What exactly is the purpose of teens again?
March 21, 2012 6:14 PM   Subscribe

Please help me talk to my boyfriend about his relationship with his ex-wife and rude, overly indulged child and evaluate my relationship overall. Yeah, I know. Long.

My boyfriend and I have been dating for about a year and a half and have discussed marriage.

I love this man and we have a really wonderful relationship with lots of laughter, good sex, time spent together enjoying common interests and time together “alone” … I feel emotionally safe with him and very much loved and respected. It is by far the best relationship I’ve had in my adult life. We are both well over 40. I have no children (I am the oldest in my family and played mommy to three children so I was never really interested) and I have never been married. My boyfriend is divorced.

The problem:
My boyfriend has a preteen daughter from his previous marriage. Let’s call the daughter “Isabella” and the ex-wife “Barb”.

My boyfriend admits that he was not his best self during his marriage. He was drinking too much and very depressed. It didn’t help that his wife at the time was shrill and distant and involved with another man. The marriage was bad. They hurt each other. They divorced. Boyfriend got help for his drinking, started working out, developed some close friendships and is a better man today. He’s apologized to his Isabella and Barb for all the hurt he caused and is a very good … but very indulgent father.

His daughter is a spoiled rotten manipulative brat … and this is putting it lightly. She whines, he buys her things. She wants a spontaneous sleepover with five girls and pizza, ice cream and a bounce house? He sprints all over town at the last minute to get it done. I know this is his guilt acting but he refuses to discuss it any more than to say “Yes, you’re right. I feel guilty so I’m doing this.”

Isabella regularly plays her parents against each other. When she’s at her dad’s she trashes her mother (who recently remarried). When she’s at her dad’s, she calls her mother to rat out her dad for yelling at her or not letting her do something she wants to do. The way she talks to her dad makes me want to slap her. Really. She has hardly any responsibilities. Her dad gave her chores. She never does them. My boyfriend makes her breakfast every morning she’s at his house, packs her lunch, makes her dinner while Isabella sits on the computer or chats with friends on her phone.

The most recent blowup: Boyfriend yells at Isabella for being talking to him in a way that would have gotten me grounded for a year when I was her age (after I got slapped). Isabella ran to her room to call her Mom. My boyfriend was furious. This happens at least every other month.

The bigger problem though is that Barb and my boyfriend NEVER talk to each other. They communicate through a 12-year-old who manipulates everything they say. Barb never told my boyfriend she was getting remarried (and my boyfriend was petrified about having this guy in the house with his daughter because Barb only knew the guy three months before marrying him.) Although there were apologies all around, Barb and my boyfriend still very much resent and dislike each other.

I’m sorry this is so long but my questions are:

1. Is there ANYTHING at all I can say to my boyfriend to encourage him to have some dialogue with Barb?

2. If there is anything I can say, please, please help me find the words to say it.

3. I’ve been single for a long time and I don’t have children so I’m worried that I am just being a Quirkyalone who wants everything quiet and isn’t willing to deal with any distractions/difficulties and isnt hip to how pre-teens act these days. This is also my longest relationship. I’m also wondering if maybe working through these difficult things is just par for the course and I’m just not accustomed to it?? I'm also wondering if he's just not the right guy for me.

Please hope me.
posted by nubianinthedesert to Human Relations (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think you're being really unreasonable and your perspective is way off kilter - you talk about this child like she's an adult. "She has hardly any responsibilities". Well I should hope not, because she's twelve. "My boyfriend makes her breakfast every morning she’s at his house, packs her lunch, makes her dinner while Isabella sits on the computer or chats with friends on her phone." Well I should hope so! He's supposed to make her meals because he's her dad and she's his child. Should it be the other way around?
posted by moxiedoll at 6:24 PM on March 21, 2012 [43 favorites]

1. Have some compassion for the child. She's only 12 and in a very difficult situation. It's not entirely appropriate to compare her behavior to that of children whose parents still talk to each other and live in the same house.

2. If you make your boyfriend choose between you and the child, he will (rightly) choose the child.

That said, your plan of getting him to communicate with the ex is a good one. There's no excuse to use a 12-year-old as a go-between and is surely causing many of these problems. He clearly cares about the child, so pointing out how it is hurting her (NOT how it is hurting or annoying you) may be the best tactic to take. This is bad divorced parents 101 stuff that he should know.
posted by quincunx at 6:27 PM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Often, in situations of divorce where the two parties are pretty angry and not able to communicate very well, a notebook is used and sent back and forth during the visitation switch. In the notebook the parents can "discuss" issues regarding their child. The parents can then respond, in the notebook, basically having a "back and forth."
posted by Sassyfras at 6:28 PM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

Wow, I feel terrible for this child. Being a teenage girl is tough enough under ideal circumstances, but Isabella has lived through a) a rough marriage involving an alcoholic and depressed father b) a divorce, and now c) a new stepfather and a quasi-stepmother who can barely contain a seething resentment towards her. (Trust me, she knows you can't stand her.)

