Your Questions Answered: Traveling with Stepkids

27 05 2010

Hi Jacque,

First off, I want to thank you for the wonderful resources you are making available to women around the world like me. Reading your book and listening to your podcasts have given me very important support and wonderful perspective on becoming a stepmom.

I’ve been dating my partner for over a year now and moved in with him about 7 months ago. He has 2 beautiful children from his first, 6 year long marriage who stay with us most weekends and on holidays. After listening to some of the horror stories you retell, I know that I am very blessed in our situation. The kids have really opened up to me and like me (their mom does not discourage this) and my partner is a great, strong parental figure who tells them how important I am in the family, is not afraid to discipline, and is a great communicator, both with me and the kids. Of course I’m worried about the teenage years (only a few years away), but I know that working as a team we can handle it.

BM has been difficult over the last few months, as she seems to be in a less stable and satisfied frame of mind. She is quite controlling and judgemental, and doesn’t usually listen to reason, as she considers herself the authority on everything. She’s living with another woman now, although the kids do not seem to be informed if this is a relationship or a friendship and we’re just going with the flow, as it’s not our place to comment on what’s going on in that home. Perhaps you have some pointers on how to handle delicate situations like this, and what to say if questions arise?

What I’m most concerned about, however, is a big upcoming transition, and how our blossoming (still young) step family will adjust. I’m going back to school to get my masters and because my school is across the country my partner and I (and the kids) will have to do the long-distance thing for 2 years. I’m committed to him and we’ve talked it through- he can’t come with me because of his job and because he wants to be close to the kids. I’m not as worried about him as I am about the kids- how they may pull away from me because they see that I’m leaving them, that I’m hurting their dad by being far away, even though I need to take this next step for my career and myself.

Do you have suggestions for things I can do to better prepare them (and all of us) for this transition? To make them feel safe about it and to know that I’m still there for them, even though I’m far away? What are potential stressors and pitfalls we should be aware of that will affect our relationships- both my partner and I and our whole family? Also, suggestions for smart ways to plan our special holidays and times together in between school so that BM doesn’t freak out if we want to travel with the kids?

Thanks again for all the virtuals support and advise. It’s been so helpful over the last several months and I look forward to more podcasts to come.

Dear Stepmom,

It’s fantastic that the kids’ mom has not discouraged them from opening up to you. This is a BIG DEAL. You didn’t mention how old the children are, which does impact my response some. But I’ll give you my general thoughts. First of all, how you will all handle the children’s questions about Mom’s new partner should be discussed by all the adults if possible. Or at least your boyfriend and his ex need to have that discussion so you’re all on the same page. There is a book you might take a look at as a resource: Families Like Ours by Abigail Garner talks about what it is like for kids to be raised by a gay parent or parents. It’s a wonderful resource.

As to your long-distance relationship, you’re right to be concerned. This will impact your bonds with the kids and your partner simply because you won’t be physically around. We have lovely new technology that will enable you to keep in touch (skype, ichat, etc.,). If you want to stay connected you might set up skype calls every week with the kids just to check in with them and see how they’re doing. Write them letters. Stay in touch and stay as present as you can in their lives despite the distance. My advice is the same for your partner. Use the time apart to get to know each other even better through your conversations.

Traveling with the children is something that your boyfriend should also discuss with his ex so that it is not a surprise. Sometimes exes have to provide each other with a letter in order to travel with the children. Find out now what she will be comfortable with and you can then plan what you’ll have to do. I would be prepared to do all the traveling to them for a while just in case the ex is not okay with having them leave.

Since you are a relatively new stepfamily, rest assured that the comfort level with things like travel often changes over time as everyone gets to know everyone else and learns to trust each other’s intentions with the kids.


Your Questions Answered: How much is my job?

27 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I just found your great website, and will pick up your book today. Thanks for this service!

