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Evil Stepmom


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Dear Evil Stepmom
What If My Stepdaughter Doesn't Want to Get to Know Me?

Dear Evil Stepmom,

My nineteen-year-old stepdaughter doesn’t want to get to know me. When she comes to stay at holidays or in the summer, we end up avoiding each other because she won’t talk to me. She gives one-word answers to my questions, barely acknowledges my coming and going from the house, and speaks to me only enough to keep her dad off her back at the dinner table. I’ve tried really hard, but lately I find myself giving up and going to my bedroom with a book shortly after dinner. I don’t dislike her – I just can’t make contact with her. I’m not trying to replace her mom; I’m only trying to get to know her so that she—and I—can be comfortable in our home. I’m thinking about inviting her on a trip, just the two of us, to break the ice. What do you think?


Trying in Boston

Dear Trying,

Thank you for your question. I find myself wondering where your husband is in this situation. While your stepdaughter doesn’t have to be friends with you, I hope her father is gently and firmly insisting that she treat you with respect, and that she use good manners in your home. He also needs to be communicating to her the norms and standards you and he have developed in your new family. For example, “in our house we say, ‘good morning’ to one another.’” He shouldn’t embarrass her, but he does need to make any new expectations of civility concrete and clear to her. Good manners are social lubricant, and exist to help us through sticky situations. This awkward getting-to-know-you period is a great opportunity for everyone in the family to practice their best social skills.

What you can do is keep your focus on building a functioning stepfamily; it’s one of the most important things you can think about right now. In functioning stepfamilies, everyone works to contribute to the well being of the whole, everyone looks after their own stuff (messes, laundry, etc.) and each member gets treated with respect. Your stepdaughter can avoid talking to you – that’s her choice – but she can’t get out of cooking or grocery shopping with you, washing dishes with you, or raking leaves with you. Invite her to help out, and worry less about building a friendship with her than creating a working household while she’s there.

I like your idea about getting away with her—it puts you both in a new environment, and on neutral ground. For now, though, a trip would likely be too much intimacy, too soon. Imagine it: three days at a spa, just the two of you, staring at each other 24/7. For one thing, it’s a whole lot of togetherness. More important though, it’s a privilege. Stepfamily members don’t get the rewards of membership until they become participating members in the family. To treat her to a trip now would be to reward and reinforce bad behavior. Though you can’t punish a person into respecting you, neither should you reward the fact that she is not treating you respectfully.

So put the trip idea on hold for a while and think “baby steps.” Invite her to go for a walk with you to check out a neighbor’s fabulous new landscape project. Take her to the bookstore on a research errand. Look for small pieces of time alone with her when there’s something to do or somewhere to go instead of sitting around talking. One adult stepdaughter who lived away at college when her father remarried told me that she and her new stepmother used to tend the garden together whenever she was home on a visit. She described it as a fun, low-pressure way for them to get to know each other.

Young adults whose parents have remarried have a lot of tumultuous and confusing feelings. She may be taking out some ambivalence, anger or frustration on you, or she may be trying to punish you for what she sees as a failure on her dad’s part. It doesn’t matter why she’s acting the way she’s acting. He’s the parent, you’re his wife, and together you two need to agree on and act on your leadership of the household. She’s still quite young, and needs all the good, steady, thoughtful parenting and stepparenting you two can provide.

Take your time,

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