Parenting Q & A- Autism, sleepovers, stepparents

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By Gregory Ramey, PhD, child psychologist at Dayton Children's and Dayton Daily News columnist

Edition: April 6, 2008 | Topic: Questions from readers


I saw a commercial on TV about autism, and it seemed to describe my daughter. I’ve had concerns about her since she was about 9-months-old. She is a year and a half, and she does not seem to be getting better. My friends reassure me that her behavior is normal, but she is so different than my two older children. Can autism be diagnosed at her age?


Autism is a very serious developmental disorder characterized by significant problems with social interactions, communication and manifestation of repetitive and stereotypic behavior. Autism is most always evident by three years of age, and frequently can be identified in youngsters your daughter’s age. Speak with your family physician about your concerns. If you have any doubts about your daughter’s development, request a referral to a developmental pediatrician. Early identification is absolutely critical in helping these youngsters, so please act soon.


My 8-year-old daughter seems terrified to spend the night for a sleepover at anyone’s house. She does well in school, has many friends and seems to be a normal, well-adjusted little girl. However, we have pressured her on several occasions, but she ends up calling us late at night to pick her up. Do you have any suggestions about how we should treat this problem? I think she is missing out on many fun times because of this fear.


Unless you have other concerns that her fearfulness is related to any other problem, I suggest you do nothing. Sleepovers are very popular with some children, with youngsters as young as 5- or 6-years-old spending the night at friends’ homes. What is fun for some is fearful for others. I see no need to pressure your daughter into sleepovers if she’s not comfortable being away from home at her young age.


I am concerned about my 8-year-old stepdaughter. My husband and his ex-wife have been divorced for about four years, and the child’s mother does not like the fact that I am in her daughter’s life. The mother hardly ever sees her, but when she does it seems to have a negative effect on my stepdaughter. After her visit, my stepdaughter can be verbally aggressive, and sometimes physically aggressive with her younger sister. I know she is holding a lot inside, and we’re not sure what to do.


Divorce can be a very traumatic experience for many children. Remarriages can be a source of either comfort or conflict with these youngsters. Children typically form good relationships with their stepparents, which can leave youngsters feeling confused. They are uncertain whether their love towards a stepparent represents a denial of their feelings for their biological parent.

There are a couple of things you can do to help.

First, while avoiding pressure, encourage your stepdaughter to talk about the situation. Help her understand that her heart is big enough to love more than her biological parents, and that her commitment to you doesn’t represent a denial of her love for her biological mother.

Second, clearly distinguish between her feelings and her behavior. Even though she may be confused or upset, such feelings are not an excuse for her aggressive behavior toward her sibling or anyone else. When such inappropriate behavior occurs, don’t excuse it by making reference to her emotional turmoil. Deal with it as you would manage any other misbehavior.

Finally, try to maintain a positive relationship with her biological mother. You don’t need to be close, but you do need to communicate for the benefit of your stepdaughter.

If problems persist, counseling can be very helpful in these situations.

Dr. Ramey Gregory Ramey, PhD, is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at The Children's Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit and join Dr. Ramey on facebook at

©2010 The Children's Medical Center of Dayton. Columns may be reproduced with the permission of Dayton Children's.


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