Dear Prudence

Help! My Stepmother Won’t Stop Punishing Me for the Sins of My Youth.

In We’re Prudence, Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. The answer is available only for Slate Plus members.

A woman cowering on a couch with the silhouette of an older woman shouting.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by fabioderby/iStock/Getty Images Plus and darkbird77/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every week on Twitter @jdesmondharris, Dear Prudence asks readers for their thoughts on a question that has her stumped. She’ll post her final thoughts on the matter on Fridays. Here’s this week’s dilemma and answer:

Dear Prudence,

The relationship I have with my stepmother is a complicated one, and I feel like it’s starting to compromise my relationship with my father. For context: My biological mother is alive and we are very close, and my stepmother has been in my life since I was 6 years old. I have no siblings or stepsiblings, and my parents divorced when I was quite young. In my childhood, my stepmother and I were very close, and I thought of her as a second mother. Once I reached my teenage years, I had a very difficult time and struggled with depression, self-esteem, and risk-taking behaviors, often to the detriment of my parents, who had to deal with my sneaking out, lying, etc. My stepmother was particularly wounded by this behavior, and our relationship has not been the same since. I’ve apologized and made amends several times over, but every couple of years, her resentment crops up and she ignores me, lashes out at me, or starts fights with me. She reads malice into all of my words and actions, and seems convinced that I always have an ulterior motive. I’m 27 now, and I’m tired of being punished for the sins of my youth. My father stands passively by, and maintains that our relationship is between us, and has nothing to do with him. I’m growing very frustrated with both of them, and tired of being treated this way. How should I navigate this situation?

— Evil Stepdaughter

Dear Evil Stepdaughter,

I reached out to our readers on Twitter, asking for help with a question I couldn’t seem to answer: How do you make a loved one get over the past?

The answer that became clear is: You don’t. The ideas that came in helped clarify for me that the way to become okay with this situation is to not to force or convince your stepmother to let go of the way you behaved as a teen. Instead, it’s for you to let go of it. You have to forgive yourself and realize that you’ve switched roles. She’s now the one who’s being immature:

I’d like to gently suggest a reframe of the problem. Your acting out behaviors should have signaled to the adults in your life that you needed help. Instead your dad ignored it while your step mom took it personally. You don’t need to keep apologizing for being a hurt kid. — @CleverWhatever

LW has grown up but Step-Mom hasn’t grown. When she re-hashes your past sins, say, “Yes, I was a handful.” Self-deprecation disarms the other person: admitting you were difficult will take the wind out her sails. If she persists, suggest family therapy. It might help. — @snatetate

Wow, this person’s life is so similar to mine that for a moment I thought I had sent in a question and forgotten about it! your stepmother is still treating you like a child and you’re still reacting like one, and what you need to do is react (and live!) like an adult. it’ll feel unkind and like too big of a step, but you’ll have to pull back from her and remember that you ARE your own person now, not to be defined by the sins of your youth. don’t expect or hope for intervention from your dad. harden your heart! you’ll feel better! — @tazvonrue

I think the most important theme of the advice here is to stop pushing. While it’s worth one good clear talk with your stepmother to get to the bottom of her behavior and tell her how it’s affecting you, if that doesn’t lead to a change, it’s okay (and advisable) for you to pull back and try to stop hoping for her approval.

Try one more time to have a direct convo where you lay this out and ask stepmom her thoughts and feelings. Stepmom might not be reacting this way bc of past actions but something else? If stepmom does not engage or is unwilling to change behavior, adjust your relationship accordingly (keep things friendly but distant, do not engage in negative communication, etc.) this may be painful for you initially but sets boundaries to protect yourself from the ongoing painful cycle. You can’t make her change and shouldn’t be punished forever for your youth. — @muluacp

I had a very similar experience with my step father, who was a world class grudge carrier. This is probably not a healthy solution, but I kind of just learned to operate around it. I’d let him be in his feelings, be cordial, keep it pushing. I didn’t try to pull him out of it. and I didn’t seek forgiveness, in no small part because he also demonstrated behaviors that were harmful to ME in my teenage years, which he’d never acknowledge. But going back to your poster, I feel like if she’s apologized and attempted to make amends, sincerely, she’s done her part. We can ask for absolution but no one is obligated to bestow it. She may have to learn to accept that distance between her/ her stepmother is permanent. — @naima

You’re not who you were as a teenager. You’ve matured. Your stepmother hasn’t. The first part of your transition to adulthood was when you gave up the destructive behaviors. The next, more challenging part—which is going to be equally important to your ability to be happy—will be to accept that some people never grow up.