Stepdaughter's Mom Is Threatening to Send Her to a Distant School

13-year-olds are reluctant to confide in their parents. One of the benefits of being a "bonus parent" is that you can act as a sounding board for your stepdaughter to talk freely about the things she's struggling to sort out.
09/17/2013 11:11 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2013

My 13-year-old stepdaughter is having a hard time at school. She doesn't get along with her Science teacher and is having trouble keeping up in math.ᅡᅠHer mother thinks her current school is too big and is convinced that moving her to a smaller school 70 miles away from us is the best course of action.ᅡᅠI believe it is important for her to have an active and involved relationship with her dad. It seems like moving her would be sweeping her problems under the rug. The mother cannot change her school without my husband's permission. What would you suggest?

I am glad to read about the concerns you have for your stepdaughter. So many people believe that if they aren't playing the role of Wicked Stepmother, most stepmoms are only superficially interested in their stepchildren's problems. Your comments illuminate the truth that many stepparents are lovingly involved in the lives of their "bonus children." Naturally, you have to defer to your husband and his former wife to negotiate specifics, but I'm glad you are willing to be part of the team that addresses her current challenges.

Here are my thoughts about your situation.

• Explore options to help your stepdaughter succeed where she is now. A meeting with the school counselor will educate you about the specific kind of support your stepdaughter needs. Perhaps she can get some after-school tutoring with her math teacher to help her catch up. Or it could be that she needs to be transferred to a less advanced math class to will help fill in the gaps of her understanding. If you do all you can to make this school work and things still don't improve, you may then choose to explore alternatives. But first, do whatever you can to address her academic challenges at her current school.

• Address the problems she's having with her teacher. It is very difficult to learn from a teacher you feel dislikes you; many parents underestimate the detrimental effects on a child's self-esteem and confidence when a teacher routinely criticizes or berates them. Organize a meeting with the school counselor or assistant principal so your steppdaughter and her science teacher can openly discuss their differences and institute changes to make their relationship better. Be sure to stay up-to-date with how things are going to make sure that promises made in the meeting are honored.

• Be a safe haven for your stepdaughter. Sometimes, 13-year-olds are reluctant to confide in their parents; they don't want to upset them, or are afraid of being bombarded by unwanted suggestions. One of the benefits of being a "bonus parent" is that you can act as a sounding board for your stepdaughter to talk freely about the things she's struggling to sort out. While I hope your stepdaughter confides in her parents, you may be able to help her offload pent up feelings about some of the challenges she's facing, thereby lessening her stress and frustration.

• Establish solidarity with her mother. Any child of divorce will tell you how painful it is when their parents behave like enemies rather than allies. If your husband hopes to avoid a power struggle with his former wife over school choices, encourage him to arrange a phone (or in-person) meeting. Let him fully listen to her reasons for wanting to transfer their daughter to the other school before asserting his unwillingness to give it his stamp of approval. The more his former wife feels her point of view has been respected and heard, the more likely she will look for a solution that works for everyone.

I wholeheartedly agree that having an active relationship with her father is vital for your stepdaughter, and hope that these tips ensure that she stays close to you both.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.

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