I have need some advice, so I thought I would write in. First a little background – we’re all a mess: My husband and I have full custody of his 11 year old daughter. We’ve been together since she was 9 (not long), and my husband has had full custody since she was 6 (Mom left). Mom is local and has visitation rights. My SD sees her most weekends for all or part of the weekend. Mom has health problems that got significantly worse last year: blood disorder, for which she takes the chemotherapy pill, and problems with her feet and back. She uses a walker and wheelchair, and was told recently that she will never walk again. She is now on disability. I’m 38, with no living children of my own. We were pregnant with a baby girl last year, but I missed carried at 20 weeks. Shortly before losing the pregnancy, I was also laid off from my job. And my change of lifestyle has resulted in losing some friendships. So I’ve been home with my stepdaughter full-time for the last year, managing our day to day life – homework, dinner, soccer mom stuff, etc., plus doing a little freelance work, and also going through a big grieving process of my own.

SD has been acting out a lot – of course! The last year has been very hard on all of us. And she has the teen years looming. She lies, sneaks stuff, whines, talks back, and is super emotionally manipulative. She puts little effort into chores or studying. When we ask for an attitude change or call her out behaviors that are impacting her grades, she cries and asks us what right we have to judge her and be mean to her (!). She accuses us of not loving her. We get the cold shoulder, the eye roll, the arguing, etc. Basically she cannot handle any discipline or critique without melting down. And It’s really not all doom and gloom around here. We tell her we love her multiple times a day. We both try to help her talk about her feelings about her mom and the divorce. Her dad is playful and affectionate with her, does lots of sports stuff with her. She and I have good after-school chats and sometimes go for treats or do yoga together. We pay for horseback riding lessons. But still. I don’t think anything we do for her will be enough to make up for her Mom being sick.

My question is: what should my role be in disciplining her and in helping to maintain the rules of our house (which are pretty basic: respect, pitching in, doing your best)? And also: what should I make of her behaviors? Are these normal developmentally? Are they normal blended family behaviors? Are they the products of loss and stress? And if the latter, is it my job to fix them? I want to support her emotionally and help her learn better ways to communicate, and I know she is going through some hard times. On the other hand, the way she talks to us and the way her grades are sinking is just not okay. On the third hand, I’ve gotten very emotionally wrapped up in this dynamic – bracing myself for the arguments and the whining and the blow offs and the blow outs. Sometimes it is just too much, and I want to say, “Who cares? You guys work it out. I’m going to a movie – see ya’!” I would never walk out, but sometimes it is tempting.

One of the extra stressors is that her Mom has totally different parenting values than us. She never says no, gives SD whatever she wants, lets her watch TV all hours, smokes in front of my SD, criticizes my husband, claims she is going to sue us for custody (never does), complains to SD about her money problems, and gives SD guilt if she wants to do something with her friends instead of visiting her. Basically she treats SD like her pal, or worse, her caretaker, and doesn’t do any of the tough work of parenting. I’m doing all that hard stuff voluntarily for her kid, and I do, I admit it, resent it sometimes. Especially when SD is so negative to me.

So basically – SD’s Mom has been really lax with her, and my husband is lax with her sometimes and strict with her sometimes, and she’s never experienced a real system of consquences for her behaviors. That’s what my husband wants for her now, and I agree, but it feels like a huge uphill battle. Up a hill of baggage that was here before I ever came on the scene. I want to back him up, and he needs my help to figure out a good system. And I certainly want SD to both behave better and feel better inside. But after my own losses, I need time and energy to get my health and career back on track. Am I allowed to have typical stepmom boundaries even though I have full custody? Even though her Mom does not mother her and somebody needs to? I love SD and don’t want to let her down. I also don’t want fights and constant negativity. How much of this is my job to fix? And if I don’t have a role in fixing it, how do I just live with it?

Thanks, Jacque!
Stepmom in Boston

Dear Stepmom in Boston:

Thank you so much for your eloquent letter and your amazingly generous heart and spirit. You and your family have been through a lot and the fact that you remain open-hearted is a major accomplishment!

