, she is very book smart and does well in school, it is concerning to see her behave like this. I've seen her around her friends and she is a totally different person- she is a 12 yr old-with NO baby qualities. Are we being played? Is she really struggling with something-she won't say-but continues to act like this. I find it very challenging and at times very annoying. I have assured her many times we love her and want her to be her true self no matter who she is with, but she constantly slips into this baby thing. What do I do??

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answers from Oklahoma City on

She is normal with her friends so she is doing this because she's learned it's her role in the family to act like this, it's how she has learned to be from her parents.

So, you need to use Love and Logic and let her know that if she wants to interact with you then she needs to talk and act like herself. Then remind her that you've seen her with her friends and know she is a normal kid.

Then when she's acting inappropriately you simply say "When you're able to talk to me like a 12 year old girl I'll be glad to chat with you" then you walk away. Don't get sucked back in. Don't look back, don't say anything else, just walk away.

When she sees you won't be entangled in this she will eventually conform to what you want and act like her normal self.

I would hate her mother, I swear she would get on my last nerve.

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answers from Boston on

I'm a stepmother of 2 girls and a mom of one son. My husband and his ex did not have a good relationship at all, and coparenting was virtually nonexistent. The girls were with her most of the time, and we had visitation probably similar to what you have. The kids are all adults now so Skype wasn't an option. We had to install a phone for just the girls and their dad because his ex didn't want him tying up her phone to talk to his kids. So I think it's great that your SD Skypes with her dad.

As you've realized, being book smart and having good grades has absolutely nothing to do with emotional growth or maturity. Taking her for counseling was an excellent idea, but if it can't be sustained because there's no cooperation between households, I can see why the behavior is going on. But it's not happening with her friends or in the classroom, right? So it's TOTALLY within her control.

I think your SD is doing the baby talk and reactions because she's getting a payoff for it. She gets attention (you talk to her, her dad talks to her) and so on. Negative attention is still attention. Of course it's completely enabled by what you say her mother does with the baby talk. I guess I would prioritize - if she wants to carry around a doll, fine. She may need a security symbol. Transitions from Home A to Home B are tough for a lot of kids. My son (raised with both his parents in a good marriage) still took items from upstairs to downstairs, and vice versa, as some sort of connection to "unite" the sections of the house. So I'd let that go. So if she brings something from one house to the other, let it go. If she wants a new purchase, I'd have her earn the money and buy it herself. If she doesn't have an allowance, you might consider instituting one for doing age-appropriate things with your family, a few chores (making her bed, setting/clearing the table, helping with meal prep, and other tween/teen things). Then she can decide where she spends that money - if she wants to spend it on a baby doll, that's her choice. But then there's no money for other luxuries.

The bursting into tears? I'd ignore it. I'd grab a towel, mop up the spill in a nonchalant way, and move on with the conversation wherever you left off. ("So, as I was saying, I think the weather will be great tomorrow so who wants a picnic in the park?") If she continues to blubber, you and your husband can either both get up and go to the next room to discuss the plans to go to the park, or tell her she can go to her room to collect herself, and you'll look forward to having her back when she's gained some control. End of discussion. Don't keep going on and on - she's getting too much attention for it already. I think you may need to say, "House Rules: no tantrums, no fussing over small things." I would suggest you do NOT say, "You may get away with that in your mother's home, dearie, but not here," as incredibly tempting and true as that may be!

I do think it's okay to say that Movie X or Activity Y are for older kids who can control their emotions. "We can't have that kind of crying in the movie theater, dear, so we'll go another time when you can go all weekend without a meltdown." If she expresses interest in doing something, great. But let her know it's contingent on her behavior. Does she do this out in public at all? If so, I would march her butt into the car (out of the restaurant, out of the museum, whatever) and head home. Same as you would do with a 3 year old. No endless discussion, no analysis...just, "Sorry, that behavior isn't acceptable. We're leaving."

She's going to want privileges appropriate to her age and grade level very soon. You have the control where that is concerned - but ultimately, SHE has control over how much fun and how many privileges she has with you.

