College-Aged Stepdaughter Moves in for the First Time

11 11 2010

Dear Jacque,

In your research and visits with others, have you come across the issue of a 21-year-old stepchild moving in for the first time after 18 years???? She is living with us while going to college part time. My step daughter and I have had a strained relationship for a LONG time. I gave it an honest effort in the beginning, but she and her mom have been best friends ever since she was in elementary school, besides the lack of boundaries between my husband and the ex. I won’t go into all the details of the strain things have been over the years. I just know that my husband is THRILLED to have his daughter living here on a daily basis and treats her like she is a china tea cup. Our 2 daughters get treated like the solid cappuccino mugs by dad. He even acknowledges that he treats her differently. He has much higher expectations of our daughters than his oldest. She only talks to me when I say “Hi” first or if I ask her a question. Other wise, she easily walks right by me without a word, or just leaves the room when I walk in. I am trying to be open with my husband on the issues at hand, but it just ends up putting a strain on us. I feel like I have to revert back to just not saying anything about his daughter, other than to my counselor. Working outside the home, or times when she is gone, has been my sanctuary. Thank you for your time on the website and podcasts. A friend of mine told me about them both, as well as the Stepfamily Letter Project.

Dear Stepmom,

You’re going through what many stepmoms endure during the first years of a new marriage but at a different stage in your life! Thank you for your letter. It’s a wonderful reminder for all of us that the most important thing in stepfamily life is: Flexibility. You just never know what’s going to happen. Once the first years of a new stepfamily are worked through, there are other challenges that will arise. That is the nature of life. How you respond to them is the real question.

In your case, I would go back to the basics of stepfamily development. Even though you and your husband have been together long enough to have two children together, you’re really back in the early stages of stepfamily life since your stepdaughter has never lived with you. Here’s my advice:

  • Work together. I know this is challenging territory for spouses. Dads get defensive. Stepmoms get hurt and angry. It can turn into a nasty cycle. But I believe it’s critical that the two of you work on this together. The Smart Stepmom by Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge has devoted several chapters just to dads. It’s my favorite tool for dads who are having a tough time discussing a child with a stepmother.
  • Understand your stepdaughter. It is not unusual for stepdaughters to move in with their dads at some point during their teens or early twenties. In fact the research about this is pretty incredible. Dr. James Bray saw this in his work, which he describes in the book Stepfamilies.  It is a time in their development when they need a connection with their father. My guess would be that your stepdaughter has some emotional healing to do and that’s why she’s living with you right now.
  • Define boundaries. You have every right to define the boundaries in your home to a 21-year-old girl who has just moved in. Have a discussion with your spouse about the rules. You might have to bend on some and he might have to. But make them the house rules so that they can be upheld by anyone. You might also discuss how long your stepdaughter will be staying with you.
  • Focus on your relationship with your stepdaughter not the rules. You’re not ever going to be a parenting figure to this girl so instead, why not turn on your curious mind? Consider what it’s like to be her. Find out what she likes/dislikes. You mentioned there has always been tension between you and that’s usually due to one party feeling like the other party has taken something away of value or is threatening to. What kind of relationship could you develop with her if neither of you felt threatened?
  • Take responsibility for your responses to tough situations. When my stepchildren don’t say hello to me, I sing out, “Hello!” like I’m living in a musical for the day. It’s so ridiculous that I avoid getting mad and spiraling into toxic rumination (negative thoughts that repeat over and over and over again). And sometimes the kids will say “Hi” back or they will roll their eyes or whatever, but it doesn’t matter as much to me because I kept my body and mind in a calm place (on my good days).
  • Chill out! Have some fun with your spouse. Get a babysitter for ALL the kids and take a night off every single week so you are continuing to build a strong marriage despite the difficulties occurring at home. I MEAN IT. This is tough. You need to have a lot of fun to balance out the hard parts.

Thank you so much for your wonderful question! Hang in there!


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One response

12 11 2010
debbie

hey stepmom with older step coming in…..egad thats awful for you…ive had similar experiences … pls email me if you want more on my story…I would love to encourage you. debbie (stepmum to 14,16, girls)

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