I suggest you step back and try to gain some compassion and tolerance for a teenage girl in very difficult circumstances. Leave the parenting to the parents. If you can't do that, this might not be the right relationship for you at this time.
posted by lalex at 6:35 PM on March 21, 2012 [47 favorites]

I don't agree that she shouldn't have any responsibilities. Twelve is old enough to help with chores, not have every meal served to you and be punished for disrespecting your father. I think the OP understands that this is not the kid's fault. In this case, the only change you can reasonably ask for is in your boyfriend's behavior. If you're thinking about marriage, you may also be thinking about kids. You need to be on the same page about the big stuff if you are going to have kids together. So, talks about (each of your personal) ideal parenting practices and how they translate into the real world would be good here. Opening up that line of dialogue could make him reflect on his parenting since he got sober.
posted by soelo at 6:39 PM on March 21, 2012 [9 favorites]

3. Sounds like you need a guy with a lot less baggage.

Your anger at Isabella is misdirected. Her mother and father have a completely dysfunctional relationship and are both acting irresponsibly. She's a twelve year old and the two most important adults in her life are acting like vindictive children.

This kid didn’t choose to be this situation with these crazy people. You did. If you need to bounce, do it.
posted by OsoMeaty at 6:41 PM on March 21, 2012 [28 favorites]

That's interesting, you're playing the mother to 3 kids again.

Is there ANYTHING at all I can say to my boyfriend to encourage him to have some dialogue with Barb?

Yes, but I'm not sure what it is. What usually works with him when doesn't want to listen? You know him better than any of us, what helps him see the problems in bad situations?

2. If there is anything I can say, please, please help me find the words to say it.

"Babe, love ya, but this shit has got to stop or change or something. Because spending the rest of my life in this dynamic is frankly terrifying. Can we go to therapy, read books or something? Because living like this isn't good for me, you or Isabella."

I'm also wondering if he's just not the right guy for me.

If he's not wiling to change ro address the problems, that may be the case.

and you criticizing his parenting (when you don't even have any kids or any interest in them) is wildly inappropriate.

If the two of them are discussing marriage, the only inappropriate thing is letting this situation fester.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:48 PM on March 21, 2012 [15 favorites]

I think it's in the best interests of everyone (including you) for you to break up with Boyfriend and tell him exactly why you are doing so.

I was a lot like this kid at 9-11 years old (though I was never assertive enough to be openly defiant like that) and it was really, really hard for my then soon-to-be-stepmom in a lot of ways. It takes a whole heck of a lot out of a person to be the grown-up when there's a kid having adjustment problems - adding to that the really profound parenting issues here, and I just don't see an upside to you staying.

By the way, that kid is being seriously, seriously mistreated. I know it looks like fun and games, but this is one of the worst ways her parents could be behaving, and she is suffering, though she might not be totally aware of it yet. And yeah, sorry, but living part-time with an almost-stepmom who can't stand her also qualifies as mistreatment.
posted by SMPA at 6:49 PM on March 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

If how you write is how you truly feel about this child, then please exit the relationship.

On the off-chance that you're indulging in some hyperbolic language regarding your feelings about all this, as many Askers are wont to do, I think you should not move any further along in the "discussing marriage" portion until this is moving towards resolution. Barb and Boyfriend need to be communicating and you, Boyfriend, Barb, and Barb's Husband need to be communicating on how to raise this child. All you can do is suggest and encourage it, but please don't enter the marriage as things stand right now. It will only get worse for ALL of you. To be honest, it doesn't sound very much like Barb and Boyfriend are terribly interested in doing this, though.

