Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

“My Stepdaughter’s Mother is Turning Her Against Me”

I read your response to “My Boyfriend Refuses to do Boy Stuff with my Son” with interest. It broke my heart a little, because I saw myself in the distant boyfriend in that letter. I’m afraid I’m making a mess of things.

I married a lovely man a little under a year ago. We’ve been together for several years, but we did not live together until about a year before we wed. He has two children from his previous marriage who are with us every other week. The relationship with his ex was very adversarial for a while, in part due to the fact that she continued to hold hopes for marital reconciliation well beyond the point where we started to date. Now they just don’t speak, and they exchange only cursory emails about kid activities.

I have a good relationship with my 15-year-old step-son, and I have rather gracefully fallen into the role my husband and I hoped for with him. I am not a mommy-replacement (she was stay-at-home, hyper-involved in school activities, worked only part time, etc.) but am, instead, another adult in his life who can inform, influence, and guide in a positive way. I was delighted recently when he sought my opinion on high school classes in order to get into the program he wants in university.

As graceful as I have been with my step-son, I am positively graceless with my 12-year-old stepdaughter. We had a reasonable relationship at first, but that soured as soon as her mother learned my husband and I would live together. At that point, his ex told my husband that the children were so unhappy with the idea of living in the same house as I that they needed counseling. They went to two sessions each before the counselor discharged them with a clean bill of mental health.

Since we married, I have been subject to a litany of “you can’t tell me what to do’s” from my step-daughter, and I have just recently been told by her brother that her mother reinforces disrespectful treatment of me through comments while they are with her. For example, my step-daughter has been told that decisions about who is picking up whom from what sports practice should be between her and her father as I “shouldn’t get a vote in anything that [she] does.” I often feel that she and her father make the plans and then delegate tasks to me, based on what my step-daughter wants. She has also recently advised us that she wants to start spending three weeks a month at her mother’s, which has resulted in my husband feeling very guilty and capitulating even more often.

The consequence of all of that is that I have (perhaps not maturely) withdrawn from her and it’s driving a wedge between my husband and me. I no longer ask her to do any of the “girl things” because I don’t want to reinforce what I see as negative and dismissive conduct towards me. For all intents and purposes, I look like the hands-off boyfriend in the original letter. If you were to look at a snapshot of our family on any given evening, you would see her trying to draw her father’s attention exclusively and endlessly and her brother and I wandering away in frustration. When I make a conscious choice to involve myself, she withdraws completely – often leaving the room or retreating into her technology so as to not even acknowledge my existence.

My husband suggests I ignore the behavior and ask her to do things anyway to forge a relationship – basically go over the top to prove her mother wrong about me. I don’t want to do so as rewarding bad behavior is counter-intuitive to me and, quite frankly, the refusals when I have extended an invitation sting far more than I care to admit. I counter by suggesting that my husband needs to make very clear, small points to his daughter that the way she is treating me is unacceptable and that she must be called on it every time it happens.

Do you have any thoughts? — Not Really a Wicked Stepmother

Well, first of all, you are NOT like the boyfriend in the letter you reference from last week. You may feel you are abandoning efforts in bonding with your step-daughter, but you are clearly thoughtful about this relationship and care where things are headed. I’m not sure the same can be said for the boyfriend from the other column.

For advice on your particular situation, I contacted a good friend of mine who is not only a psychologist in private practice, but is also the mother of a 12-year-old girl. I thought she could have particularly helpful insight to share. Here is what she said in response to your letter:

It seems as though Step Mom is taking this all on herself, and good for her for taking responsibility for her relationship with her step-daughter (this is a big difference from the significant other in the mentioned article). But the problem with her taking all of the responsibility is that she has very little control in this situation. Seems to me that Bio dad has a larger role to play and part of that is recognizing 12-year-old girl’s behavior toward him and toward step mom.

