My 14-year-old stepdaughter spends every other weekend with us, and she makes it clear that she doesn't like me and shows almost no interest in my 7-year-old son. I have been in her life for two years now and have tried to be nice but it bothers me that she pretends like I'm invisible. I didn't cause her parents to break up but I still feel like I'm being blamed for their divorce. What can I do?
When you fell in love with your husband, I am sure you had great hopes of creating a happy family that included both of your children, but as you are discovering, blending a family is often easier said than done. Here is my advice:
• Don't take her rejection personally. Your stepdaughter didn't sign up to be part of a blended family. Kids tend to be egocentric; they nearly always prefer that their parents stay together, even if they aren't happy. Rather than taking her behavior personally, see it as a natural expression of her resistance to a life change she didn't ask for.
• Look for the message beneath her behavior. Imagining how hard it is for your stepdaughter to be added to the mix of your new family may make it easier to feel compassion instead of disappointment. Is her behavior suggesting that she's lonely or feeling out of place? Might she believe that if she's friendly toward you it would be disloyal to her mother? Try to see how her distancing behavior makes its own kind of sense and address the cause at its root.
• Make sure she gets time alone with her father. She may resent you and your son if your presence means she is shortchanged on the already limited time she has with her father. While it may be tempting to do family activities to create bonds in the little time you all have with one another, keep in mind that instead of being with her father every day, she is only getting a few days a month with him. Be generous about offering time for them to be on their own.
• Make an effort to get to know her. Show interest in the things she likes, whether it's music, photography or fashion. Spending time doing things she enjoys or letting her teach you something she's good at will help her get the message that you are genuinely interested in her. But do be careful not to assume the role of parent or disciplinarian; leave that to her father.
• Make sure she is allowed to express difficult emotions. Encourage your husband to let his daughter know that she can safely offload her anger, confusion and sadness with him. She has legitimately painful feelings that need to be expressed. If he is unable to get through to her, find an experienced family therapist who can help her get her feelings out in the open so she doesn't manifest them in passive-aggressive ways.
• Ask her what she needs to feel more comfortable. What would make her feel more a part of the family? Does her room feel like it's hers, with familiar things to make it homey, or is she staying in a neutral guest room? Does she get to choose what to have for dessert or which movies to watch, or do you cater to your younger son? Does she weigh in on where to go on family outings, or does she feel like a tagalong? It is important that she knows her voice is heard, and that her feelings matter.
We often underestimate the importance of helping our children and teens grieve when parents divorce. Help her feel more comfortable in your home. Ensure that she has special time alone with her dad, and show an interest in gradually getting to know her. In time, she should come around. If things don't improve, do seek professional help.
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