Nor do you sound like a person who wants to be a parent. There's nothing wrong with that last bit, but you really need to figure that out ASAP.
posted by sm1tten at 6:53 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

You don't get to do any parenting. It's unfair to you, but that's the way it is. You do get to coach your sweetie on his parenting.
1. Isabelle will like it better if he sets reasonable rules, like limitations on junk food & teevee, and an expectation of respectful behavior.
2. Isabelle wants her Dad's attention. A lot. He should take her out to dinner, ice cream, ball games, movies, the beach, shopping for groceries, playing frisbee, doing yard work, etc. Meaning, he should spend as much time with her as possible, not just entertaining her, but doing stuff together.
3. She gets to use the phone to tattle on him as much as she wants. He says to her "I know you're unhappy with me, and we'll deal with it." She learns that people can be angry, and not freak out. He doesn't negotiate with her about the calls. He doesn't have to agree to be manipulated.
Spoiling her with fun, like having kids over, isn't awful. If he wants to run around to accommodate her, that's kind of sweet. Spoiling her by allowing unkind, disrespectful, or unhealthy behavior is not okay, and it's pretty easy to look a kid in the eye and say "No, you can't because it's not safe/kind/respectful/nice/healthy." Kids respect that in a parent.
4. He opens a separate email account (if needed for privacy), and regularly emails Barb about their daughter. Does he have joint parental rights & responsibilities? He has a right /obligation to to to Parent/Teacher meetings, school events like sports, etc. This is how he has meaningful involvement in parenting. He can encourage Barb to reciprocate with email. The custody agreement may specify how they should be communicating. He should be brief and factual, and keep Barb informed, and expect Barb to do the same. He should do his best to support Barb's parenting.

Most kids of divorce secretly hope their parents will get back together.
Most kids of divorce are afraid their parent(s) will leave them (again).
He should tell her often that he loves her, and plans to be in her life as long as he lives.

Lots of kids don't have chores. He should make sure she does homework, and maintains her room. Personally, I think kids should have chores, but I wouldn't pick this battle with this child.

One of the best things you can do is look for things about her to like, and comment on them. Isabelle, Thanks for making your bed this morning. It looks nice. or Thanks for bringing in the groceries; that was thoughtful. or Your hair looks pretty, you must have washed it this morning. Honest appreciation is social lubricant, and it will also help you actually appreciate her. When you get less stressed about her, you can be open about things like Isabelle, it must be kind of hard for you to balance living in 2 households. or Is it hard for you to adapt to having a StepDad? You might occasionally fill in some blanks. If she needs some grooming tips, take her for a manicure or haircut.

Your role is to be kind, listen to both of them, support him as a parent, and her as a child. Provide age-appropriate activities, food, etc., like making cookies or other cooking, showing her how to fix her bike chain, whatever skills you have to share. You and BF should avoid, at all costs, any negativity towards Barb and her new husband. Isabelle loves her Mom. She needs to have a good relationship with StepDad. It's really not easy. The more compassion and understanding you can develop towards her very real troubles, the better. On top of it all, 12/adolescence isn't easy. You have the opportunity to be a wonderful role model, a resource, a friendly listener, a giver of sage advice, and, eventually, a friend.
posted by theora55 at 6:57 PM on March 21, 2012 [58 favorites]

For what it's worth, I think the people in this thread saying "You are clearly just not parent material" suck quite a bit. And not for noting, I wouldn't want to parent this child either. Spoiled is not a nice quality in a human of any height.

I would suggest you and Bob go to see a therapist together. Because you are looking at becoming a family and this is about to become a family dysfunction problem if Bob cannot set and maintain boundaries with the youngest member. You need a joint plan, even if he (appropriately) fronts it, if you become a household.

FWIW "communicating through a 12 year" old will completely and totally fuck a kid up without all of this other crap on top.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:09 PM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

I'm answering this as a high school teacher, because I have had lots of Isabelles in my career.

First, there's a difference between being spoiled and acting spoiled. Being spoiled is fine. Acting spoiled is not. Whining for anything is not acceptable. But these kinds of behaviours become deeply ingrained in a kid and it's not easy to break the out of them. And you definitely can't do it.

Second, the way you think about her affects how you talk to and about her. You may not say the things you wrote here, but you have allowed your negative feelings to overtake your ability to feel compassion and love for her. That's the minimum expected from someone who would be her parent.

You are right to encourage your boyfriend to speak with Barb, and a notebook back and forth is a good idea if they really can't do face-to-face or phone calls. Ideally, there would be one set of rules, one set of discipline procedures, and one set of privileges. That would probably solve the "manipulation" of the two parents. Short of that, you can sympathise without agreeing ("oh, that must have been frustrating when that happened...") so you don't play into the power struggle.

I would encourage you to take a step back and see if you can change how you think about Isabelle. Love her until she is love-able. Show her you care. And mean it.

If you can't, walk away now. I've seen what happens from here many times, and it ain't pretty. I really do wish you well and hope you find a way to make this work for all of you.
posted by guster4lovers at 7:11 PM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

You don't get to do any parenting. It's unfair to you, but that's the way it is.