I think you are correct in your assessment that your stepdaughter’s behavior is due to her relationship with her mother. It sounds to me that this girl is acting out because she is sad and scared about her attachment to her own mother. That could be why she is so needy with you and your husband. The fact that she is acting out the way she is says to me that she feels safe with the two of you. Safe enough to test you to see if you’re going to go away like her mother has. Safe enough to test your love for her (and her dad’s).

Children of divorce are often hungry for love and attention and it seems like no matter what you do they are never sated. Her behavior sounds very fear driven to me.

As a full-time stepmother you are in the unique position of being loved for your attention and hated at the same time because you are not her mother. It’s a hard place to live, especially when you are in your own grieving period.

I agree that the girl needs to have boundaries set up and real parenting done by you and your husband even if she whines and pushes back. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. The way to do this is to talk with your spouse about household rules and then he can present them to his daughter and tell her that you have the authority to enforce them when he’s not around.

Now a few questions for you. How can you be a full-time stepmother and feel good about it? She’s going to annoy you more than your husband because she’s not your biological child. You don’t have the same well of unconditional love. But she is still a child that is in desperate need of love and attention.

The rewards we see from parenting our stepchildren come in small little things like a smile, or an attempt at a connection by them in the form of a conversation, or maybe even a thank you. But some of us never get a “Thank you” from our stepchildren for how hard we worked. That leads me to a second question for you. What’s the big picture vision for you in this situation? When this girl successfully reaches adulthood with your help, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?

Many veteran stepmothers cite their own personal growth as a major reward of the sacrifices they have had to make in order to be part of a stepfamily.

We all need boundaries. So when you ask if you can have stepmother boundaries, my answer is yes with a caveat. I don’t know what type of boundaries you’re asking for here. But you have the right to be treated with respect in your own home. You have the right to feel good in your own home. Since you are raising this girl, you have the right to parent her (with the support and authority of your husband backing you up). You also have the right to take breaks if you need them. At the end of the day, she’s not your biological child, but she is going to remember every thing you’ve done for her. She’s going to remember those conversations at the table after school and all the times you drove her to soccer and showed up in her life. Kids watch we do more than they listen to what we say.

Your role is something that you all need to figure out together. How much is your job? Your job is exactly as much as you can handle, as your husband helps you create, as your particular stepfamily defines. And you have a say in what your role looks like.

Bless you for your hard work, your huge heart, and your sacrifices.

Your Questions Answered: Stepdaughter Questions Stepmom’s Authority

12 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

What do I do and how should I feel when my stepdaughter tells someone when they ask her who she listens to more, “I listen to my dad because he’s my dad but because stepmom hasn’t been in the picture that long I don’t listen to her”? I have known her and her brother for 7 years and married 5. How should I feel and what should I do?

Dear Stepmom,

I’m so sorry that after all this time you have to deal with rejection from your stepdaughter–yet again! I’m guessing that you’ve worked hard the past seven years and this feels like a slap in the face. I would imagine that you’re hurt and angry. Talk about feeling like an outsider! Before I offer you any thoughts I want to point out that I think you’re amazing! You’re working your tail off and I am so humbled by your generosity of spirit, your kindness, and your big open heart. Women who say “Yes!” to becoming stepmothers are the most lovely giving women in the world.  Now, here are a few things I would offer you:

Don’t second-guess your feelings. It’s so easy to be confused about how we “should” feel as stepmothers. The fact that you asked me what you should be feeling really struck a chord. There are so many “shoulds” around stepmotherhood. We “should” feel more maternal toward our stepchildren. We “should” love our stepchildren. We “should” help create a big, happy family. We “shouldn’t” feel hurt when a kid says something hurtful to us since they’re just kids. There are so many pressures coming from society and from our own expectations that it’s enough to make us crazy and doubt our own gut instincts. But your feelings are your feelings. Acknowledge them and please don’t torture yourself about them. For goodness sakes, you are a human being, and you deserve to be treated with respect–especially from yourself.