No one, including bio dad, has any control over Bio Mom and her influence but this is not a battle that Step Mom can fight alone and she certainly can’t just ignore the 12-year-old’s negative behavior when it becomes rude and dismissive. Step Mom can call her out on her behavior but it may, for the time being, fall on deaf ears because of Bio Mom’s influences, thus Bio Dad is going to need to step in and lay down some ground rules.

That said, a little flexability needs to be included for the fact that this is a transitional situation where a kid is moving from home to home with different rules and practices AND the fact that hormones are just beginning to explode for a 12-year-old girl. She is super impressionable right now and she is just beginning to study relationships in her own life. In time, she is likely going to be able to see through Bio Mom’s manipulation and puppetry (ie her negative traits) and she will see more clearly Step Mom’s positive traits.

In regards to 12-year-old daughter wanting to change the living arrangement, this may be an opportunity for bio parents to sit down and discuss the parenting plan and Bio Mom’s VERY inappropriate conversations with their 12-year-old daughter, whether in therapy or mediation. A 12-year-old does not have the right, nor should they have the power, to decide where they should live in a custodial situation where abuse is not occurring (in most states). This is a power play on the 12-year-old’s part that is being reinforced by Bio Mom behind the scenes.

In an ideal/healthy family structure parents are aligned (ie making decisions/ handing out discipline) and the kids are under the parents creating a safety net and power structure for the family. In this family the dad and daughter are aligned at the top and step mom is on the outs. The family structure is off and there is a great imbalance of power thus creating instability and a lack of safety within the family structure for all parties. That’s why everyone’s acting out. Dad may not know that he is contributing significantly, but he is definitely giving more power to the 12-year-old and creating a helpless situation for Step Mom. He may not have any influence over his ex-wife, but he does have influence over his daughter. He doesn’t have to be mean, but he does need to show his daughter that Step Mom isn’t going anywhere and that she must be treated as a human being. Doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Yes, what she said! LW, you say that your husband and his ex-wife “don’t speak and that they exchange only cursory emails about kid activities.” That’s a big part of the problem here. Clearly, it’s time for a conversation to address the 12-year-old daughter’s inappropriate behavior. It’s time for the ex-wife’s inappropriate comments to her daughter and son about you to be addressed. As my friend said, you have very little power in this situation, unfortunately, which is why you are emotionally shutting out your step-daughter. I get it. But that can’t continue. It’s time for your husband to step in and use the power that HE has to put an end to his daughter’s mistreatment toward you.

I would suggest enlisting the help of a professional in the way of mediation where all three adults sit down and discuss parenting these two children in a way that is both loving but firm. It’s time for some boundaries to be set, and, clearly, you can’t be the one to set them. The bio parents need to communicate here, even it means getting professional help to do that. Good luck!

***************

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If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at wendy@dearwendy.com.

30 comments… add one
  • gigi

    gigi October 14, 2014, 9:38 am

    I also want to suggest that Jealousy may be part of this. My daughter liked the woman that her dad married, however, she was used to being daddy’s little “princess” & all of a sudden there was a new woman in his life. She competed aggressively with the new wife for her dad’s attention for about a year. Going so far as to insert herself in between them whenever they were physically close to each other. Pretty obvious stuff. I agree with everything Wendy said above, but don’t forget to let her have her special relationship with her dad either. Girls love (& need) their dads like nobody else.

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    • honeybeenicki

      honeybeenicki October 14, 2014, 10:20 am

      My bonus daughter did this when her dad and I first got together. It stopped after awhile (and because my husband was diligent about handling things like that and the “you’re not my mom!” and anything like that).

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  • avatar

    csp October 14, 2014, 9:46 am

    LW – two things. Realize the middle schoolers are little jerks. Also, realize that it is hard for a child to see one parent in a happy relationship and another sad and alone at home. Many kids feel protective of the parent that is left behind regardless or the situation that led to divorce. The biomom and the daughters might be a terrible human beings but try and have a soft heart realizing that those actions come from a place of pain.