As a guy who dated a woman with a kid and married said woman, I strongly and deeply disagree.

If ya'll are going to be a family, then you need to be a family. That means you're a parent, period, end of story. And therein lies the real question: Do you want to be parent to this child, in this family? Clearly it has issues and it's going to require a lot of work to fix. Are you up for that? You need to be ready and willing to take up that roll, with all of its responsibilities.

Also, it's completely natural to be irritated and annoyed by this teenage child. You weren't interested in kids, yet know you're inheriting one, at a difficult time in its life and with plenty of issues. Thinking the child is some sort of demon spawn is understandable.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:12 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

@theora55: My boyfriend is by far the more active parent. He volunteers at every school event, goes to every conference, every school show, class trip. Mom does not. And because he does this, he is absolutely devastated when his daughter "tattles" on him.

@DarlingBri: Word. Thank you for understanding. I will be suggesting counseling as soon as we have a formal conversation about this.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 7:13 PM on March 21, 2012

What you describe sounds eerily similiar to a situation I experienced, except that I was the twelve-year-old girl. My parents split up after years of unhappiness together; their divorce was nasty and they used my brother and me as go-betweens; my dad started living with a new woman and we did not get along at all.

During this time, I was terribly behaved, caused my parents and stepmom hell, and had very little appreciation for what they were going through. I was also deeply frightened, lonely, and in pain. The world I grew up in had consisted of an alcoholic mother, a distant father, and their dysfunctional relationship, and now I had been thrust into a new world consisting of repenting parents vying for my favors, using me to communicate and to wound each other, and a whole new semi-parental figure who brought new sets of expectations and demands of me. My life had had no consistency, no solid ground, and I simply did not know how to act. It took many years for me to learn how to be respectful and responsible and empathetic when relating to others, because for most of my life that was not behavior I was exposed to. And I guarantee you that, regardless of what changes and apologies your boyfriend has made, he has not been able to undo the harm caused to his daughter of growing up in a home with alcoholism and other serious problems.

My stepmother grew to hate me over time, and I knew it. I would be very surprised if your boyfriend's daughter does not know how you feel about her, however polite you may be to her face. Even though I had never been very fond of my stepmom, it hurt to be hated like that. And what hurt even more was that my father knew, too, and he chose to stay with a woman who hated his daughter. The dynamic this created caused enormous amounts of pain to her, to my dad, and to me.

Eventually things got bad enough in the house that my stepmom forced my father to chose between the two of us, and he chose her. I was devastated. It's been nearly fifteen years, and only now am I beginning to have a relationship with my father again. I still do not really trust him, and the hole that his departure left in my life is still an aching wound.

I am telling you all this not to say that you are a bad person like my stepmom or whatever, but to let you know how it may feel to be your boyfriend's daughter, and why heaping too much derision on the girl might make things worse for everyone involved. Your boyfriend needs to communicate with his wife, and the two of them need to work on providing a home environment that is stable, consistent, and loving. Everybody involved may need therapy. 12 is not an easy age for a girl, and the teenage years ahead are not going to be easy ones. Think long and hard about what the ideal future for all of you would look like, and work on getting there.
posted by bookish at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2012 [12 favorites]

I don't mean to threadsit but for what it's worth: My mom remarried when I was 12, too. I know what Isabella is dealing with. She's got this strange new stepdad and a strange new sorta stepmom ... But even when I was angry, I was never allowed to be openly disrespectful. I think that, more than anything else, is really what's problematic for me.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 7:28 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think faulting the child is a mistake. Yes, she's 12, but her parents are doing a crappy job of setting boundaries about how she negotiates differences in their parenting style. She's not going to be able to figure out appropriate behavior on her own! No, not even at 12. Seriously, kids can't figure this shit out on their own.

I understand that it hurts your boyfriend's feelings when she calls her mother to "tattle", and I agree that that's a counterproductive and rude behavior, but she didn't come up with that out of a clear blue sky and my guess is that she keeps it up because she's getting something she wants out of it from one or both parents--either a display of hurt feelings from her dad, or a chance to take part in dad-bashing with her mom, or both.

It's definitely something your boyfriend and his ex need to take up, as it's really important for kids that age to get consistent and coherent messages about boundaries and acceptable behaviors from both parents. But until her mom comes on board, your boyfriend only has control over how he reacts and what consequences (if any) he requires as a result of inappropriate behaviors.

