Q. For the last 5 years my stepdaughter, who is almost 17, has spent every summer and nearly every weekend with us. This is about a third of her time, yet she has never integrated herself in our community.
Although we live in a neighborhood where there are plenty of teen-agers and plenty for them to do, she has made no friends and makes no effort to entertain herself. On weekend visits she always has "too much homework" to become involved in anything.
At our urging, she does participate in some activities at a nearby community center. She also did volunteer work the past two summers. In all cases, she attaches herself to the adults involved and ignores the teen-agers.
She seems pleased when we do plan activities that appeal to her, but she makes no effort to talk, whether on a family outing or one that just involves her.
She does seem to have friends at her mother's, with whom she plans activities. At times I think she is determined not to enjoy herself at our home, as if it would be disloyal to her mother and to her friends, although she does get along well with her stepbrother and half-brother.
I should mention that she opposed her father's marrying me, even though she kept her feelings bottled up until we had been married a year. She says she has worked through those feelings and put them behind her, but I'm not convinced.
A. Of course you're not. If your stepdaughter were reconciled to the remarriage (and more specifically to the divorce) she wouldn't be sitting out a third of her time in order to control a third of yours.
And that's just what she's doing.
This isn't a carefully orchestrated plot on her part, but a sign of her pain. Divorce is desperately hard on children and remarriage is still harder. It is the death knell to her dream of reconciliation--a dream held by every child of divorce--and it's sure to bring sorrow.
All grief follows the same pattern. First there is denial, then anger, then bargaining, then depression and finally acceptance. Your stepchild sounds like she's still stuck at Stage 2, and from her point of view your kindnesses are only making it worse. They not only make her feel guilty, but she's bound to notice your own inevitable resentment.
By letting her withdraw and act helpless you are subconsciously teaching her to solve all future problems this way.
Forget about bribing her with good times. First she needs to be required to be polite--to speak, to smile, to work at living in a community. A child who can get away with bad manners isn't learning anything but bad manners. If she doesn't want to go out with the family--and smile about it--that's fine. She can stay home.
And if she doesn't want to get a job, that's fine too, but lolling around all weekend is not. No 16-year-old has so much homework that she can't run the family errands or cut the grass one afternoon or cook dinner on Saturday or Sunday.
If a child doesn't contribute to the common good, she will feel like a guest, and not a very nice guest at that. There are no dividends without some investment.
You want her to realize that she has to pay her own way, wherever she is, but this isn't an easy demand for you to make.
You can get some good insights into your problem--and its solutions--with an exceptionally fine book, ReMarriage by Anne Lorimer with Dr. Philip M. Feldman (Running Press; $5.95).
In it you'll learn that every stepmother makes the same mistake: She tries too hard. You'll have to try less--and your stepdaughter will have to try more.
This message will be much easier to learn in family therapy. If you and your husband go with her--rather than send her to a therapist alone--each of you would be accepting responsibility for the situation, rather than putting all the blame on her. This would make it much easier for her to change.
This will help your stepdaughter realize that she can have a good time at your house and still be loyal to her mother. Family therapy also will help you stand up for yourself without feeling guilty about it and will encourage all of you to be more honest with each other.
The idea of seeing a therapist may embarrass you, but it shouldn't. Marriage is like a game. The higher the stakes, the more the players need a referee--and marriage has the highest stakes of all.
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