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    • avatar

      Kelly L. October 14, 2014, 11:04 am

      That first cannot be overstated. When I was 12, I remember being a jangling ball of spiky pain and not really even being sure where all the pain was coming from. (Answer: partly hormones, partly parental conflict, partly bullying, partly depression). I responded to that by being an asshole to pretty much my whole family.

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      • avatar

        csp October 14, 2014, 1:24 pm

        You are right, life is brutal at that age. Kids are the meanest then

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    • Lyra

      Lyra October 14, 2014, 1:05 pm

      As a teacher who is around kids ages 9-14 all.day.long I can attest that NOT all middle schoolers are jerks. They can be, yes, but making a blanket statement like that won’t solve this issue. All middle school kids are dealing with a LOT — a lot of changes, weird feelings they’ve never felt before, hormonal changes, emotional changes, etc. etc. etc. There’s so much weirdness and if you add a new step mom into the mix, kids can sometimes lash out. Does it excuse the girl’s behavior? Absolutely not. But I really think it’s more about jealousy than the girl just being a jerk.

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      • avatar

        csp October 14, 2014, 1:30 pm

        Ok, but maybe if I say, they are at the jerky-est stage of their lives. I think if you judge someone from who they were at 12 is not fair. What I am saying is, many times, this kind of attitude isn’t personal. it is just the situation. If you gave me any person – jesus, ghandi, oprah, whoever – the time that they were the worst form of themselves was at that age.

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      • Lyra

        Lyra October 14, 2014, 1:47 pm

        I agree with that. 🙂 You couldn’t pay me ENOUGH money to go back to ages 12-14, but for whatever reason I LOVE teaching kids at that age. It’s cool having a positive role in their lives despite the drama, weirdness, and cuh-razy hormones. In my comment I was simply giving the girl the benefit of the doubt.

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  • avatar

    lonemirage14 October 14, 2014, 9:50 am

    I’m with gigi, I’m also sensing that jealousy may be in play here. It’s a pretty common reaction for a daughter to have when her father forms a new relationship with a woman that isn’t her mother. She is also 12 years old, which is when the bratty teenage stage really starts to come into play, so I think some of the negativity you are feeling is probably hormonal. I would say that it seems like the ex wife may be using her daughter to get information about your marriage and home. I’m sure this is a really awkward situation with your stepson, and I would be concerned about him as well.

    Picking up from some of the your language, LW, I think you may be living in the UK, and I’m not sure what the custody arrangements are there, but I would definitely suggest that you need to talk to your husband about what is going on and he in turn needs to make a time to talk with his ex wife, probably in some sort of mediation counseling, about the terms of the shared custody agreement. If the custody terms are kept as a solid, dependable, schedule your stepdaughter should start to slowly adjust to that. I think the worst thing for kids splitting time between parents is to be bounced back and forth with no notice. Kids need structure, and typically once they come to rely on a set schedule, a lot of behavioral issues tend to quiet down.

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  • avatar

    SasLinna October 14, 2014, 10:01 am

    I was once a 12 year old girl whose parents had just separated (though there was no moving in with new partners), and from that perspective, I would say please cut her some slack. Her behavior sounds like the classic “you can’t tell me what to do” that a lot of stepparents get, plus she’s at that age where she might rebel against any parental figure. It’s often very hard for kids to adjust to stepparents, it can take years and years until things feel normal. That’s kind of what you sign up for when you blend families (though I understand how hard it must be as the stepparent). Let your stepdaughter set the tone for your relationship and accept if she’s being distant. Remain open and suggest things to do from time to time, but don’t force anything, because let’s face it – she absolutely has the power to refuse. And if she wants to spend more time at her mother’s, maybe that’s also a thing that your husband and yourself will have to accept.
    I would talk to your husband about how the two of you can handle whatever the kids’ mother is doing. If she’s badmouthing you, it’s important that your husband has your back. At the same time, you have to be careful not to start speaking badly about the mother either. It’s something kids will be able to remember years later, and I do think it will eventually turn against the mother if she continues it. If you can focus on your relationship with your husband and make sure you’re on the same page, I think you’ll be able to weather the storms and have the kids come around in a few years.