Similarly, your boyfriend can't get her to stop trash-talking him at her mother's house, but he can certainly put a stop on trash-talking of the ex at his place. As can you, if she's doing it to you and you're the only adult present--you don't have to hear your boyfriend's child slagging off any of the other adults in her life. You're always allowed to set your own boundaries, even with other people's kids, and make it clear when you feel those boundaries have been overstepped.

And comparing your childhood to hers is going to be, at best, a waste of time, and at worst a resentment sink. I'm sorry your parents thought it was appropriate to slap you; that sucks. But it sounds like you think she's "getting away" with things you couldn't have, and that that bugs you.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2012 [8 favorites]

But even when I was angry, I was never allowed to be openly disrespectful.

You have to let this go. Comparing your childhood to hers, and your parents' and step-parents' limits to hers, is just going to end in tears.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:31 PM on March 21, 2012 [34 favorites]

His daughter is a spoiled rotten manipulative brat

The way she talks to her dad makes me want to slap her. Really.

Based on your question, it's hard to imagine you will ever like this girl. Even if she grows into a lovely young woman, your resentment and hostility and anger might not let you see it. Your boyfriend and daughter are a package deal. I would strongly advise against marrying a man whose daughter you hate. It'd be miserable for you, and it'd be doubly worse for this child.
posted by bluedaisy at 8:22 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

And because he does this, he is absolutely devastated when his daughter "tattles" on him.

She may be "tattling" BECAUSE he's the more involved parent -- she's more secure in his love, and wants/needs the attention/kudos from her mom.

But even when I was angry, I was never allowed to be openly disrespectful.

She shouldn't be allowed to be openly disrespectful to you -- but she may be getting something out of it that she's not getting from other behavior. She might benefit from having her own counselor -- she may need healthy outlets for things like frustration, or resentment, or her anger at you and her proxy anger at her parents which she's taking out on the safest object around; or her need to establish her independence and "teenager-y-ness".

One of the things I notice when I reflect back on my own childhood is my parents being disappointed with me for not having the skills that *they* were supposed to be teaching me, especially "social graces". They sometimes seemed to expect that I would have come pre-programmed with them. Someone needs to be taking on the job of teaching her how to behave, and how to get her needs met in a constructive way. Manipulative people are manipulative because that's the best tool in their toolkit.

When you look at her, imagine someone trying to do a complicated DIY job -- like installing a new dishwasher -- with a toolkit comprised of a sledgehammer and a hex-wrench.
posted by endless_forms at 8:37 PM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

You mention wanting to slap her twice. I get that you're angry. I'd be angry if someone was openly disrespectful to me, too. But I really don't think that's okay. It makes me angry at you to hear that kind of violence. I want to stand between you two and physically protect the girl.

I don't know what to advise you about how you feel, except maybe to ask whether being openly disrespectful is worse than harboring such venom. Maybe you could work your way towards some compassion by considering that you're the person in this situation who has money, a drivers license, and a choice about whether or not to be there. Maybe you could read a book or two about dealing with anger. I guess you're asking this question, and that's a good start.

Really, you're walking in to a tough, tough situation. You could find another situation without an angry teenager. I'd recommend only staying in the situation if you can do it with more compassion. Don't add "stepmom who harbors violent fantasies" to the burdens of this girl, and don't add "a stepdaughter against whom you harbor violent fantasies" to your life.
posted by salvia at 8:39 PM on March 21, 2012 [16 favorites]

No one likes to put it this way, but you don't like this girl. I know you'd like to believe that if she was just parented correctly, she'd be a lovely little girl and you'd get along famously. But how likely is that to happen?

How much further do you want to be involved in this family when you don't like the girl or her mother? Being involved with a man with kids means you are just as involved with his child; but you don't really get be a parent, either. So can you deal with this girl being raised this way for the next 6-10 years? That's the person you will be getting, not the fantasy child you think improved discipline will bring.
posted by spaltavian at 9:05 PM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

One thing you might consider is what exactly is the role of a parent versus a step parent when it comes to discipline (and I don't mean the discipline as in yelling or spanking, I mean it in the purer definition of teaching)? I take the approach that it's a parent's job is to establish & communicate the rules, and then enforce the rules. Case in point - your example of him yelling at his daughter for talking rudely. That's not discipline. That's an argument. What I have done in this situation is simply have a standing rule about the consequences for talking back that's been established when everyone is calm. The consequence could be loss of TV time, loss of phone, no dessert, whatever. Then when the situation arises, just cite the rule and apply the consequence. No argument. She might be angry and sad about it, but it's not an argument anymore. Usually after a few of these encounters, kids start to realize the consistency of the consequences and generally start to change their behavior. Same can go for chores. Nobody needs to get yelled at for not washing dishes. Just let the consequence that's been previously established speak for itself.

