I recently received a request for help regarding a common scenario encountered by most stepmoms I work with. The stepdaughters in this situation didn’t do one thing they were supposed to but did do another chore that also often got missed. Their dad quickly came to their defense against their stepmom right in front of them, causing the stepmom to feel disempowered and disrepected, driving a further wedge between her and her husband and his girls. This is so unfortunate and causes underlying hurt, anger and resentment to erode the love that had the two of them try to make a go of it in the first place. What follows is her request for help and my response – I welcome your responses too!
One of the biggest issues I have is this:
If something bothers me about my step kids and I go to my husband to talk to him about it, he often gets defensive and defends the kids. I hate this. Recently this happened.
I came home and my stepdaughters were heading outside. I piped up and said….Oh the kitchen floor didn’t get swept yet (it’s my youngest stepdaughters chore) The middle stepdaughter pipes up…and in a whining voice …said…. But WEEEE just did ALLLLLLL the dishes! I said that’s ok …I’ll just do it….so I decided I’ll just do it. My husband then enters the room and said the same thing… “They just did ALLL the dishes!” I’ve explained to him that my relationship with the kids is already fragile and when he defends them instead of me they have no reason to respect me. He just doesn’t get it.
I recall many a situation like this with my teenaged stepdaughters and their dad when I first entered their lives. You are definitely not alone in this one, and I know many other can relate to the frustration and the hurt you feel around how the girls treat you and how your husband didn’t support you. What I’d like to offer to you is how you might be able to better respond and support yourself in situations like this one in the future (yes, I’m afraid you’re very likely to encounter this scenario again and again).
One thing that can often happen in stepfamily situations like yours is that relating tends to focus on what’s not right and what we don’t like instead of what we enjoy about each other. It becomes a bit of a negative feedback loop and before we know it, everyone’s walking around on eggshells and defensive.
In the situation you describe, what I notice is that your “piping up” may have been the first or primary interaction with the girls that day – and if they reacted the way they did, chances are they were expecting and looking for how you were going to point out something you would like to be different – which most likely gets experienced by them as criticism or even as an attack. That’s what happens in the body when we go to defensiveness – we’re feeling attacked somehow.
If you would like less of these sorts of interactions, I’d recommend you try the following for a week and see what happens (it may take more time for them to get that it’s for real, if this has been a long standing pattern):
1. When you encounter each other, have a warm, genuine greeting and comment on something you enjoy about them honestly (cute outfit; love the way you fixed your hair; nice to see all of you together; looks like you’re going to go have some fun…)
2. Then, check in – and find out what they have done that they’d like to share with you first – things like: “real quick, give me a highlight from your day”; or “in one minute, tell me something you’re proud of that you accomplished today”; or “what’s a nice thing that happened for you today?” or “what’s something you did you feel good about?” or in this particular situation: “I’d like to know what’s been happening on the home front – catch me up real quick before you head out.”
3. If they share something they have done, like washing all the dishes, give them genuine acknowledgement and appreciation. “Good to know. I’m so relieved I’m coming home to a sink free of dirty dishes – Thanks!”
4. Then, after acknowledgments and connecting genuinely, you can ask – “Is there anything else related to the house and our agreements that would be good to address before you head out?” or “Anything that didn’t get done I should be aware of so I’m not surprised?” …
Then, if the youngest fesses up to not sweeping, you have lots of options:
Genuinely say you’d be happy to do it on this occasion, and be grateful she let you know
Thank her for giving you the heads up and ask her when she can commit to having it done by and give her a chance to fulfill her obligation.
You can also offer to help her out when she does it at the time she says – “Great – I’ll be here and can hold the dustpan for you and we’ll get it done in no time.”
The more you’re in a good mood about it, the more they’ll be pleasant back to you.
You’re in a thankless role most of the time. What I’ve found to make it more pleasant is to be honestly thankful for small, little things, and to use opportunities when you can to connect and to promote a feeling of “we” and “we’re all in this together” which will have you all feeling more like a family.
In terms of their father – the less he feels in the middle, the less he’ll have to take sides. If he’s defending his girls, you can get a lot of good feedback from him about what he sees they need to be defended from – what’s going on that has him feel a need to jump to their defense against you. This may not be easy to hear, and you may find yourself feeling defensive too. Keep breathing, and allow yourself to listen and learn. Then, offer to him where you’re coming from and your challenges – not so much from being right about your position, but more from a place of how hard your role is and how much his support means to you. Then the two of you can explore how you can be more aligned as a couple when it comes to your home and how you’d like things to be together for the two of you and for all of you as you go forward.