You’re older now, and have finally settled into the relationship that you just know is the one. Problem is, you’re not alone in that relationship. That’s right, that perfect someone will be bringing their children into the relationship. If you’ve never dealt with children in your own life, you may be up against a steep but not impossible learning curve.
Marriage is hard enough. But I know as a stepchild and a stepparent that blended families are very difficult. They don’t have to be, but they are. It’s as if children see the newcomer as something alien, a reason for children to lash out and challenge authority.
But you didn’t consider it a challenge of authority. Instead, you maturely considered it a test of the firmness of your relationship with your new spouse or partner. After all, a child wants permanence, needs stability, and sometimes children challenge new relationships to test their solidity.
By now you’ve gone the extra mile. Instead of backing down you’ve stood your ground. At times you’ve caved to the pressures to save face. Sometimes you may have avoided conflict to let cooler heads prevail.
But nothing worked. You’ve run up against a stepchild whose manipulative behavior is threatening your relationship. Is it a test? Perhaps. Or it could be signs of other issues in and around your relationship with her and her mother or father.
Why does a child clash or fight with the new step-parent?
It is common for kids to struggle with step-parents. (For some reason, stepkids hate stepmoms more than stepdads.) After all, this new person is coming in to their life and may be trying to step into the role of another person who the children still love and feel loyal to. They may not want this person to come into their lives, and feel little incentive to try and allow this person to take on the role he/she is trying to fill. Some influence son behavior have little or nothing to do with the step-parent at all, and have more to do with:
- Pressure on the kids from other sources to treat the step-parent a certain way
- Cultural Expectations
- Parenting Styles (permissive)
Every child is different, and there is no ‘one fix all’ solution when it comes to children. However, like most personal issues, sometimes it’s easiest to start by looking for what might be influencing the child’s behavior. The child may be acting out in response to other pressures, some of which you can observe, and some you may not. Further, the behavior may not be consistent, and it may only come up when certain people are present (or not).
See also, How to Deal With An Angry Child
Start With Gathering Information
Rather than trying to make your conclusion about the cause of the fighting or manipulative behavior, start with observing. Pay attention to the child, and keep a written log on your phone or in a notebook. This might sound silly to do, but you won’t feel that way if you are able to see a pattern. This is also going to be helpful when you start talking with your new or soon-to-be spouse (the parent of the troubled child). Instead of going to your partner with emotional allegations, you’ll have a rational documentation of what you observed, rather than an argument. The journal will also be useful to any psychologist or behavioral therapist that you seek to consult with if necessary in the future.
Ask yourself, is there a routine time when she acts this way? Does bad behavior occur during transitions, at school, at home, in the car, before dinner, to a specific person, in a specific place, with the goal of a specific result?
If your relationship with the child’s other parent is cordial enough, gather information from him/her as well. If your spouse will help, see if you can also talk to the other adults in the child’s life, such as teachers, coaches, and other parents.
How are things at school? If she’s not getting her way at school or in a group activity, take note. Remember how harsh school was for you or your friends? Well, she’s going through those same evolutions.
Write down her words and the things she says. Do these statements sound like the words of a child or words she has heard before and is repeating?
Finally, keep notes of what you (and the other adults) were doing when the behavior emerged.
After You’ve Gathered Information, See If Any Clear Patterns or Conclusions Can be Drawn
The information you’ve gathered over a period of weeks or months may help you see what is happening. For example, transitions back and forth can be a real trouble zone for children. If she spends time in two households, see if there is any evidence that is part of the problem. While your relationship may be healthy, it’s possible that at her other parent’s house that is not the case. Or, the child could be receiving conflicting or troubling messages at the other house, which erupt to the surface during or right after transitions.
You may see that trouble occurs when the step-parent asserts herself, such as when trying to enforce house rules or new routines. Or the trouble may come in the form of lying about the step-parent, or the child’s own behavior to the step-parent.
In many cases, collecting information and reviewing it (alone or with your spouse) will help you spot the trouble and develop a plan to address the behavior.
