You + Stepkids = Confusing

You + Stepkids = Confusing

Kids Feel Guilty. Ex’s Get Mad. You Feel Frustrated.

I am dating, almost engaged, to a man with a 10-year-old daughter. Her parents have been divorced for almost seven years now, but she still cannot accept the fact that her mommy and daddy will not be getting back together. The exes are completely amicable, and I get along with his ex. The 10-year-old tells me that she loves me, but is afraid to because she feels guilty about her mom. She is a difficult child, and is pretty spoiled, (overindulged may be the nicer term) and was made to fulfill the role of ‘significant other’ in each parent’s life. Neither of them dated or had relationships for years before I came into the picture. She constantly tries to get into bed with us, does not want us to hold hands, has to be in the middle of us when we sit down, etc. On the other hand, she is a very bright and talented child, and can be very sweet. I am trying to have as much compassion for her as possible. I love her father very much, and I, myself, cannot physically have children,so I saw it as a blessing that I will have a stepchild. But it is NOT easy to cope with this! Her father and I have had counseling about this. Can you recommend some literature that may help? Thanks, B.A.

Dear B.A.: First of all, it’s really great news that you get along with your boyfriend’s ex-wife. This is unusual; many of the letters I receive are from women complaining about their boyfriend’s or husband’s ex-wife. My co-author, William Merkel, Ph.D. (, says it’s very common for divorced parents to become very close to their children and to treat them in some ways like significant others. He says that divorced parents often become what he calls fused or too close– to their kids.

One of the problems with children who are fused with a parent: The children may not learn to believe their own internal states. They tend to pick up the parent’s feelings and confuse them with their own, he says in our book, “One Family, Two Family, New Family.” They also feel responsible for the parent’s feelings, and can’t bear it if the parent is unhappy.

When you’re in this position, it’s critical to be patient. If you feel your spouse or partner is fused with or too close to his or her child, don’t expect immediate changes. Don’t try to intervene each time you’re excluded from the pair. Instead, try to strengthen your relationship with the adult. At least one evening a week, find someone to care for the child, and spend some time alone with the adult. “When the adults’ relationship is solid, there is less room for a fused relationship with the child. The parent isn’t as needy and the child doesn’t feel as responsible for the adult,” he says in our book.

At the same time, you should ensure this girl has time alone with her dad. Honor and support her relationship with her biological parents. It’s also common for children of divorce to want their parents to reconcile. Your boyfriend’s daughter may feel this way for many years or the rest of her life. This isn’t really about you; it’s about her primitive desire to see her parents together. In addition, I suggest your stepdaughter read “The Step-Tween Survival Guide.”

It gives great tips for helping children express their feelings. I often recommend this article, as well: Be patient and good luck.