Evil Stepmother No More

Dear Mr. Dad: I recently married a man who has a 13-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He and I met long after his divorced, so it’s not like I caused the breakup. Still, the girl has never liked me and, whenever she visits, she is arrogant and rude. I’m trying hard to be pleasant and establish a good relationship with her, and my husband has tried to smooth the way, but to no avail. What should I do?

A: Would it make you feel better to know that pre-teens and teens are insolent towards their biological parents as well? And that in some twisted way, your stepdaughter is giving you a complement by treating you just like a “real” parent ? No, probably not …

As painful as it is, what you’re describing is pretty much the standard in blended families. And while it’s entirely possible that you and your stepdaughter may never be best friends, there’s no reason why the two of you can’t at least get along.

Try to look at things from her point of view: Her parents divorced, which was undoubtedly a traumatic experience. Then her dad brings another you into the equation. Like many children of divorce, she was probably secretly hoping Mom and Dad would get back together. Having you share a bedroom with Dad shatters that fantasy and makes you an unwelcome interloper.

She might also be worried that you’ll try to undermine her relationship with her dad, or that if you have a child, he’ll love the new baby more than her. There are hundreds of scenarios rushing through her mind, and they all have one thing in common: you’re the villain. Stir in a few heaping spoonfuls of normal teenage surly rebelliousness and defiance, and the prospect of forging a relationship with the girl will seem less likely every day. If you can, try to remember that she’s most likely acting out because she’s feeling hurt and confused, not because she genuinely thinks you’re evil.

I know that sounds awfully gloomy, but there’s still hope for a warm and friendly relationship between you and your stepdaughter. Other blended families have overcome these challenges and you will too. But you’ll need two things: plenty of patience and the ability to tread lightly on eggshells.

If you haven’t yet, now’s a good time to have a quiet talk with the girl. Next time she visits, find a time when the two of you can sit down over a batch of cookies and a soft drink and ask her whether you’ve done anything to upset or hurt her. Be careful not to tell her she’s being rude or disrespectful (she is, but she’ll take your saying so as an attack and will stop listening).

If she mouths off or refuses to answer your questions, just tell her you like her very much and that you’ll never keep her away from her dad or undermine her mom’s authority. She may storm out of the room, but there’s a chance that what you’re saying will sink in.

Reinforce that message every time you see her–in words, and , more importantly, in actions. For example, buy her a CD of her favorite band, invite her to go to the mall or to the movies, or share any other activity she particularly enjoys. But don’t fall into the trap of trying to be too cool—that’ll backfire. Always remember important occasions such as her birthday, the holidays, etc. If you’re willing to put in the time, she’ll eventually upgrade you from evil stepmother to just plain stepmother.