Ask Dr. Meg: My Step-Daughter Has Become Distant

Getting the cold shoulder from a daughter or step-daughter can make you feel bad about yourself. Here's why she does it and how to get her talking again.
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Last Updated
April 22, 2019
posted on
March 16, 2016
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3
Minute Read

(Names have been changed)

Dr. Meg:

A friend recommended your book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters.”

In some ways it is validating, other ways it’s incriminating.

We have an 18 year-old daughter from my wife’s first marriage. My wife has always encouraged me to parent her kids. That hasn’t been a problem; I love them like my own! Especially Jules. I have been a part of Jules’ life for 9 years. When Amy and I got married, Jules was overheard telling her friends and cousin that “now I have two daddies!” I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome. Between then and her 16th birthday, Jules and got to be very close. She’d go everywhere with me, sit next to me, lay in the hammock and talk. No matter where we were Jules would talk to me about everything!! When she reached adolescence, she would tell me about “cute” boys and ask me questions about boys and relationships. One of our most cherished bonding experiences was brushing her long brown hair after she got out of the shower. I’d brush until her hair was dry and we’d talk, joke, tease and laugh! She would tell me her hair turned out the best when I brushed it. I looked forward those moments with great anticipation! One other thing, she’d fall asleep on the sofa with my arm around her and I would carry her to her bed and tuck her in. Jules was open, forthright and affectionate. Her mother told me I was much more of a father to her then her natural father and that I knew her much better. Raising and being a part of this beautiful girls life far exceeded the joy of raising boys!

Then Jules turned 16. Almost as though her birthday was some sort of deadline, she abruptly stopped talking to me and was no longer interested in doing anything. She even stopped asking me to brush her hair! I felt like I lost a child! It was heartbreaking! I told my wife multiple times of my concern and she’d say, “It’s just a teenage phase.” Then last week my wife was talking to her ex about Jules and HE of all people asked Amy, ” What happened between Tim and Jules? They are not close and it doesn’t seem like she wants to be around him.” Finally!! Some validation!

I’ve tried to talk to Jules a few times over the past two years to see what the matter is, but she just denies there’s a problem. At the risk of sounding like a wimp, having her ignore me has been one of the hardest and most emotionally painful experiences of my life!

Then as I was showing my wife some of the things in your book, she just said, “you are not her father.” Then went to answer a call and did not return to the discussion.

If you have any insight, I sure could use the help! I cannot imagine loving a daughter of my own blood more than I love Jules!

Sincerely

Tim in UT

Dear Tim in UT-

My book talks about strong fathers and this refers to fathers who are biological fathers, stepfathers, and grandfathers- any man who is a real father to a daughter. It sounds to me as though you are a real father to Jules in many important ways. Here’s your problem.

Jules is most likely deeply conflicted. She loves two men and feels that both are her fathers. She feels torn between you and her biological father and may even sense that if she is loyal to one then she is disloyal to the other. Even if her relationship with her biological father isn’t good, she will feel a bond with him. If she has relationship with him that’s improving, then she will choose loyalty toward him right now even though you and she may have a closer bond.  She does this because, regardless of what her relationship with him was like before you came along, he was with her first and she feels a bond with him because he is her genetic father. Emotionally this may not make sense to you but remember, relationships are complex- especially when you are dealing with an 18-year-old girl. Her young heart can’t yet reconcile being loyal to two fathers and having a close, yet different relationship with both at the same time. She is psychologically and cognitively immature but she will grow.

Don’t be disheartened. Her story with you isn’t finished yet. The two of you have many great years ahead. In the meantime, this is what I suggest you do.

Be very supportive and encouraging in her relationship with her biological father. If she senses that you are in any way jealous, she will withdraw from you.

Let her know that you are OK with change. I know you hurt, but don’t let her know. Talk to adults about your hurt and when she is older, you may talk about it, but not now. If she senses that you need her, then your relationship will become twisted, not healthy.

Be patient, calm and positive and she will circle back to you. Know that you will be close again. This transition is temporary. Who wouldn’t want to restore a great relationship?

Pretend you are starting over. Do you remember what life was like with you and Jules before you were close? Sometimes it’s best to think about starting over again and having a fresh start. This doesn’t mean you ignore how close you were but think about forging a more adult relationship with her over the next years.

Ask her to do simple things with you periodically. Rather than lamenting what you two used to do, ask her to do things with you like going to a movie, on a bike ride, etc. Don’t push, but over the next year, let her know that you still want her company. She will most likely test you to see if you will hang in there with her. So never, ever give up asking for her company.

You are not alone. Many good stepfathers feel hurt as you do because you feel that you are competing for a wonderful girl’s heart. This isn’t a competition but it feels like one. Refuse to compete and be confident that as a man she loves, you will work with her to forge a newer, more mature relationship in the months ahead.

Being a strong father is no job for wimps. You are certainly no wimp, you just need to be patient, positive and hang in there as she figures herself out.

Dr. Meg Meeker, MD

Practicing pediatrician, parent, grandparent, coach, speaker, and author. Say hello @MegMeekerMD

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