Question 

I have a stepdaughter whose biological mom left her (we have no idea who her biological father is). My husband married her mom and later adopted her. After her mom left them, this stepdaughter ended up with my husband. We do not know where her real mother is. She tells us that her mother was abusive to her. My stepdaughter is now becoming a teen and has been very difficult to live with. She struggles to get along with her stepbrothers and she is constantly giving me attitude and butting heads with me. I have a really hard time trying to love her and connect with her. What can I do? I have tried spending time with her, talking to her, showing an interest in what she likes and she seems to still focus on everything she does not have. I know she has been through so much in her life and I don’t understand what to do to help her. It has gotten so bad that I have contemplated whom she could live with because I am stressed to the limit. I don’t want to send her away, but sometimes I feel it is my only option just to keep my sanity. I feel I spend so much time trying to deal with her that I neglect the other kids who do behave well. Please help!

 

Answer

Even though this stepdaughter isn’t biologically connected to either one of you, your husband adopted her before his divorce, so she belongs to him, and, therefore, to both of you. I realize that you understand this, as you’ve worked hard to connect with her and help her adjust. However, I recognize that when things get hard, it’s easy to become resentful toward her and her biological family who you wish would step in and take responsibility.

 

Since that isn’t going to be an option in the foreseeable future, it is up to you and your husband to teach her how to live in a family. She clearly struggles to know how to live with others. She most likely doesn’t trust anyone to take care of her, so she stirs up trouble and chaos, as that’s more familiar and safe to her than the security of a loving family.

 

This is going to require a heart check for you. She has caused you a lot of turmoil, and you are understandably irritated. There isn’t a parenting technique out there that will help you be less irritated with her. This requires repairing the quality of the relationship, which is more about heart than technique. I appreciate Terrance Olsen’s counsel on this matter:

 

Parents sometimes long to be more skilled than they know how to be. They sometimes think if they were better at a given technique, they could turn their children’s lives around. But there is something more fundamental than technique. It is the first task. It involves the quality of the relationship itself, and that cannot be grounded in mere technique or strategy, but in the heart. This is another way of asking parents to consider their ways regarding how they see and respond to their children.[i]

 

Do you just see her as a difficult kid who doesn’t really even belong to you? Or, can you see her as a discarded child who is simply looking for a place to settle down? Yes, she needs structure and discipline. But she also needs compassion and mercy. Balancing those two needs is the key.

You didn’t mention much about your husband’s involvement with her. His role is critical, as he’s the only consistent person she’s had in her life. I hope he’s not delegating her care to you. If that’s the reality, then it’s important for you to get him involved as soon as possible. He can do so much to help stabilize this situation with his interest and attention.

You might even ask him to lead out with parenting decisions that involve her. In most blended families, the biological parent often takes the lead with discipline involving their own biological children. While that can balance out over time to involve both parents, early on it’s the most natural order to which the children respond. Granted, he’s not the biological father, but he’s the closest option she has.

I commend your efforts to connect with her. You should keep doing that, recognizing with a compassionate heart that this is a terrified little girl who has no real sense of security. Like an orphan, she has no enduring ties to her biological family. That loss of connection is difficult to measure, but you can probably imagine how unsettling it might be for her.

You don’t have to fix her situation. You have an entire family to worry about. Do your best to be gentle with yourself and recognize how challenging this situation is. As your husband takes the lead on spending time with her, counseling with her, and working to help her adjust, you will be freed up to tend to your other children.

Also, please don’t forget your marriage. If you neglect spending alone time with your husband outside of the stress of this difficult situation, neither of you will have the strength and support from each other to be there for these children.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com 

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic and currently serves on the high council of the St. George, Utah young single adult second stake. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:

Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

 

[i] http://marriageandfamilies.byu.edu/issues/2004/Spring/adolescents.aspx