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    • avatar

      SasLinna October 14, 2014, 10:03 am

      I’ll add that I actually think counseling for the kids would be a great idea, even if they don’t have any obvious mental health issues. I wish my parents had made counseling an priority and not given up when the first one wasn’t a great fit. I’m sure the stepdaughter could benefit from talking to a neutral third party.

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      • avatar

        MsMisery October 14, 2014, 1:12 pm

        Yeah, my parents MADE me go to a therapist when they got divorced, but I didn’t really have anything to say yet. However a couple years later when middle school was in full swing and both parents remarried, I had plenty to talk about.

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    • freckles

      freckles October 16, 2014, 11:09 am

      I’m with you on this. My parents divorced when I was 8, and my now stepmother was in the picture almost right away. She is a nice person, and I don’t dislike her, but I’ve never had any interest in having a relationship with her beyond being polite. When I was that age, I was probably a little more rude than I should have been, but I resented her being there, and I found her annoying (I still do). I never had any interest in doing activities with her, and I would not have liked her having a say in anything regarding my activities or how I was being raised. She isn’t my mother.

      I feel for both parties in this letter, and while the mother’s behavior seems to be abhorrent, I don’t think the daughter is doing anything unusual. If, in a few years, she continues to be actively rude, then I think that will be more of a problem. But now, I don’t see anything weird or concerned about this behavior.

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  • avatar

    captainswife October 14, 2014, 10:04 am

    Bear in mind also that there could be divided loyalties. The kid may feel that if she allows you to get close to her emotionally, she is being disloyal to her biological mother. It’s a very tough balance for kids.

    You might try leveling with her. Take her out. Tell her directly that you aren’t trying to replace her mother, you aren’t that person, and you never will be. Tell her that it’s possible to have room in your heart for more than one person (just as she loves her mother, her father, and her brother in different ways), and that you understand that it can take time.

    At the same time, it’s not okay with you for her to be rude or disrespectful. You are there to stay. Your husband COMPLETELY needs to reinforce this (but I’m not clear from what you said whether he’s willing to or even recognizes the problem).

    Ask what, if anything, she needs from you to help her during this transition. She may tell you to get out of her life or otherwise blow you off. But you ARE the adult in this. Keep your feelings out of it as much as possible…which is understandably not always easy. It is YOUR job and role to teach her by your actions how to be the adult, how to take the upper road, etc.

    Yes, it stinks. And I’m really sorry. But ride it out…with luck, she’ll come around!

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    • avatar

      lonemirage14 October 14, 2014, 10:16 am

      I totally agree with the point about being the adult in the situation. I think a lot of step-parents make mistake of trying to be a “friend” to their stepchildren, but it levels the playing field too much, even though its done out of good intentions. You have to maintain control as the adult of the situation. Kids are very perceptive to weaknesses in adults and they will quickly learn how to manipulate to get what they want.

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    • avatar

      mertlej October 14, 2014, 10:33 am

      I agree that there may be some “loyalty” issues here… my mom had a really really hard time with my dad moving onto new relationships, and my sisters and I really felt the brunt of that. It’s a lot easier to be a jerk to the new woman than to feel like you are hurting your mother by (what she sees as) transferring affection.

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  • avatar

    captainswife October 14, 2014, 10:07 am

    Oh, yes, and a “clean bill of mental health” doesn’t always mean anything…my kids have snowed the counselors before. That said, don’t keep “dragging” them to the counselors “to be fixed” … it can give the impression that you think everything is their fault.

