Care and Feeding

My Stepdaughter Used to Be a Great Kid. But Now She’s Lashing Out and Demanding Her “Fun Mom.”

We’re getting her into therapy and working with the school. What else should we do?

The same young girl makes an angry expression and a happy expression in opposing photos.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Submit it here or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m marrying a lovely man in August. He has an 11-year-old daughter, who lives with us during the week and goes to her mom’s on weekends.

I’ve known her for four years and have lived with her and her dad for three. She has always been a great kid. I love her, and she has always reminded me a lot of how I was when I was a kid, so it has been easy to connect with her. Unfortunately, her behavior has taken a turn for the worse, and we don’t know what to do.

At home, she has started screaming at us, slamming doors, talking back, and saying she hates living with us because she just wants to be on the iPad at her mom’s. Mom is the “fun parent” who lets her stay in her room on the iPad all day and never makes her do anything, including go to school. This is why we have her during the week.

She’s started having meltdowns at school, and they have been removing her from class regularly. She was suspended last week over her reaction to a change in seating. She refuses to talk to us about what’s going on when we sit her down. (She just starts crying.)

On the recommendation of her school, she now has a standing appointment with a local therapist, and the school is doing some testing.

I worry that we’re not doing enough for her. What else can we do to help?

—I Love This Kid

Dear ILTK,

I’m going to cover the most obvious things and work from there, OK? I’ll start with this: You’re doing a great job. You’ve gotten her therapy, the school is doing testing, and you’re providing a stable home and an excellent example. You and your partner are really pulling your weight.

She’s starting puberty, and the storms of adolescence may be kicking in early. She may have liked having you as “Dad’s girlfriend,” but your approaching marriage may be removing the last Jenga tile from a parental reconciliation she may not even consciously know she wanted. These two factors can be unearthed and processed in solo and family therapy, and they are not a huge source of concern for me.

I don’t love what I’m hearing about the environment at her mom’s. I don’t think she actually wants to spend more time at her mom’s; I think she’s quite possibly trying to signal that things are not well there. (“Mom doesn’t make me go to school!” is not something an 11-year-old with any skill at guile says to the parent they don’t want to live with.)

Does her mother have a boyfriend? Have you met him? I’m glad you are her home during the week, but I would really push to find out exactly what her weekends look like, and if she feels safe, and if there’s excessive substance use, etc.

The therapist is a good start, but sometimes it takes a few different therapists until a kid (or an adult!) finds someone they can really open up to. I think family therapy in addition to solo therapy, if at all possible financially, is something to pursue now, before she’s older and more closed-off and has found coping mechanisms beyond bursting into tears and shutting down.

This could be simple and easily resolved, in which case you are already on top of it, or it could be a really bad situation or some form of mental illness, in which case you need to keep pushing.

Please keep me updated.

Dear Care and Feeding,

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I missed a very close friend’s wedding because I was too pregnant to travel. When I found out last year that another close friend was getting married in June of 2020, I decided that I felt so strongly about being there that we were going to put off trying for another kid until after her wedding. Now it’s February, and we haven’t received a save-the-date or an invitation. (This wedding will require a cross-country flight with an almost-3-year-old.) She gave me a range of dates and asked for my address months ago, but that’s the last we’ve heard. Another close friend also hasn’t received anything, and neither of us wants to push. We’re starting to get the sense that something might be wrong, although it’s just a hunch.

At this point, we need to know mostly for logistical reasons (booking flights, hotels, etc.). But since I found out about my friend’s wedding last year, I’ve also started to want another baby more and more. I’m afraid that if she’s rescheduled or postponed her wedding, that also postpones my second baby. I don’t know if I should say anything to my friend about this, and I know that realistically I should just start trying to get pregnant when I feel ready to, but the idea of missing her wedding breaks my heart. Is there any way I could approach this with her without being an obnoxious and entitled wedding guest?

—I Just Want to Know!

Dear IJWtK,

You are a very good friend, but you need to focus on yourself and your plans for your family and not this person’s wedding. You have zero idea how long it will take you to conceive, and frankly, it’s ridiculous to plan a pregnancy around someone else’s wedding. You know this! Start putting your family first and assume that if there’s going to be a wedding, you’ll hear about it, and if there isn’t, you’ll hear about that in time as well.