Here's where that type of approach is great for you as a (potential) step parent. You don't get to establish the rules, but you should (with support and acknowledgement from her dad in front of her) get to enforce them. That really, really helps with the consistency. But, be careful, because if she's talking back to him and not you, it's her dad that needs to enforce the rule. You do not need to defend him, which is what you are feeling when the urge to slap her rises up.

Realize however that you will not be able to make him change his parenting style to this. All you can do is suggest it. And if her mom is not on board with establishing rules and striving for consistency, it will be a serious uphill battle trying to enforce them in one household. But, it can be done, because kids learn to adapt to the expectations of their environment. They already know there is different behavior expected of them at school, places of worship, playgrounds, grandma's house, etc. So this is just another one of those. She'll learn the rules with consistency.

As far as what you can recommend to him, there are coparenting counselors that can work with divorced parents to open lines of communications and get on the same page as far as consistency of rules (and especially enforcement).
posted by punocchio at 10:27 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

The most recent blowup: Boyfriend yells at Isabella for being talking to him in a way that would have gotten me grounded for a year when I was her age (after I got slapped). Isabella ran to her room to call her Mom. My boyfriend was furious. This happens at least every other month.

Yep, that's a twelve-year-old alright. That's what they're like.

I'm a bit confused, though: Are you saying he should have slapped her? (Because no, he shouldn't have slapped her. Even the yelling is a bit much.)
posted by Sys Rq at 11:56 PM on March 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

But even when I was angry, I was never allowed to be openly disrespectful. I think that, more than anything else, is really what's problematic for me.

All that means is that your parents had better discipline enforcement skills than Boyfriend and Barb. Isabella doesn't have access to that, which means that when she pushes a boundary it doesn't push back, which means that over time she'll just keep pushing harder and harder.

Pushing the boundaries is a child's job description. I don't think it's fair to take a set against a child for doing her job.

The most recent blowup: Boyfriend yells at Isabella for ...

Yelling is counterproductive. Boyfriend needs to learn how not to do that.

And you both need a little expectation adjustment.
posted by flabdablet at 2:26 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

This sounds awful for you. I was in a similar relationship a while ago, and all I can tell you is that I had an epiphany: what I actually couldn't stand was the way my boyfriend was raising his out-of-control daughter. I felt badly for the kid but I recognized that he had created the monster and he had no interest in fixing anything.

It's unnerving to read how much you dislike this child and you seem to be blaming her when you should be blaming him (and like others have said, this kid can definitely tell you don't like her which is only going to increase her behaviors).

It's definitely worth a shot to discuss all of this with him, but you need to understand that this kid is a product of her parenting. From what you describe she's not Satan's spawn dropped into his lap.

Maybe he'll get some parenting advice from a therapist and maybe he won't but you need to ask yourself if you're okay with things staying exactly as they are for the rest of your relationship.

If you're not, then you need to move on.
posted by kinetic at 3:20 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

The desire you expressed to slap, while hey, everybody has it now and then, is something that perhaps you should ask yourself if you can control. You seem to view it as perhaps a valid parenting technique? You might want to examine this.

My concern, coming from my own background, is that this could escalate in a way that you will lose control. In my family, a slap was usually accompanied by hair pulling and punching, because my mother is a maniac. What will you do if the girl responds by slapping you back?

On the other hand, if the boyfriend's relationship with his daughter is such a hot dysfunctional mess, why be in this? The boyfriend seems to be pretty clear that he is not open to communication about it.
posted by angrycat at 5:01 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

My little sister is twelve. I love her dearly. But this is NOT an easy age. She is very annoying at times. I want to slap her at times. She is snotty and rude and self-centered. I'm sure I was at that age too. Hang in there - it will get better. But probably not for several years, so be patient.

I also wanted to second or third what other posters have said - Isabella tattles to her mom because she needs the attention. She knows her mom hates her dad, and so when Isabella has something to complain about she is eager to share it with her mom so that they can bond. I'm sure it does hurt your boyfriend's feelings. But maybe it will help if you keep in mind that this is not about him, this is about Isabella wanting to be close to her mother. It is very sad that Isabella feels the need to do this in order to have a relationship with her mom. It is sad for Isabella, and it is sad for her mother, and it is definitely not your boyfriend's fault.

The only way to fix the situation is for your boyfriend to set better boundaries. You can't make him do that, but you should definitely talk to him about it until you can evaluate whether or not he is willing to do that. If he isn't, then there is not much hope for the situation. Make sure he understands that Isabella needs better boundaries not just for the sake of your relationship, but for theirs as well, and for her own well-being.

