Parenting Step-Children

Laura Markham's picture


I have a stepdaughter that I'm really struggling with. She's age 15 and has life figured out. I really DO care about her, but know she is heading down the wrong path. I'm really not trying to be judgmental, but know that I may be seen that way. I just don't feel like a 15-year-old is qualified to set ALL her own limits.

Her mom is um... how should I put this -- permissive? "Whatever you want, dear." Her philosophy seems to be that we shouldn't put "too many restrictions" on her. Dad is leaving most of those decisions up to me in our home because he doesn't want to be seen as the bad guy, which puts MORE pressure on me.As in,

She has been with us 2 years. It was just every other weekend, now she is alternating more often -- for weeks at a time. That, to me, is tough. Just as we seem to make the adjustments she goes back to mom, where there are no rules. We do really seem to connect, it is just that week of adjustment after each visit with her mom drives me nuts.

"No, I'm not going to ___!" or "Who are YOU to tell me what to do?" She ends up apologizing later after I don't back off, but it's draining emotionally and puts everyone in the house on edge.


So your challenge is building a relationship with a teen, when you never got to bond with her as a kid.

It's hard enough to co-parent with a spouse, it is incredibly challenging with a spouse's ex-spouse. But it isn't fair for you to be the bad guy in your home. Seems to me that starting with a serious meeting with your husband would be step one, followed by a meeting with the mom. All three of you parents need to be in communication, if not total agreement.

I see how your husband's removing himself puts you in the default position. This is really rough. But she is his daughter and he needs to step up to the plate. What would happen if you refused to act as mediator between husband and ex?

She resents your authority, and you have to rebuild the relationship. But I bet she may feel more cared about in a home with limits than the one without, which makes her feel disloyal to her mom. I know that seems odd. Turns out that we have to rebuild with all loved ones all the time. Even husbands, and kids who live with us. But of course in this situation it's worse. Let's think about concrete help for you.

I would say that when she first arrives, you need time to connect with her, before you start imposing rules and limits. Second, your husband needs to step in as an authority figure to revisit the rules with her when she first arrives. Remember, she has been living in a totally different way. But of course kids who live in two households do learn to navigate the differences. I also think it would help for you to have a heart to heart with her mom.

Include her in a one-on-one activity, such as helping to make dinner. Any activity will work, as long as she sees it as pleasurable, and that you want her company. Maybe you can bond that way, as she cooks, and your husband can clean up! You can use the cooking time to just chat about her life over the past week or so. If she sees you as on her side and caring about her then she will be more open to your influence.

Can you go out for coffee with the ex and bond over being the ones responsible for this girl? You can't attack her parenting, but you can listen a lot, and you can bring up your concerns about the girl's well-being, obviously from a place of caring about her. Naturally no mom wants to be criticized and she is doing the best she can, but if she hears your concern about her daughter's well-being....

Many therapists would say that you should leave this to your husband, but I would be more flexible, because there is a child's well-being at stake. If you're not comfortable meeting, a letter could be great. It would need to be very much phrased in terms of "I statements." You need to keep her from getting defensive. "I worry about your daughter when I see her do X because I love her and I'm afraid she is going down the wrong path and Y could happen," rather than "I think you should set more limits on her or Y will happen."

The point is that you want to share your love and concerns about her daughter but not focus at all on what the mom is doing, and then you probably want to ask to get together over coffee to hear whether she shares your concerns. Maybe she thinks everything is fine.

--Dr. Laura