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    • FireStar

      FireStar October 14, 2014, 10:27 am

      I thought the counselling was really for the parents…the daughter is just following her mom’s lead – and is being allowed to. The parents – and dad in particular – need to learn what should be happening in the best interest of the kids and how they should be addressing the daughter’s behaviour. The daughter clearly needs to see the rules and boundaries in place before she can conform to them.

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  • FireStar

    FireStar October 14, 2014, 10:19 am

    I don’t have much experience with this kind of thing but it really does sound like counselling can benefit the three adults to co-parent successfully and the children to realize that they have a place in both homes and what the rules of each home are. A father feeling excluded and guilty; a mother feeling bitter threatened; a daughter feeling misplaced and flexing whatever power she has to get her way; a step mom feeling on the outside of it all? This is a situation that family counsellors must see all the time and have the tools to address. On the plus side your step son sounds great and if nothing else offers a silent example to his sister of how to behave.

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  • avatar

    BeckyGrace October 14, 2014, 10:27 am

    Wow, what a perfect letter at a time when I am going through the same situation with my 12 year old stepdaugher and her mother. Sadly they live across the country and we see them once a year and now the mother is even trying to prevent that, no longer allows the 12 year old to communicate with me or has influenced her not to want to and calls with their Dad are scripted with the mother sitting there with the kids. I am caught in this exact situation, wanting to still be myself and be there for her but also pulling away to protect myself a bit. I adore her and her younger sister but I am treated only like a bank at this point. I am so with you LW. Step parenting is so hard and so under appreciated. I envy that you can at least go the counseling route and can see the kids as much as you can. You are a great step parent and you are doing everything you can. It is so hard and so easy to doubt yourself and wonder if you are doing enough but Wendy is so right it is up to your husband. But… just to remind you again, YOU are a great step parent. It is so hard, but so rewarding and you are amazing. 🙂

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    • avatar

      lonemirage14 October 14, 2014, 10:34 am

      Is there an official custody arrangement between your husband and his ex wife?

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      • avatar

        BeckyGrace October 14, 2014, 11:50 am

        Sadly no, it is incredibly expensive, we know she will fight it and up until now she has been great about the kids coming out and my husband seeing the kids whenever he wanted if he could get out to see them. Looks like we will have to find the money to make it happen.

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      • avatar

        lonemirage14 October 14, 2014, 1:18 pm

        I hope you are able to come up with the funds for it! I had a really unusual situation in that my parents were able to work out custody arrangements on their own and were able to stick to it, but its pretty rare that happens successfully.

        With some sort of agreement in place it will make it a lot easier for you and your husband to make sure his ex wife is legally obligated to allow visitation and other contact, such as phone calls. Good luck!

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      • freckles

        freckles October 16, 2014, 11:12 am

        Yeah I was lucky too in this regards. My dad just used the same lawyer as my mom and the lawyer said it was the easiest divorce he’d ever processed. Which is weird, because my parents hated each other. I guess they were both reasonable when it came time for agreements though.

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  • findingtheearth

    findingtheearth October 14, 2014, 10:49 am

    This is a fairly common issue with divorced couples who find new spouses/significant others. It’s not fair to the LW in anyway, but it is hard to avoid with teenagers. I think the suggestion of counseling as a family and with the bio-mother would be beneficial. Bio-mom needs to accept the stepmother’s role and possibly find her own significant other.

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  • honeybeenicki

    honeybeenicki October 14, 2014, 11:10 am

    This is hard LW. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs with my bonus kids’ mother and it really sucks. All I can suggest is to not withdraw. I know it sucks to get shot down every time you invite her to do something with you, but keep trying. Eventually you will break through that barrier. If not, at least you’ll know (and she’ll know) that you tried.