Thank your stepdaughter. Wait. Huh? Bear with me. Your stepdaughter is telling you, or this person she told, the truth about how she feels. This is really valuable information you can use to improve your situation at home. The more honest we are with each other about what stepfamily life is like for each of us, the more we are able to bond in the long run. This is really challenging but the only way to begin making changes in our lives is to be able to identify what needs to be changed.

Rally your husband. My guess is this child has not received a strong message from her father that you are an authority figure in her home. Dad’s support is what gives stepmothers authority of any kind. Sit down with your spouse and have a discussion about what each of you thinks a stepmother’s role should be. Typically it works best if Dad is the primary disciplinarian but stepmom needs to feel a sense of control, too. Explain to him that if he says to your stepdaughter, “Honey, you have to listen to your stepmother. When I’m not here, what she says goes,” and upholds that in the heat of the moment, it will help make your life and your marriage SO MUCH BETTER. Oh, and by the way, it will help your relationship with his kids, too.  (I’ve got a lot of information about creating household rules together in my book in case your partner needs some convincing.)

Reconsider what you think you need to do. Sometimes adolescent stepchildren flare up against us even if they’ve known us for a long time. But one of the beautiful things about stepparenting is that the kids already have at least one biological parent around. Leave the parenting to the parent and back off. They are his kids. Let him deal with it. I know that sounds extremely harsh, but sometimes disengaging a bit is the best thing you can to do for the long-term health of all of your relationships. Settle into more of a coach, teacher, or friend role with your stepdaughter and she might accept more guidance from you that way.

The truth is that no matter how long you’ve been in a stepfamily you’re always the outsider. Even stepmothers who have been married for twenty or more years are referred to as the “new” wife. Even when a stepmom has been around decades longer than the first marriage lasted! You will never be related to your stepchildren by blood and in their eyes that means you’re always a bit removed (nevermind that you’ve helped with homework, cooked 1,000 meals, cleaned up vomit, helped pay for college, etc. etc.). This is a fact we need to accept as stepmothers. Once we do, we can open our hearts to the many different kinds of relationships we can develop with our stepkids.

Your Questions Answered: Needy Stepdaughters, Part 2

5 05 2010

I received an email that I responded to last week here about needy stepdaughters. This stepmom was very uncomfortable with the physical closeness of her husband and stepdaughter. I’ve been thinking about that letter all week and want to add to my response from last week. Before you read on, I highly suggest you read my first post on this topic.

I want to add a few things. And before I do, here’s a big shout-out thank you to Margaret and Steve, my think-tank.

The email was in regards to a stepmom who was feeling uncomfortable with the physical intimacy between her husband and her 19-year-old stepdaughter. As I mentioned, stepmothers often send me notes with the same problem but typically I see the issue in two ways. First the stepmother is not comfortable because she feels like an outsider. And any physical or emotional closeness of a husband and his daughters will feel threatening to a stepmother who does not feel secure in her marriage or her stepfamily. It feels terrible to witness hugs and easy camaraderie when you aren’t a part of it.

Also, as I wrote last week, children of divorce are often needy and clingy due to the trauma they experienced as children. (Sometimes this shows up as whining sometimes as aggression.)

Here are some more things to consider (they’re mostly for your spouse, so please feel free to pass these along.)

Use common sense. There’s normal physical closeness and then there’s the uncomfortable kind. I certainly responded to the fact that this dad is spooning his 19-year-old daughter with discomfort. That does seem beyond the normal bounds of physical contact between a father and daughter. As girls get older, Dads do need to be careful of what kind of physical closeness they have with their daughters, especially at a time when the girls are developmentally working to break away from their family of origin and form their own relationships with men. Regardless of how your husband wants to love his child, he still has to be a father and parent his child in an appropriate manner.