You can't be Isabella's mom and I'm sure you don't want to, but I think you could be her friend. It is also difficult because at twelve children think they are becoming adults and demand things like an adult might, and their bodies are beginning to change as well. But they are still children. Isabella is really just a little girl who doesn't know how to handle the world appropriately. See if you can just cover her with love despite her poor behavior, and eventually she may trust you to be a person she looks to for guidance.
posted by ohsnapdragon at 5:46 AM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you, as a 12 yr old, were not disciplined effectively for being disrespectful, I'm sure you would have also taken advantage of it. Instead you did all your disrespecting in your room into your pillow or writing it in your diary. I remember the diatribes I practised at that age telling my parents exactly what I thought of them, and I'm sure you have similar memories.

Try not to be so protective of your boyfriend, as I think that's clouding your judgement. She's a mixed up 12 year old flailing around and sometimes hits upon something that hurts your boyfriend. It's no more intentional than when someone who's drowning pushes the person trying to save them underwater in an attempt to get a breath.
posted by kjs4 at 5:49 AM on March 22, 2012

Your parents evidently slapped you. You want to slap this girl. You think that her father shouldn't be doing things like making her breakfast or packing her lunch. And she's twelve.

So, some reality check: It is not spoiling a child to prepare meals for them. It is not spoiling a twelve-year-old to let her have friends over to spend the night at the last minute. (I'm not sure I ever *had* a sleepover that had more than three hours' advance notice and 'overindulgent' is the last word I would use for my parents.) But most of all: It is not spoiling a child to refuse to use violence to discipline that child over words. Ever.

So stop comparing his parenting with your parents. They had their own problems. He has his. He might not always love the way she's behaving, but that's normal. Kids that age whine. Kids that age mouth off occasionally. That's what happens. "Every other month" is practically a lifetime between serious incidents, at that age. Does she have disciplinary issues at school? Does she get her homework done? Does she have generally functional interactions with her peers? If she manages all those things and just has occasional scuffles with her parents, she's going to turn out fine.

My stepkid is around this age, too, and it does take some getting used to, but if you need that much control over the situation, this might not be a good relationship for you.
posted by gracedissolved at 5:53 AM on March 22, 2012 [12 favorites]

Spoiled is not a nice quality in a human of any height.

Hm... but from the details listed by the OP, it's not clear this child is spoiled, rather than just a hard-to-handle preteen. A blowup every other month (that ends with the girl running to her room) is not fun to deal with, but it's well, well within the range of normal. And it's certainly not indulgent on the part of a parent to prepare all the meals of a child, etc.

There's a lot of good advice above about establishing contact with the child's mom and about setting expectations and following through on them with the child. I just wanted to add to the OP, it might help your own mental health if you could disengage a bit and withhold judgment. I certainly wouldn't throw the book at the kid, and I'd even be careful about concluding that your boyfriend has "created the monster" as suggested above. Some kids are naturally easy-going; some are quite difficult from the parent's perspective (I know this from painful experience). The vast majority in the second category outgrow their childish and adolescent acting-out. Add to this that Isabella, as has been pointed out above, has abundant reason in her background for acting out, whether she has a naturally assertive personality or not.

It might help you, OP, to consider that sometimes these things have to be waited out. Let your boyfriend off the hook a bit. Give the girl time to grow up. Truly, the best thing you can give her is not in some way to put her in her place, but just patience, security, and consistency.
posted by torticat at 6:05 AM on March 22, 2012

On non-preview, what gracedissolved said.

if you need that much control over the situation, this might not be a good relationship for you.

Yeah, and this is what I meant about disengaging and withholding judgment, and I agree that if this isn't possible for you (and it might not be), you should withdraw from the relationship.
posted by torticat at 6:13 AM on March 22, 2012

If you want to be a family, and things are this disfunctional, some form of family therapy - workbooks, actually meeting with a counselor.

And I agree with the OP, a 12-year old who tests her powers by demanding a sleepover with a moonwalk TODAY is out of control and needs help.

OP, you should phrase all your questions in terms of what BF and what BF and Barb need to do for their daughter. It kind of sounds like BF is in a place where he's proud of what he's done to get where he is, but he's ready to shove the past in a hole by never dealing with Barb and being super hero dad with no boundaries.

Therapy helped him once, right? He should be able to see that more is needed.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 6:29 AM on March 22, 2012

If you want to be a family, and things are this disfunctional, some form of family therapy - workbooks, actually meeting with a counselor.

