It’s time again for “Dear Wendy Updates,” a feature where people I’ve given advice to in the past let us know whether they followed the advice and how they’re doing now. Today, we hear from “Not Really a Wicked Stepmother,” whose new husband’s 12-year-old daughter was acting out toward her. The girl’s mother was reinforcing the behavior and the father, the LW’s new husband, wasn’t doing much to help the situation, saying she should just ignore the stepdaughter’s behavior. I reached out to my friend, a clinical psychologist and single mom of a 12-year-old girl, for some help answering this question. Now, here’s an update from the LW:
First things first, I want to thank you not only for your advice, but also for reaching out to your friend (psychologist/mother-of-a-12-year-old-girl) and getting her thoughts. It helped so much to hear that my emotional reaction to all of this was understandable and that the conflict was really rooted in power, control, and boundaries.
I decided that before I could really start to work on addressing things with my husband, his ex, and my step-daughter, I needed to do a little homework myself and understand why I immediately went to a place where “this is all my fault” and why I was being cowed by a 12-year-old girl. I found a fantastic psychologist shortly after receiving your response. She has helped me understand the dynamic that exists between a divorced dad and his children, and how to best communicate with them both. We worked on ways to change the discussions with my husband from being confrontational and critical to ones where we are on the same team and working towards a common goal. It was about learning to express needs and wants before turning into a martyr. A huge realization for me was that I was really looking for cohesion with my husband and that the cycle of behaviors we had adopted when the kids were in the house were the absolute opposite of that, which left both of us with our needs unmet.
I’m really glad that I started the process of getting my head and my relationship straight because the domestic situation reached a head in early December when my stepdaughter raised a fist to me in anger in response to a relatively benign request. Not a great night. The whole thing was witnessed by her father who (in part due to the discussions we had been having in the background about needs and wants and the desire to be an effective parenting team) immediately told her she was off-side and that she wouldn’t be able to live with us anymore if she was going to be disrespectful, belligerent, and abusive. She continued to say that she was never going to respect me, blah, blah, blah. My husband told her to call her mum to come and get her, and that she would be welcome back with an apology and better attitude.
We reached out to her the next day, and we set a time for her to come over two days later. Many conversations took place to prep for that, and my husband and I agreed on key messages we wanted to communicate (you’re loved, you’ve got to learn to share, I’m not competing with you for your dad’s affection, it’s healthy for adults to spend time together without the kids), the questions we really wanted her to answer (why do you do some of these things?) and some basic expectations for what we needed to see out of this for a happy and healthy home.
That discussion went far better than expected. Tears on her part and an admission that she had been deliberately behaving very poorly towards me because she’s scared that her father will leave her behind in all this. An openness on my side to hearing what her experience has been and how my introverted nature affects her. I think it was also eye-opening for my husband as he saw the effects that his behaviors were having on both of us and how he was inadvertently fanning the flames.
So, she’s back with us now for two weeks a month. We have common expectations about behaviors in our home, and I feel like I’ve got a voice in what happens. I recognize that she’s an insecurely attached child who needs more time with her father after an absence. I also recognize through this that I’m an extremely introverted person and that immediately going from work into a house with an extroverted and insecurely attached child was making me crazy. Our quick fix to that is that she and her dad prep dinner as soon as we get in from work, and I use the time to go to the gym and decompress. That one small change (albeit fueled by a lot of contemplation and discussion about what drives behaviors) means we sit down to dinner at 6:30 – she’s had some time with her dad, I’ve had some time on my own, my husband has reconnected with the kids for some parenting time – and we are all in a more even head space. We’ve seen over the past couple of weeks that allowing her that competition-free time with her dad every day allows her to settle into the evening more effectively and that she stops clinging to him. And that, dear Wendy, means that my husband and I get a little bit of kid-free time every day.
I don’t think we’re done with this by any stretch of the imagination (she is only 12 after all – the uglies may still be ahead of us), but we’re building more of a foundation. Thank you for reminding me that I didn’t break this on my own and that it shouldn’t fall to me exclusively to fix it. That was exactly what I needed to hear. The encouragement to reach out and find others to help create a solution has totally changed the game, as have my psychologist’s frequent and gentle reminders that my husband and I are “the team” and our collective celebrations of my small step-parenting successes.
Not looking so wicked anymore . . .
This is a great update! Thanks so much for sharing, and I wish you and your family all the best moving forward as you continue navigating these still newish family dynamics and upcoming teenage hormones.
If you’re someone I’ve given advice to in the past, I’d love to hear from you, too. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a link to the original post, and let me know whether you followed the advice and how you’re doing now.