Ask your husband to examine his level of attachment. Divorce or the death of a parent and then remarriage has a major impact on the development of a child. We know this. I’ve written about it a lot. But it also has an emotional impact on a biological parent. If your husband and his daughter lived together alone for many years, they likely developed a close bond that isn’t altogether healthy. When this happens, as it often does, stepdaughters can be very territorial of their fathers and vice-versa. This kind of unhealthy closeness means that daughters don’t switch their attention to the men in their own life because they are still so connected with their dads. (I am not talking about a sexual relationship here, ladies. Just emotional.) This is when daughters become the little women of the house and dads turn them into confidantes. (This happens to boys, too. And bio moms are also often guilty of this parentification of a child.) If this has happened, your husband is really doing his daughter a disservice by putting his own emotional needs above his daughter’s healthy development. Kids who are put in this situation have a much harder time as adults making healthy relationships. He needs to let her go and develop a new kind of relationship. One in which he lets his little girl grow up.

Work on becoming a team. Besides the spooning issue the most troubling part of your email was that you and your husband are clearly not on the same page. Regardless of how he wants to love his daughter, you are his wife and he needs to cherish your bond. And that means respecting how you feel. The famous marriage researcher John Gottman of the Gottman Institute has shown that in successful marriages, men are open to influence from their partners. They listen. They are willing to change something if it hurts their spouses. At the very least your husband needs to hear your feelings and you need to hear his. Then together as a team, come up with a solution that feels right to both of you. Perhaps he can sit next to his daughter on the couch and put an arm around her instead?

A big thank you to the stepmother who sent this question. It’s a tough one and I’m so glad that you reached out to me about it. I hope that I’ve given you something to work with! Also a big thank you to the ladies who have sent me comments about this topic.

Your Questions Answered: Modeling a Healthy Relationship

5 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I can totally relate to a recent post about a needy 19 yr old daughter, but in a little different way. I haven’t been with my partner for four years, but I totally see this kind of neediness!! Instead of one 19 year old daughter, I have it double with a 9 year old son and an 11 year old daughter. They are both overwhelmingly needy. It baffles me at how not self sufficient they are. From my observations sometimes they are excited when we display affection towards one another and sometimes they fall into the whole I want a hug and a kiss too, in that awful whiny three year old voice! As I read this post I answered the questions that were posed at the beginning:

How close is your stepdaughter to her mother? I don’t see the relationship as close at all. They talk to their mother when she calls, on average that is twice a week and before my partner and I met is was less than that. They go on their visits to see her and they facebook with her. That is about it. Sometimes his daughter asks to call her mom and his son never does. Their conversations on average are between 3 to 10 minutes and nothing important is discussed. I bet she cant even tell you what they got on their last 5 progress reports.

How long was your stepdaughter the only female in her father’s house? From what I understand my stepdaughter has been the only female in her father’s house her entire life. The mom traveled for work and wasn’t affectionate at all. I have derived that because of the lack of affection between my partner and his ex he gave all of that love and physical affection to his children. I have even asked my partner and he agrees.

At what age did the divorce or death of her other parent happen? The divorce began when they were 8 and 10 and ended about seven months after that.

Is she well-adjusted overall or is she a troubled girl? Both children seem to be well adjusted. They are surrounded by my partners family, whom have been active participants in their lies since day one!!

My question is how do we teach his children what a real healthy loving relationship looks like and that he is allowed to love on me. Our relationship goes against everthing that they have ever known! It is not one kiss for me and one kiss for them. Like the book says: though the kids and the ex effect our relationship the relationship is between my partner and myself.

Dear Stepmom:

Thanks for a great question! Please see my second response to the needy stepdaughter here. Also, because your stepchildren’s mother is absent, read this post, too, where I speak more about what might be happening with your stepchildren because Mom is absent much of the time.

In your case, modeling a healthy relationship is exactly how you teach children what is normal and what is not. Children are sponges and they soak up what we DO much more than what we SAY. Because you’ve got stepkids who are used to being the primary emotional focus of their dad, you will be very threatening to the kids. They’ve already lost their mother. (EXTREMELY painful.) And you represent a threat to them. Here are a few things for you to try:

Keep the adult stuff to the adults. If your husband is confiding in his children. He needs to stop. Research has shown again and again that it is unhealthy for children to have too much responsibility too early. The amount of information they can handle is based on their age. That means at ages 9 and 11, he shouldn’t be telling them about his relationship troubles with you, or money issue he has with the ex, or his troubles at work, for instance. Kids who have been confidantes will get very angry about not being included. So see the next point.