I’m so sorry you missed that earlier wedding. Please do not let it take up more space in your mind and heart than it already has. Would you be mad at a dear friend for missing your wedding because they were essentially crowning during the vows? I am confident you would not.

Because this is someone you consider a close friend, I think you should feel comfortable giving her a call and just seeing how things are going, generally. You don’t need to say, “SPIT OUT A DATE!” Just ask after her fiancé, etc. Let her reaction be your guide in pushing further.

If you missed Thursday’s Care and Feeding column, read it here.

Discuss this column in the Slate Parenting Facebook group!

Dear Care and Feeding,

My husband and I are expecting our first child and are in the house-hunting process. My husband dearly wants a three- or four-bedroom town home or condo with a tiny backyard and a homeowners association. I absolutely agree with him on wanting a smaller home, backyard, and the HOA to deal with maintenance, garbage, etc., as we both work full time, hate yardwork, and would rather be out and about, enjoying the weekends with our kids. (We’re thinking three kids at most.)

However, I can’t help but want a bigger backyard and a four-bedroom home, as I know how much of a blessing it would be to let our kids play outside in the safety of a larger, fenced-in backyard. I also worry that only three bedrooms with two kids will be absolutely hellacious after a few years, and all of us will need more space! But I know millions of other parents raise happy, healthy children in smaller spaces and manage not to murder everyone in their household. We need a third opinion!

—Is Bigger Better?

Dear IBB,

You are expecting your first child. You have no idea what the next 10 years will bring for your family. Your financial situation can change overnight, quite literally overnight. You might struggle to conceive a second child and find that those extra bedrooms are a source of pain. You might discover that your ideal four-bedroom home is already occupied by malevolent poltergeists or next to neighbors who do Morris dancing. You might find out your HOA changes its covenant to require everyone to put up hideous, over-the-top Christmas decorations from Thanksgiving to January and also no longer deals with your lawn care.

You are allowed to move. Don’t burden yourself now with a mortgage or rental payment that reflects your hoped-for child-filled future; instead, take the amount you’ll be saving in a smaller property and pay down your credit cards and student loans, start a six-month emergency fund, or, if you are already fortunate enough that none of these things are relevant to your life, establish an extra savings account so that you can eventually put a larger down payment on a larger property when you actually need one.

This is the third opinion for which you have asked. Please tell us if there are malevolent poltergeists.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 16-month-old daughter, M, and I were playing at the playground this weekend. A sweet 5-year-old girl, R, came over and started playing with us. R was wearing leg braces. As R was playing with us, she pointed at M and said, “Why is she just wearing shoes?” I thought R couldn’t see that M was wearing pants (they were leggings) so I said, “Oh she is wearing pants—see?” R responded, “No, why isn’t she wearing braces?”

I was a little surprised, as I would have thought R would have seen plenty of other kids not wearing leg braces. I also really wanted to say the right thing and be kind and supportive to R, so I said: “Well, she doesn’t need them. We all need different things.” My husband later suggested that I could have brought up the fact that I wear glasses, but other people don’t. Did I respond correctly? How can I do better going forward? I want to not only be kind to people with disabilities, but also to model this behavior for my daughter.

—Taken Aback

Dear TA,

I’m sure that R has indeed seen “plenty” of kids who are not wearing leg braces and knows precisely why your daughter isn’t. Kids have their own ways of bringing up their differences, and I think you handled it just fine. R likely wanted to hear that she was “normal” and her leg braces weren’t a big deal, and that’s what she got from your exchange. I have used the “glasses” example myself when my kids have asked about other people who need things they don’t, or when they do need things that other kids don’t need.

It’s good to prepare your kids to encounter disability in the world, as they most certainly will, and to respond to it in a calm and relaxed fashion. Books are great as a first conversation, as it’s better not to use real people as a Learning Experience. Now, don’t assume that your child will not ask embarrassing questions anyway. They usually do. Just take the questions as they come.

— Nicole

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