Stepfamily Problems

Q: All my stepchildren are grown and on their own. There is one son who is married and had a daughter from a previous marriage who lives with him and his wife, who has three children of her own. His wife yells at his 10-year-old daughter all the time (though she's been raising her since she was only two). I think she mentally abuses her, and I feel so bad for the child. My husband has noticed it also, but won't talk to his son. And I'm only the stepmom. -- Michelle, 45

Dr. Susan: Stepfamily dynamics can be crazy making. Here you have sympathy and love for a little girl to whom you are only related in a "relative" way. And it's possible she may be being abused, even if "only" emotionally. How frustrating! The poor kid needs someone to speak up for her until she is old enough to either speak up for herself or move out of that situation. In your position of stepmom to a stepmom, I see a couple of options: If you can find yourself in a one-on-one situation with this yelling stepdaughter of yours, you might offer your sympathy by saying, "Do you find it hard sometimes to be a stepmom, even after all these years? Believe me, I've been through it and there were times...." Just to open the conversation. If this woman feels validated for what SHE's going through, she might benefit, and thus the girl might benefit in the long run. Some kids just rub their stepparents the wrong way, and nothing is going to change that. But this woman mustn't be allowed to mess up this kid's life! Talk to your husband again, beg him to speak to his son or even to his daughter-in-law. No one says you have to love all your stepkids all the time (after all, hardly anyone doesn't fantasize screaming at or even harming their own biological kids at times, when the pressure is too great). But what needs to be found is a way for this woman to vent her distress via another adult, not at the kid who is probably doing her best to get along. Being yelled at one's whole childhood can have devastating results. Please continue, gently and sweetly, to try to get your husband involved a bit. Whereas the usual advice is for all of you to butt out, when it comes to potential abuse of a child, someone has to try something. I wouldn't just sit there quietly if I were witnessing the callous behavior in action.

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