Send constant messages of love. Dad needs to be telling his kids he loves them again and again. And showing them, too. By showing up at the soccer game or listening to their problems or playing a game of basketball in the driveway every night. When your stepchildren ask for kisses in a whiny voice, assure her that her father loves her. That way she won’t perceive you as a threat for long. Instead of staying silent in those moments say something like, “Honey, of course you’re daddy wants to give you a kiss. He’s your dad. He loves you, no matter what!”

Be honest about the changes. Kids need to be able to voice how difficult this is for them. Acknowledge that there are good and bad things about being in a stepfamily. And it’s NORMAL to have conflicting feelings.

Lay off the physical affection in the early years. Kids do have trouble watching their parent be physically affectionate with a new partner in the early years. So in the early days take it easy. (This does not mean you shouldn’t touch each other at all! Use common sense here.) But as your relationships grow and deepen they typically acclimate just fine. And in fact, the more you demonstrate over time that your marriage is strong, kids end up feeling safer because you’re showing them you’re not going anywhere.

Your Questions Answered: Troubled Stepkids

5 05 2010

Dear Jacque:

I have written before in regards to my step son. To be honest I have reached the end of my rope. I am tired of the lying and stealing from him. He hasn’t been stealing “big” items…just little things taking and using things that belong to me (or other members of our household). It’s an issue of trust (or the lack of it with him!)
I had a cloth for cleaning my glasses and he took that (wanted to clean his trumpet with it!) he never asked if it was ok or if he could use it or have it.

I had purchased some chocolate truffles for my husband and he didn’t care for them at the time so I put them in a kitchen drawer for him for a later date…they disappeared the next day…My stepson took them and didn’t ASK and they don’t have permission to just “take food” from the kitchen either.

This morning I found one of my combs in the kids bathroom …when my husband questioned one of his daughters she said no that’s not mine it’s my stepson’s (and it wasn’t his comb, but mine that he confiscated)…again he didn’t ask if he could have it.

I do a lot of sewing and was missing a seam ripper for over a month and was looking and looking for it and couldn’t find it…it was driving me nuts wondering what had happened to it….here it was in HIS room – (why I have no idea).

I’m so tired of trying to find things and to find out that he took it! Then when confronted he lies about it…Oh I got that from a friend at school
We can’t trust him (or don’t) as he proves over and over he isn’t trustworthy and when talked to he get’s angry and defensive – or blames others.

I have asked his dad to send him to live with his mom and he won’t do that…so I resort to being unhappy, in tears nearly every day because I am worn out emotionally from all the lying, stealing, dishonesty. He was diagnosed ADHD and was given medication. Come to find out he was throwing out the pills after my husband handed it to him. This has gone on for weeks and many days I suspected that he wasn’t taking it and here he’d lie about it…oh I took it. I’m tired of the deception. I don’t enjoy being around him anymore. Last night I stayed at work until 8:00 so I didn’t have to deal with him (I’m too stressed) and I told my husband that I’m going to stay in a hotel this weekend…. I’m simply worn out and tired of it. I can’t live in a house where there’s deception, dishonor and dishonesty.

I grew up in a home of TOTAL respect for authority, my mom, adults etc. and he simply doesn’t have any respect. We went through counseling and he said I was way too involved emotionally in the kids and raising them and I needed to step away. It’s my husband’s job and his ex-wifes job to raise them. She basically has nothing to do with the kids. She sees them maybe every other month and went 2 years with no contact at all.

What do you suggest that we do? I told my husband if he is taking little things…just wait a few years…..he’ll be taking money, the car without permission …who knows what he’ll take…it’s like there isn’t a conscience. When given a consequence he gets angry instead of showing remorse like my stepdaughters do.
Thanks for your ministry.

