My 12-year-old stepdaughter is making life miserable for us all. I have been in her life since she was 5, but lately, she is very resentful of me and my son, who is 8. She ignores my requests, sasses back and complains to her aunt that she feels like an outsider. We all got along at the beginning, but things haven’t been good since last year, when my husband began traveling more for work, leaving me on my own with the children quite a lot.
Whenever I coach the parent of a child with behavioral problems, I ask them to take a few steps back and and look at the misbehavior as a message announcing that something in the child’s life isn’t working. In your situation, instead of listing the reasons this child shouldn’t behave as she does, I would ask,”Why does my stepdaughter’s behavior make its own kind of sense? What is she trying to communicate with her rude behavior?”
You may discover that her sassing back or complaining to her aunt is her way of getting something she doesn’t know how to ask for or receive from her father and you. She may be longing for a feeling of belonging, which wouldn’t surprise me given the fact that she’s 12 and quite often, social relationships become complex and even hurtful with kids rejecting and excluding one another on a regular basis.
Or she may feel sad about her father’s extended absences, wishing that he around more — even if she treats him with indifference when he is!
Rather than judging her harshly because she is looking for sympathy from her aunt, or taking her frustrations out on you, consider the fact that her behavior is a cover up for not feeling special or important.
Focus on finding out what she wishes was different in your family. What would make her feel included? What’s missing for her? What resentments is she carrying around you, or possibly her father’s absences? What are her gripes and complaints?
Instead of scolding her for ignoring you or speaking rudely, offer your stepdaughter a safe opportunity to offload her upsets with you and your husband — or just with her father, if she would prefer. Without correcting, advising or criticizing, let her speak her mind and heart freely. The more she feels listened to — without interruption — the greater the chance she will stop leaking evidence of her unhappiness with her difficult behavior.
Make sure she is having plenty of one on one time with her father. With him traveling a lot, she may be sorely needing the comfort that comes from their relationship. I also recommend that you invest some special time in connecting with her. Even an invitation to play a board game or go out to lunch — just the two of you — may help soften her heart and help her feel more connection within the family.
By the way, listening to her doesn’t mean you agree with what she’s saying. But, quite often, children resort to unpleasant behavior only after they have tried to share difficult feelings but been drowned out with advice or admonitions.
Feeling that you are part of a family means that you know your your feelings matter. Try to address what’s fueling your stepdaughter’s behavior, and get professional help if you need it. In the long run, it’s worth untangling this issue now, before things go from bad to worse.
Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the upcoming, Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.
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