Good luck!

9 moms found this helpful


answers from Honolulu on

Maybe her dad could do some activity with her that is appropriate for 12 year olds, such as mini-golf, or something that they both enjoy (fishing? skee ball? making homemade pizza? going for ice cream? going for a bike ride?). And maybe her dad could casually say something like "it sure is nice that you're growing up so we can do these kinds of things. In a couple of years I'll be teaching you to drive! I'm excited!"

Be careful to ignore the baby talk. Don't make eye contact, sigh, or beg her to stop. When she speaks in a normal voice, interact, look at her, smile, chat and respond. Both you and your husband will have to be on the same page with this.

Give her lots of positive attention when she's behaving appropriately, give her hugs, give her security, give her stability, give her consistency. Reward her 12 year old actions with time, attention, interaction and smiles. Learn something new together (how to make a pie, how to sew doll clothes, make a scrapbook, learn sign language online).

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answers from San Francisco on

She's only 12. It's annoying, but better than many other things she could be doing at that age, like running around doing drugs, having sex and failing school.

Ignore it. She will grow out of it. She doesn't need a therapist for this. Praise her when she acts more mature. "I like the way you...."

She's fine.

4 moms found this helpful


answers from Boston on

I'm on the "ignore it" side. My 13 year old son still does some baby stuff too. It's weird to me because his older siblings never acted that way. For example, he still gets kind of pouty and foot-stompy and will yell "baby bear needs a hug!" or he'll yell at his brother like he's 3 or will curl up with a teddy bear and make a big deal about how it's his and no one else can touch the bear. Yet is 13-going-on25 with his peers. He's in counseling for ADHD and his counselor said to just ignore it if he only does it at home. It's sort of a pseudo-regression thing. He's not really regressing to toddlerhood but during a time that they are physically developing into adults, which is a train that they couldn't stop if they wanted to, there is some comfort in going back to a simpler developmental time when they were babied.

3 moms found this helpful


answers from Pittsburgh on

I see 2 options: ignore it completely, or parent as if she's a toddler.

The ignore strategy: Since she doesn't do this at all around friends or (apparently) at school, completely ignore it. I suspect she does it because it gets her attention and if you make a big deal about it, that's just reinforcing that it's a successful way for her to get attention. If she talks in a baby voice, react as if it's a normal voice. Ignore baby crocodile tears completely - don't acknowledge them. Instead, for example in the case of the water, pretend the tears aren't happening and say "Jane, I know accidents happen, it's not a big deal but please go get a towel and clean up the water." When you continually reassure her and talk to her about it, you are rewarding the behavior with attention, exactly what she wants. Why would she stop?

Toddler parenting: When I was parenting toddlers who whined and had crying fits for attention, I would say "I can't understand you when you speak that way. If you need something, please use a normal voice, and then I can answer you." And I refused to get what they want/answer their question until they spoke in a normal tone. And for tantrum tears, our house rule is this: It's ok to cry when you are sad. But, it's not ok to disrupt the entire house, so if you need to cry, feel free to go up to your room, cry, and when you are done crying, you can come back downstairs. There is no crying downstairs (we obviously don't enforce this with real tears of pain, physical or emotional, it's easy to tell the difference).

Whichever strategy you use, both you and your husband have to be completely on-board and consistent for it to work. If you ignore the tears or tell her to cry in her room, but then her dad goes up to comfort her, it will completely backfire.

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answers from Norfolk on

Get her into therapy until she quits it.
Acting like a baby has got her parents attention for at least half her life.
As long as she can push their buttons that way, she'll continue to do it.

This should get interesting when she's old enough for a learners permit in a few years.
"Sorry Dear but babies/little kids can't drive cars. When you are over this, then we'll see about getting a learners permit.".

2 moms found this helpful


answers from Houston on

Ignore it. She is making the decision to act this way obviously since she doesn't do this with her friends.

When she talks like that, just look at her and then turn and go about your business. She isn't stupid. She will figure it out. OR you can say "I don't speak baby. When you can talk like yourself, we will discuss ....." and go about business and ignore her.

