My Relationship with my 10 Year Old Stepdaughter is Breaking Down.

My husband of three years and I share join custody of my 10 year old stepdaughter with my husband’s ex. I have always tried to maintain a good relationship with the mom so that our families are not torn apart(flowers on mothers day etc etc). This has been difficult but I have persevered. As my stepdaughter has gotten older she has become more and more disrespectful towards me and now tells me that her mom has told her that I am not her stemom and she only has one mom and I am nothing to her. I cook and clean and do all my stepdaughter’s laundry and pick her up from school most nights. I just don’t know what to do. I really need advice on how to maintain a respectful relationship with my stepdaughter and how to sidestep the negative influence from the ex. My husband and I have two children together both under the age of four.

Answer: Thank you so much for your question.  There are many parents dealing with issues around having step-children, myself included.  As with most parenting questions, there are no hard and fast rules but it sounds like you are doing an amazing job so far!  You should be commended on your involvement, hard work, and genuine care for your step-daughter.  It is an extremely difficult role to play, as you try to balance caring for her, while respecting her birth mother.  Your tokens on Mother’s Day are very generous and set a mature and caring tone for the entire family dynamic. No doubt, your step-daughter sees those actions from you and will learn positive behaviour because of it (even if you don’t see that happening right now!).

With blended families conflicts can arise due to the many differences each party involved has, from personality differences, differing values, previous conflicts (that often have nothing to do with you), jealousy, miscommunications, and stress involved in sharing custody. It sounds like you are reaching out and giving a lot to the relationship with your husband’s ex and your step-daughter and if you feel good about your choices, and know that you are being respectful to everyone involved, I think that’s the most you can do.

What your husband, his ex, and your step-daughter decide to do are not in your control but your actions, words, and expectations are!

One of the concerns I see here is that conversations may be happening with, or overheard by, your step-daughter that don’t seem appropriate for a girl her age to hear.  Ie:  bashing you in front of her, downplaying your role and importance in her life, focusing on what you are called to her (mom, stepmom etc.) instead of how you make her feel and the example you set.  She is obviously taking those comments seriously enough to have it change your relationship. At her age, what she hears from an adult she will believe without question, especially when it comes from an upset parent. It is not fair to put a child that age under that kind of stress.  They are not meant to be supporters of their own parents, nor be a sounding board.  This is never emotionally safe for a child.

A few questions that come to mind that might help you take the next step:

  • How does your husband react to your step-daughters attitude towards you and the notion that his ex has been talking to their daughter about you?  Does he support his ex’s comments? Ignore his daughter’s behaviour?
    Explain that you are important in this family and need to be treated respectfully? His reaction and response in this situation is vital, as he is the bridge between his ex and you, as well as his daughter and you.
  • What are your expectations in the relationship between your step-daughter and you? Is it important for her to call you “mom” or “stepmom”?  Do you envision doing all sorts of fun things with her and expect that she will be excited and interested?
    Be careful if you have expectations about what your relationship will be like with her or you may feel disappointed at some point.  Of course it’s impossible not to plan and imagine the cool things you can do with kids!  Road trips, play dates, birthday ideas, gifts etc.  However, it is impossible to know just how our children will relate to us, what they will want, and who they will become- it is even more complicated if that child is not our own.  Decide who YOU want to be for her and how YOU can support her as she grows and learns and try to let go of any expected outcome.
  • Has anyone had a conversation with your husband’s ex about your role with your step-daughter?
    As tough and stomach churning as this sounds, it can be the best way to get unresolved issues out in the open and clear the air.  It gives all of you a chance to share what you feel (without your step-daughter around!). There’s nothing wrong with telling your husband’s ex that you and your husband are BOTH not comfortable with her bad-talking you in the girl’s presence.  Try to communicate that you are not interested in taking over any role as her mother but want to care for and love her as much as your husband and his ex do.  She may just feel threatened and need to hear that you know she is mom and always will be.  If you are worried about how to approach the issue, perhaps opening with “We have noticed some changes in _____ lately and she has started to be quite negative towards ______.  Have you noticed any changes as well?  Is there any way we can keep our issues to ourselves so that she doesn’t have to hear them?”  You can also find a lot of information about emotional safety and young children from a doctor, paediatrician, or reliable website.  That way you pass her the information from a third-party, which may feel less threatening and may help her understand how much her words impact.

Given that your step-daughter is ten and is very susceptible to being influenced (positively or negatively) by any parent or adult in a leadership role (teacher, coach etc.) it is essential that you all set these ground rules for communicating about one another.  Regardless of how much animosity occurs between couples, ex’s etc…it is so important not to pass that anger, stress, and those hurtful words along to a child. Consider agreeing on some ground rules with your husband and then asking him to share them with his ex or having all of you speak together.  It is important that his ex understands how much her daughter has absorbed and how it is impacting your family.  You also have two other kids involved and they can begin to copy this behaviour as well.

You are amazing to raise two of your own and another in this shared family dynamic. It’s not easy but the fact that you are asking questions and recognizing that you need support tells me you are going to be just fine!

Deanna Ritchie – Teacher in the Greater Victoria School District, mother, and step-mom.

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