Is there any evidence this girl wants to be a family with the OP? If so then maybe family therapy will help. If not, OP can't force her to participate, or to modify her behavior on OP's wishes. This girl certainly knows you hate her, and probably isn't all that stoked on you either.

OP, please understand I completely sympathize with you. This is very hard, and you love your boyfriend and wish that living with him didn't have this complication. I get it. But your boyfriend is "taken" in the sense that his first priority is someone else, who happens to need him much more than you do, and whose relationship with him is primary in a way that yours isn't. It sucks, but there it is. It's a fraught situation that only ever works out when the kid has bonded well with the stepmom person, and it just doesn't sound like that is happening here.
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:23 AM on March 22, 2012

Your BF and "Barb" need to communicate and partner as "co-parents". Communicating through the kid is probably one of the most common sins divorced parents commit.

When the kid calls Mom to complain, Mom should be backing up Dad and vice versa. Once kids see that the two parents actually communicate with each other and not through the kid, the kid tends to stop trying to play one against the other, because the kid sees a united front.

I'm not sure you're the one that needs any sort of counseling here. While your BF seems to have beaten back some demons from his personal life, maybe he has some work to do with respect to dealing with his ex. I get animosity towards the ex (it can take years to get over being cheated on in a marriage), but not where the kid is concerned. Animosity towards the ex is a weak excuse for not discussing basic parenting activity with her directly.
posted by PsuDab93 at 8:00 AM on March 22, 2012

Nubian, coming to ask.me to blow off your frustration was a great idea. I'm happy he's an active parent; he sounds pretty terrific. My son had a StepMom who came(comes) between him and his Dad. I have friends who are StepMoms. It's not an easy role, there's no Hallmark holiday, and it will be years before you're appreciated. Also, 12 year old make parents crazy - it's not all due too the divorce. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2012

Is there any evidence this girl wants to be a family with the OP?

This girl doesn't have any say. Her mother is remarried, and her father may. Right now, this girl's relationship with her father is a mess, and her relationship with her mother probably isn't much better.

Her best hope is that her father either at least addresses issues (reads books, talk to a school counselor, etc.) or goes back to therapy.

Nothing here about school and she has friends, so maybe she has a functional world part of the time. But the dynamic with her parents and her and her parents is not likely to get better on its own and there's not much the OP can do except suggest her BF think about getting help for the parenting and co-parenting issues.

Even if the OP leaves, his kid is stuck with parents who need to step up.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 10:52 AM on March 22, 2012

I want to thank you all for your advice and make one thing very clear: I was absolutely blowing off steam here. I would never lay a hand on a child, no matter how annoying. Yes, I was punished this way and it is an ineffective and hurtful way to discipline. That doesn't mean I don't want to do it anymore than you might want to haul off and slug the guy who gives you the finger in traffic ... but you don't do it.

My efforts at making friends with Isabella have paid off already. Ironically, she is not disrespectful to me ... just her father and mother! We are making progress. This is tough for me. Thank you all again.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 1:44 PM on March 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

As the child of divorced parents, my subjective take is that the number 1 best thing you could do would be to get Boyfriend and Barb to take Isabella completely and entirely out of the middle.

No using her to relay messages from one parent to the other (except, possibly, in sealed envelopes). No one parent complaining about the other one to her. Dad didn't pick her up on time from soccer practice and Mom's annoyed? NOT HER PROBLEM. Mom's being flaky about signing school paperwork and Dad's ticked off? NOT HER PROBLEM.

Seriously, I was in my early twenties before I learned that my father had been late with the child support fairly regularly during the times I was living with my mother (roughly 2/3 of the years between age 8 & age 18). I have a lot of respect and gratitude for my mother for having kept that from me as effectively as she did. The better job Boyfriend and Barb can do of not making their problems into Isabella's problems, the better off everyone will be.

Your latest update makes me want to say "Yay". Given that you feel committed to Boyfriend, I hope you're able to be a source of consistency and stability for Isabella, however poorly or well her biological parents may be handling their issues.
posted by Lexica at 8:23 PM on March 22, 2012

Thanks for the update, nubianinthedesert, and as someone who was pretty preachy upthread about the "slapping" language, thanks for the clarification. I feel sheepish for making negative assumptions. Sorry if that was obnoxious. Your update puts me at ease.
posted by salvia at 9:30 PM on March 22, 2012

Salvia, no need to feel sheepish. Yours was the appropriate response for anyone who talks about hurting a child.
posted by nubianinthedesert at 1:05 PM on March 24, 2012

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