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answers from Portland on

I read this with interest. Will look forward to reading the responses from our moms.

My husband's mother acts, talks and behaves like a baby. Her mother treated her like a baby. It was a form of dependence. Her mother wanted her to always need her. Weird, but it worked. Now my MIL also treats her other son like a baby. He is dependent on her, and lives at home in his forties.

I doubt that's what is happening with your stepdaughter - but it is concerning that her mother treats her like a baby.

I'm hoping you stepdaughter is just going through a period of insecurity and has regressed a little bit, and that in time, with encouragement and support she'll grow out of it and realize being treated as someone with maturity outweighs the payoff of acting like a young child.

My MIL's situation was pretty extreme so don't want to alarm you. But I think you're right to want to nip this in the bud.

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answers from New York on

You know, I think I'd ignore it. Clearly she understands (isn't delayed in anyway) that she can't act like that around her friends or at school, so I don't think it is anything to worry about like it is super serious.

My guess is that her mom played "the baby role" with either her dad or other men in her life in order to get what she wanted and your step-daughter is just emulating that. I'd ignore it completely unless she was asking for something in baby talk - then I would let her know that when she can ask like an almost teenager, you would be willing to discuss whatever it is. My guess is by not buying into it, you will get your best results.

Good luck!

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answers from Miami on

Honestly, this sounds like a question for a child psychologist.

Have you thought of video-recording her (without her noticing) when she's doing this and when she act like a normal 12 year old? Also video her mother talking like this to her. Then show it to a child psychologist going on your own.

Summer is coming up. If you lay the groundwork with the psychologist (one you trust, and you should know that before you introduce her to him/her), you could try again this summer during the 6 week time she is with you.

Your husband needs to man up here and stop expecting the ex-wife to do her job here. She is complicit in this problem with her daughter because she doesn't want her to grow up.

And you should make that point clear with the psychologist about the mother, with your video of this IN HAND. It could be that the psychologist says you can't do anything about it until SHE figures this out, starts treating her daughter like a teen and realizes that she's stunting her emotional growth. Until the mother cares enough about this, it could be that the girl with continue...

That being said, the psychologist can give you and your husband good advice about how to act when your daughter acts this way. And THAT may be what she needs most. If you and are on the same page about this, her behavior may get better. That little girl is trying to push buttons and the fact that neither of you know what to do to may be feeding her behavior.



answers from Santa Barbara on

I think it is a good idea to ignore it.

This could be a fun thing between mother and daughter (I agree with annoying), but it may be extra annoying because you see her mother in this behavior and that is the real issue.


answers from Santa Fe on

Just ignore the baby behavior. Because she acts normal around her friends it means she is fine and this is a weird learned behavior she only does around her parents. If it were my child I would make them ask me again in their normal voice anytime she used a baby voice. Don't give her any attention for it. Just be matter of fact about things. At age 12 I was very immature and so was my best friend and we both still kind of wanted to play with dolls and little kid toys. I think we both completely outgrew this a year later. Your step daughter will too...that is completely normal. Tweens are between little kid and big kid in their mind and it's an emotional and trying time.



answers from San Antonio on

With my DD...I tell her that I don't understand baby talk please ask me again.

She is 9 almost 10 and will try and slip that "baby" stuff in every so often if she can...I don't let it fly.

Yours is harder as you don't see her much and are trying to build a relationship with her...ugh!!

I think my daughter wants to still be the baby even though she is growing up. I tell her often she will always be my baby even when she is taller than me and a grown up with babies of her own. But she is my DD and I can tell her these things...what did the counselor tell you to do when she acted this way last time you guys were in therapy?



answers from Denver on

Growing up is a process. My dd is 13 and I found that peer pressure is really the only thing that pushed her to act more grown up.
When we're home alone, she'll still call us "Mommy" and "Daddy", but around friends she wouldn't be caught dead doing that.
Just last year she wanted American Girl Dolls, this year they are hidden away in her closet so her friends don't see them and if they do she says they're "collectibles",
She''ll grow up in her own time.

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