Dear Stepmom:

What a tough time you’re having right now. I am so sorry that you’re feeling so emotionally depleted. I would like to offer you a few things to think about.

Find something good to focus on. Right now. Right away. Whether it’s how much you love your husband’s laugh or your favorite funny movie or your best friend. I don’t care what it is but the only way your brain will be able to come up with creative solutions to your issues is if your body is not under siege from the stress hormones you are pumping it full of right now. (Cortisol and adrenaline.) Have an arsenal of positive actions you can take that make you FEEL GOOD. It’s the only way to help yourself get light enough to float on up out of the muck.

Consider your therapist’s counsel. Your therapist was correct. Most stepmothers take on far too much responsibility for the children they live with full- or part-time, especially in the early days of stepfamily life. You didn’t mention how long you’ve been together, but my guess is somewhere between 2 to 5 years because what you’re describing often comes during that time in stepfamily development. Problems also flare up when kids turn into teenagers.

But at the end of the day, your husband’s kids are his kids. He does need to step up and take responsibility for them. But as women we find this incredibly difficult. We’re supposed to be the female head of the household. We’re supposed to be the ones in charge of the kids. Stepmothers come to the table with these expectations, but the fact is our stepchildren are not ours.

There are times when stepmothers do become more equal parenting partners with the biological parent: If you have full-custody for instance, or if Dad refuses to parent his children. However, research tells us that stepmothers do best parenting from the back seat with Dad’s full support of her authority. We also know that stepmothers who spend time bonding with their stepchildren in the early days of stepfamily life and who have Dad’s support, are the ones who end up moving into a more equal parenting role because the kids and Dad all accept it more readily.

I have a few questions for you: Have he household rules been made clear to all the kids? What are the consequences for breaking the rules? How does DAD enforce them. Not you. This child needs discipline (not punishment, there’s a difference). And he needs it from his Dad. Divorced Dads often feel guilty about having rules and discipline in place, but kids need them. It’s critical to their development.

And: What would happen if you backed off a bit and let Dad parent his kids?

Understand your stepson’s motivations. Your email is full of anger at your stepson and rightly so. But if you choose to continue to feel such resentment toward him, you’ll never be able to build a bridge that can help him turn his behavior around now before it gets any worse. My advice is to turn on your curiosity about why your stepson is stealing things and lying about it. Turn on your compassion for him. Sit down today and write a paragraph as though you are him. Write about what you think his life has been like for the past five years or ten years.

Children tend to act out when they are hurting or afraid because they don’t have the words or the emotional maturity to tell us what’s really going on. Our brains don’t fully develop until we’re in our 20s so it could very well be that your stepson is stealing things from you and his father because his mother is not there for him and he is heartbroken about her abandonment. That would be my guess, not knowing the full story. Children are always loyal to their mothers whether they are fully present, drug addicts, in jail, or have left them to start another family or move to another state. And because he can’t hate his mother without hurting himself even more, he has made you and his father his emotional targets for now. It could also be that he’s stealing from you because if he makes you leave maybe his mother will come back.

In your case, instead of focusing on what he’s doing wrong, I would ask you to start focusing on this boy’s pain. How can help him deal with his heartbreak and fear? How can you guide him? It’s a lot to ask, my dear stepmom. And even if you decide to work on coming at this boy with compassion, it doesn’t guarantee that he will ever thank you for your efforts. This is why your focus also needs to be on your own personal growth.

Define what you’re getting out of this. Personal growth is one of the top things women cite as a benefit of stepfamily life, especially women who have really tough stepkids or ex-wives. But here’s my take: You chose this man and this family for a reason. What is that reason? Why are you with them? What are you learning? How is your soul growing? Right now personal growth can be something you cling to. Later on it can become something you’re proud of.

My heart is with you and your family, Dear Stepmom.

Your Questions Answered: Needy Stepdaughters

14 04 2010

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!