But sometimes, all the notes do is help you keep track of the trouble, without giving you any specific idea of what is causing the drama or how to fix it.
What Can Step-Parents Do If There Is Nothing Obviously To Be Changed Or Fixed?
As adults, we like to have a neat and tidy solution to all our problems. We think that any problem can be solved if we just work hard enough. But that isn’t always the case, especially with teenagers.
Stay Calm: Helping People Who Can’t Even Help Themselves
The hard part about kids is that they aren’t adults. Meaning, sometimes their emotions and thoughts and feelings burst forth from them in words and emotions and actions that make no logical sense whatsoever. It could be that you as the step-parent feel like the child is treating you badly (always yelling, throwing things, disobeying) when the child actually finally feels comfortable enough with you to express those negative and uncomfortable feelings.
Maybe your step-child is trying to manipulate you because you are the step-parent. Don’t make that assumption. Instead, take it in stride. Maybe that bit of negative attention is a veiled call for help. Or, it could just be a teenager venting. Either way, don’t always take things personally.
We like to think that we are the center of our own universes. Sometimes it’s a good thing when we are not. So give your ego a rest. Maybe the problem isn’t you. This is a good thing!
One of the first steps to dealing with your manipulative or trouble-making step-child is to keep calm, and to do everything in your power to prevent the child from “getting” to you. It is almost impossible to deal with trouble when you yourself are aroused and upset.
Stay Focused: Stand United With Your Partner
You’re not part of the original order in her home. Change is never easy. You’re going to be a perfect target, like it or not. And your relationship with her parent, that is going to be another one. She may take aim at either or both.
Negative behavior aimed and you and your relationship with her parent is often about testing boundaries. These are important considerations to keep in mind, and to never take lightly. Why? Because they are the ground rules for your relationship with your partner and your step-daughter.
What will happen if I do ______?
How will they react if I do ______?
Will they break up if I do ____________?
As you work to try and break the manipulative behavior, work closely with your partner. Respond to misbehavior the same way, consistently. Make sure you each understand what is happening so that you don’t get bounced off each other or played.
As you struggle with the child, focus on doing everything you can to strengthen your connection and bond to your partner/her parent. Talk often, and stay connected. Do not let the trouble with the child or children destabilize your adult relationships, as the kids need to see that you and their parent are a stable unit. You aren’t going anywhere, and you aren’t giving up on them.
Be Consistent: Pick Your Role and Stick With It
What sort of step-parent are you? Mother/Father substitute? Nacho Parent? That aspect of the relationship needs to develop. It’s best nurtured early on if you and your partner do not allow the child to divide and conquer. You are in a precarious position between your partner and his or her daughter. You could also be representing a fill-in for her mother or father on a part time basis.
If your partner isn’t around, don’t fall for simple pressures like “My mom would let me do this or that.” Stand your ground, but be gentle. It’s all right to say, “I don’t know if your mom would allow that or not.” Is it the answer they wanted? No. But it is not an answer that immediately strips them of something they may have permission to do.
Whatever you do, be consistent about it. The child needs to know what you will or will not do. Inconsistency will absolutely encourage her to retreat into negative and undesirable behaviors.
Protect Yourself From False Allegations
Children do not always think about the consequences of their actions. While this will not happen in every case, children may sometimes tell stories or make statements that are untrue that can irreparably harm the step-parent. It happens occasionally that a child will make an untrue statement to a teacher or another adult of physical abuse. These allegations can be very hard to defend against.
If you honestly think that your step-daughter might go this far (or she makes threats to do so), you have to balance the risk against your desire to become an integral part of the family. Planning for false accusations goes beyond the scope of this article, but I wanted to put it out there as something to think about.
Be Patient: Children Do Not Change Overnight
It’s important to keep in mind that becoming a family will not happen overnight. It never does. Acknowledge your stepdaughter’s feelings on the matter. Give them validation.
