My Stepdaughter Wishes My Son and I Would Go Away!
My stepdaughter is causing a ruckus in our household. Recently she revealed that she feels like an outcast and wishes that things would return to the way they were before my son and I came along eight years ago. Not only did she post this info on Facebook for all to see (and making my husband look like a bad father, which he isn't), she also called her Nana to tattle on her dad, which is very upsetting to me. My stepdaughter is rude and doesn't even acknowledge me when she is here on the weekend. How do I handle this situation without blowing my top? I have told her that what goes on in this house stays in this house but she is always repeating things to my mother-in-law and dramatizing everything that is said.
Not a Stepmonster
Dear Not a Stepmonster,
I understand your longing to have a peaceful and loving household. When you married your husband and combined your families, I'm sure you had every hope of slowly but surely establishing a nurturing environment for the two of you, and your kids.
But as you've obviously figured out, developing relationships with stepchildren is easier said than done. Most of us know this intellectually, but it's harder to understand the day-to-day requirements that come with merging families until you're actually doing it.
When I'm counseling or coaching a parent whose child has behavior problems, I typically ask them to step back for a moment and imagine that the misbehavior is actually a flashing neon sign, announcing something. The question to ask is, "What is my stepdaughter trying to convey with her rude and detached behavior?" The second question to ask -- and you have to be very open-minded for this to be effective -- is "Why does her behavior make its own kind of sense?"
You may discover that your stepdaughter's tattling and dramatizing is her way of getting someone on the outside -- like her Nana or Facebook friends -- to give her something she doesn't know how to get from her father and you. For the purposes of this example, let's imagine that what she's looking for, at least superficially, is sympathy.
Rather than judging her for wanting sympathy, think about what she believes she would gain from having it. If you look carefully, you'll find that wanting sympathy is often a cover up for not feeling special or wanted.
Given the fact that your stepdaughter has openly declared that she doesn't feel that she's part of the family, it would make sense that she would be trying to drum up attention -- and exaggerate truths -- for those outside the family who might offer her the sympathy she craves.
Focus on finding out, perhaps with the help of a family therapist, what she wishes would happen in the family. What would make her feel included? What's missing for her? What are her gripes and complaints?
Listening to her doesn't mean you agree with what she's saying. But, quite often, stepkids express the kinds of things your stepdaughter is saying (wishing their parent hadn't remarried, feeling like an outsider) because when they have tried to share difficult feelings, their voice was drowned out with advice or admonitions.
Feeling that you are part of a family means that you know your voice is heard, and your feelings matter. If it's been eight years and your stepdaughter is still unhappy, I would urge you to try a different approach.
Controlling what she says to her friends or Nana is not going to address the problem, and it's not a healthy solution anyway. Your efforts are better spent making things feel comfortable for all of you, rather than dictating rules about what she can and can't share with others.
Do you spend one-on-one time with your stepdaughter, focusing on things that she enjoys and is interested in doing? Does she get time alone on a regular basis with her father? Do the two of you -- without your son -- sometimes go out to dinner, or to activities that give her a sense of importance to you both? Or does she feel like a tagalong on outings that are catered to the rest of the family?
Try to address what's behind your stepdaughter's behavior, and get professional help if you need it. In the long run, it's worth untangling this issue now, before things go from bad to worse.
Yours in parenting support,
AdviceMama, 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.
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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.