Dear Jacque, I have been married now for almost 4 years to a wonderful man. It has been such a hard adjustment to say the least. I have no children of my own but now have a 19 y.o. stepdaughter and 15 y.o. stepson. I would like to put in a question request…Needy teen stepdaughters who compete for dad attention. Everything I find is about adolescent girls in this situation. She reverts back to a child in his presence and does things like want to sit on his lap, hangs on him, gets upset if he hugs/kisses me (literally asks why I get a hug and she doesn’t), calls our house then cell over and over until he picks up, competes in conversation with her brother and myself. Husband enables this behavior by refusing to set boundaries, tucks them into bed, reads bedtime stories, runs his fingers through her hair and cuddles next to her (almost spooning) while we are watching t.v. That one really creeps me out. She’s 19 with a woman’s figure, not a child. She is wonderful girl and we get along great, I just cannot humor this behavior anymore. I have tried talking to my husband but he only gets upset at me and asks me to stop telling him how to love his children. And that I make it sound like something weird is going on, which I try really hard not to. In this scenario, how can I bring up her neediness and his enabling without upsetting him? I am tired of feeling like the second wife when they visit.
Your question is one that many stepmothers have asked me over the years because the relationship between a stepmother and stepdaughter can be extremely difficult.
There are many factors that can play into this relationship. How close is your stepdaughter to her mother? How long was your stepdaughter the only female in her father’s house? At what age did the divorce or death of her other parent happen? Is she well-adjusted overall or is she a troubled girl?
Clearly your stepdaughter feels a sense of competition with you for her father’s affection and attention. Many children of divorce feel a dramatic loss after their biological parents’ relationship ends because they lose time with both of their parents (if it’s a 50/50 split) or with Dad, if the custody arrangement is more traditional and favors Mom. The fact that this girl’s parents are no longer together and she doesn’t get to spend the time she once did with her father is enough to spur the behavior you describe. Even at 19 years old.
Children who have had a traumatic experience early in life (divorce, death of a parent) are often emotionally less developed than their peers. It’s like their growth gets stunted at the point of impact and it takes them a lot longer to catch up. And there’s also something called Developmental Grieving. At each life milestone, children of divorce re-experience the grief of the childhood trauma. Your stepdaughter is at an age that kids typically leave home for college or their own apartment and that can fuel a big of a backslide into neediness.
I’m going to assume in my response that there is nothing seriously inappropriate going on between your husband and his daughter. That said, I do have some thoughts for you:
Build your marriage. When your stepdaughter is not around, make sure you and your husband are connecting emotionally, physically, and spiritually so you have confidence in your relationship. Go out and have a good time. Volunteer together. Build a vision of your future that you can work toward together. Connect every single day by giving each other compliments, holding hands, or kissing each other on the forehead. Your relationship is between the two of you. If you feel solid in your partnership with him, you won’t care that he’s close to his daughter.Tell your husband what you need to feel loved. Ask him how he likes to express his love for you.
Consider your own assumptions. Families have different levels of comfort with physical closeness. Stepmothers often feel uncomfortable with too much physical closeness between their husbands and their stepdaughters. But your level of comfort with your husband’s physical displays of affection is your problem. If you shared blood with your stepdaughter, you most likely wouldn’t be bothered by the closeness because you would be a part of it. But we stepmothers are the outsiders. We are not allowed in. And in fact, as you mentioned in your email, are viewed as the enemy when we are touched by our husbands in front of their daughters. As long as there is nothing really inappropriate going on, then my advice would be to accept that you have a different comfort level and allow your husband to love his kids the way he wants to as he requested.
Send a no-threat message. When your stepdaughter does flare up when your husband touches you in front of her, don’t rise to the bait. Make a joke. Tell her how much her father loves her. Tell your husband to set up a one-on-one outing. Children need to know their parents love them. Especially children of divorce. They are needy. You’re right about that. To help you understand what’s going on in her mind, read Between Two Worlds by Elizabeth Marquardt or Carolyn Grona’s fantastic blog, The Grown-Up Child.
Look at the big picture. You’ve made it through the hell years, my dear. Teen girls are challenging. Now you won’t have to be stepparenting in person as often as you were the first four years since it’s time for your stepdaughter to set out on her own. Lucky you! Instead of focusing on your negative feelings, look at the up-side. You’re now going to have lots of time to continue building your strong marriage. You’re going to have to opportunity to develop a new kind of relationship with your stepdaughter that over time could really feel great. If you want it to.
Take care of yourself. Sometimes, you need to just get away from stepfamily life. Go away for a weekend when your stepdaughter is going to be there. Remind your husband that you’re in this for the long haul and one weekend, or one day or an evening away from the family is not going to be a big deal.
Celebrate what you’ve done already. You mention that she’s a wonderful girl and you get along great. Wow! Typically the girls who are displaying the behavior you’re describing are really challenging for stepmothers because they swear at us, talk back, ignore us, refuse to be in the house at the same time as us…etc. etc. etc. This is a major achievement. Celebrate it! That she has a good heart means that you will be able to move past this in my opinion. She’s going to find her way to adulthood and it sounds like she’ll be the type of girl to thank you for everything you’ve done for her. Well done!