    I know you can’t control what your husband does, but he really needs to step up here and a) address this issue with his daughter and b) address the issue with the mother. If they are unable to communicate, I would suggest mediation. Family courts often have/require people go through mediation to set up custody and co-parenting plans. In those plans will be things like visitation, custody, holidays and even behavior of parents (not badmouthing, working together, etc). It sucks that you are all going through this, but being a step parent is hard. I’m lucky that I have amazing bonus kids and their mom is (pretty) good about not saying anything negative about us. Their stepdad is another story though and their mom does not do anything to foster a good relationship between her children and their dad, so that sucks. But at least she’s not actively trying to destroy it.
    I’m sorry you’re going through this but please stay strong. Kids can always use another trustworthy adult in their lives. Your stepdaughter is at an age where hormones are crazy and there’s a lot of turmoil involved in her life. You can handle this with the help of your husband. Don’t view this relationship as only your responsibility. Good luck.

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  • bittergaymark

    Bittergaymark October 14, 2014, 1:02 pm

    Eh. This is precisely why I would never seriously date someone with kids who has a lousy relationship with their ex. It’s always a recipe for disaster. It is also why I would NEVER date a guy with kids whose divorce isn’t as of yet final — which I kinda SUSPECT was the case here.
    .
    Yes, your husband needs to improv his relationship with his ex. But he probably won’t. Or can’t — as God knows some people can just NEVER let some things go… Especially when its clearly in everyone’s best interests…
    .
    So… What does that mean for you? Hate to say it — but now you get to eat shit from your step daughter as long as she’s still serving it up. Fun. Fun. But really — killing her with kindness is the ONLY hope you have for not being RIGHTLY branded as a evil bitch. If you act bitchy and cunty — if YOU, too, act like a bratty 12 year old, hiding behind the feeble mask of not wanting to reward bad behavior… You. Will. Lose.
    .
    Your ONLY hope is to go out of your way… To endlessly bend over backwards… It may not work. But at least then you will have truly done all that you can.

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    • avatar

      RedroverRedrover October 14, 2014, 2:45 pm

      I agree, except there’s one more thing she can and should do. Get her husband to lay down the law. The girl can’t just be allowed to outright disrespect her stepmother like that. If the husband won’t do that, then all the bending over backwards in the world isn’t going to help. Because you can only do that for so long before you’re just sick of it.

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      • Monkeysmommy

        Monkeys mommy October 19, 2014, 11:19 pm

        Totally agree with both of you guys here. Dad needs to grow a pair and lay down the law. I never tolerate disrespect or rudeness from my children to my husband, their stepfather, at all. He in turn tries to be a good role model, invites them to do things with him, and treats them as his own children. If I just let them walk all over him, I Imagine they would be rude and disrespectful, and he would not want anything to do with them

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  • avatar

    Kalu October 14, 2014, 5:29 pm

    I don’t really understand what a step parents roll should be (my parents are still together.) my husband has a stepdad, who signs birthday cards “dad,” even though my husband just calls him by his first name. Also, he married my husbands mom when my husband was 10 and from then on my husband had to go to church (new for him, big sis, and his mom)even when he would sleep through it (he never became interested) . Then when it was college time my husband got no money from his mom or stepdad but when his younger half sister (daughter of step parent) went she didn’t have to pay. Is this a crappy step dad? Seems weird to me, (and my husband is not really affectionate or caring towards his stepdad ) but also I have no idea what a step parent / child should do , it must depend on the child’s age and the bio parent who the step parent is “supplementing/replacing.”

    When I read this I could totally understand why the girl is upset and to me the best thing is to simply back off. I don’t inderstand why children should be forced to accept new parents (but they should always be forced polite, obviously). I’m just wondering if this is something that hurts the girl deeply and for which there’s not going to be a real solution. Although, in this particular case since the girl had fun with the LW before, there is some hope. For my husband, I don’t think he’s EVER enjoyed anything with his stepdad or sought out his advice, it’s been over 20 years now!

    Lastly if there is a good therapist available that’s always a great gift for anyone if you can afford it. Who regrets therapy? Unless the therapist is bad…

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