Being in a new family is done as much by feel as it is by instruction. You may be learning how to deal with kids for the first time. Your stepdaughter may clue herself in to that. Give her the credit she deserves and never minimize her intellect or emotions. If you’re going to parent, you need to learn the ropes.
Don’t let your stepdaughter sabotage your chances of success. With every step taken in creating this new family, make every decision one that reinforces your love for your partner and your desire to be there.
Your reactions will determine how any situation resolves. It could also determine the length of your relationship with your partner. Remember, your stepdaughter is a child. You are the adult. Brush off those hurt feelings. Engage her without causing harm.
And let her know that she is part of that equation. She is loved as is your partner, and she has to know that she is part of the reason why you decided to make this relationship, this new family, a reality.
Sometimes It Is You
Yeah, you. I’m talking to you. I know I wrote earlier that it’s not always about you. And it’s not. But, sometimes your reaction makes it all about you. Your stepdaughter will see your reactions to her actions.
But she’s so mean, that’s what you’re thinking. Maybe she is. Or it could be that she’s trying to feel things out. Don’t look at it as her trying to make or break you. Although, it probably does feel that way. And sometimes she probably is trying to get you to bend farther than her own parents.
When she asks you to bend, don’t break. It may be necessary to call your stepdaughter out on her own behavior. You know what? That’s quite all right! It’s all in the approach.
You may be tested. But don’t yell, throw things, or act out inappropriately. You’re the adult, remember? If your partner sees these behaviors, she has the right and duty to call you out on it. Look, we’re not all cut out to parent. But you made the decision to be here, and as an adult, you owe it to your partner and her daughter to make an effort.
So, forget the emotional response when you are the target. Fall back on what you and your partner agreed to do. Seek your partner’s advice. Parent together. Place your dedication to your partner and stepdaughter on display through your actions.
When All Else Fails, Give Yourself Some Space
In an argument, it’s always okay to walk away. A manipulative child will challenge you. She’ll force you into a position where no one can win. Do you give in or face the wrath? Neither. Walk away. By walking away, you take that power away from her.
By doing this you’re also not validating her behavior. You should never reward bad behavior. It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to please your stepdaughter instead of dealing with her sometimes irrational actions. At times, it takes the bigger person (yes, that’s you) to set the tone of the conversation.
See Things From Her Side
Always consider why you have a stepdaughter. Is she a product of divorce? Or, did her mother or father pass away? As the stepparent you are walking into a situation by choice. Because someone, your partner, wanted you to be there. As a person, you brought something to the relationship that was unique.
Along those same lines, remember that your stepdaughter’s parents are just as unique to her. When a child loses a parent, it’s difficult in the least. When that parent is deceased, gone forever, those memories are all that is left. Honor those memories.
Reinforce why you wanted to become part of this family. Let your actions speaks as to how you add to the family dynamic, not an attempt to replace another person.
Chances are, your stepdaughter will look up to you more if you make this distinction clear. We are all invaluable to our families in some unique ways. None of us are totally replaceable. There is permanence to some departures that is important to recognize.
Likewise, there are possibilities that we bring to compliment what was and remains the best parts of your new family. Understanding your role will go a long way in introducing yourself into the family without detracting from it.
A new marriage or relationship is invaluable in the love that it brings to all involved. Focus on that. If your stepdaughter is challenging and manipulating you, ask yourself why. Take your eyes off of yourself. Because in most cases it’s not you.
But when you can, take a closer look at yourself and how your behavior could be influencing the situation. Rather than stir the pot, be a source of calm. Any child, from toddler to teen, will sense and respect that. In the end, it very well could be the glue that connects you and your stepdaughter.
Emily Anderson is a mother of three children, all under the age of 10. Located in the Pacific Northwest of the US, Emily is a mom and part-time blogger, jumping in front of the computer when the kids are sleeping. She started this blog in April of 2019 and is proud that the blog is now paying for itself. If you want to know about her journey as a blogger, check out out her personal digital journal or her post about failing her way to blogging success.