I’m having a tough time accepting my step daughter. My wife and I will be married for a year this October. The transition to teaching manners and respect has been slightly dismal. We want to embed gratitude, understanding consequences and how to be an overall good person. What can I do to accept her and win her heart at times I do not want to be around her? She’s 9, and we met 4 years ago.
Anonymous, in LA
What powerful questions. You can accept her, and I have some specific ideas about how to help you do that. You can’t win her heart, that is up to her… but chances are good she really does want you to, and you can give yourself a fighting chance. Your third question – how can you teach her gratitude and respect – will be much easier to accomplish after you truly accept her.
All you need is love.
The Beatles made that sound simple, didn’t they? If only it were easy to find love in our hearts. It’s the answer, though. This girl needs to know that you love and accept her for who she is, not just who you are trying to form her to be. She can’t accept your instructions and criticisms if she doesn’t believe down deep that you will take her however she is, and that your efforts to guide her come from wanting her to succeed. So how can you really learn to love this imperfect – even difficult – child?
- Find attributes you admire. What does her mother love about her? What is she passionate about, or good at or who does she make happy? Look for pieces of her that are great just the way they are (no matter how rarely you see them) and let her know. Don’t tell her “if only you were always like that” or “why can’t you be that way in this area over here.” Just give her praise, no strings attached.
- Talk about your step-daughter in positive and uplifting ways, even when she isn’t there. How we speak about someone directly affects how we view them the next time we are together. So picture her in the room with you always, ready to hear and believe all of your positive emotions.
- Love her for her mom’s sake. As you love your wife and accept her, accept this extension of her. Imagine the stress you will relieve, the honor you will bring to your wife by falling in love with her daughter. Whether or not you see your step-daughter as a reflection of your wife, it’s likely that they both see their relationship that way.
It seems that you have brought a new standard to her life. You are expecting respectful behavior, and changing the rules around her. These are good things that will serve your family well in the future, but you can see how she may resent your intrusion. Especially if her mom did not hold her to these standards before you introduced them.
If you can first love this girl, and help her believe it, you will be far more successful in guiding her behavior. She may be scared that you will leave her, or turn her mom against her, or leave her mom (and it will be all her fault) and so she can’t or won’t show respect. She may fear failing, or be angry at these new expectations.
Whatever her feelings, my only other suggestion is this: Ask her. In as nonjudgmental and non-threatening a way as possible, ask what bothers her about these rules, and listen to the answer. Don’t argue, don’t bargain, don’t plead or threaten, just listen. You may learn something helpful.