How to improve relationship with my partner's teenage daughter?
March 27, 2014 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Ms. Tdipod wants to know: I am having multiple challenges with Tdipod's teenage daughter. I feel intimidated by her and when I try to engage in a conversation she will not engage with me or look me in the eye. I am not sure whether or not she likes me or is it just hormones gone amok? He has offered to speak to his daughter but I don't think this is the right approach. I would like some advice with how to broach the subject with her myself.
posted by TDIpod to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I feel intimidated by her

Why? Honestly deconstruct this. She is a child. You are an adult. Unless there are serious behavioral problems that you're not explicating for some reason, there is no reason you should be intimidated by her.

What kind of conversations are these? What do you mean by "not engaging"? One word answers, no answers, smiling nervously and looking away, walking out of the room?

It could be a lot of things.

I don't know. I fully admit that I'm coming at this from a position of bias--I was an introverted, kind of dreamy teenager, and my stepmother would sometimes go off on me (or make my dad talk to me) about what she perceived as a deliberately disrepectful level of inattention to her. Most of the time the reality was that I was tired, or distracted, or, in one memorable case, had actually responded but had mumbled too quietly for her to hear me.

I do not think she did this to make my life miserable. I think that it came from a place of real insecurity about her relationship with me and my relationship with my father. But it caused a lot of unnecessary stress and strife.
posted by kagredon at 9:50 PM on March 27, 2014 [8 favorites]

Best answer: There are two approaches to dealing with teenagers. Neither one works.

If you feel talking with her directly will help, you should dive in. Don't do it when she's tired. Feed her first. Teenagers are walking starving bags of angst in the best of times. Recognize that there may be nothing you can do except continue to be kind.
posted by blob at 9:51 PM on March 27, 2014 [20 favorites]

Based on my teenager experience, addressing an issue like this directly might cause her to flee. Having a Talk with a teenager is usually very awkward and makes them want to talk to you even less, especially if they don't know you well/feel safe around you.

I would recommend having Mr. Tdipod help schedule spending one on one time with her and planning things that she likes to do (let her choose) like going to the movies, the beach, hiking or whatever. By the time you know her well enough to be able to have that Talk with her, I bet you won't need to have it anymore...
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:07 PM on March 27, 2014 [7 favorites]

I had the hardest time looking people in the eye at that age, that's really common. Parenting books suggest having conversations in the car or on a walk when you're NOT facing each other so teens don't have to cope with the eye contact. (This works on MANY shy people or awkward conversations, not just teenagers.)

I always suggest, when one is trying to bond with a teenager, you find a TV show that you both like and make it together appointment viewing. Same side by side conversation benefits during commercials, a shared interest to talk about ... you can even share fannish things you find online to each other on social media.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:27 PM on March 27, 2014 [15 favorites]

Best answer: People are kinda like cats. If they feel skittish around you, pushing harder just makes them run further away. If however you make yourself calm and safe and gently introduce yourself into their space, then eventually they might relax and wander closer to you and maybe even sit on your lap, so to speak.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:34 PM on March 27, 2014 [26 favorites]

There is not enough info to answer this!!

- How old is she? 13 ? 17? There's a big difference between ages!

- What is she like with others?

- How long has she known you?

- Where does she live? With you? Elsewhere?

- Do other adults in her life possibly dislike you?

- What is going on for her in school? With her friends?

- What is she like with her friends?

- What is she like with other adults who are not family?

No one can give you more than relating their own experiences and guessing without more data.

It's hard to say if time+patience, you, her dad, or a family counselor might help address this without knowing more.
posted by jbenben at 10:46 PM on March 27, 2014 [5 favorites]

I remember being a moody, troubled teenager who was generally impossible to deal with, myself, and yet I got a lot more forgiving to someone who arrived bearing books or calligraphy markers. What is she into? Are there any things that would lend themselves to an activity that could be done together without having to have Heavy Conversation?
posted by Sequence at 10:47 PM on March 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

My neighbor has a teenage daughter and he told me recently that the only communication he can effectively have with her is basically just listening to her, without saying much, when she feels like talking about something and takes the initiative to talk to him (and indeed it seems it's "to" rather than "with"). As unfortunate as that sounds, I presume it's quite typical. From his perspective at least it's better than nothing because he can know something about things she's doing, how she's feeling, etc. And maybe he can even occasionally slip in a question or two. As long as he's listening without asking too many questions and without saying anything negative, she seems to be comfortable talking to him from time to time.
posted by Dansaman at 11:47 PM on March 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

Is it possible that the teen would feel disloyal to her mother if she became friendly with you? Possible advice would be to keep on keeping on until she grows up. Teenage years are notoriously difficult for all concerned.
posted by Cranberry at 12:59 AM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

You need to post more info to get more helpful advice.

But: If she's specifically like this just with you, then she's uncomfortable around you for some reason. Look for either shared interests or a way to show you genuinely care about her. If you have shared interests, do them together, preferably with your partner also involved at first. Say she is super into gymnastics and make-up: go to her practices occasionally, definitely her meets, watch youtube clips of olympic gymnasts and read up on the sport so you can ask reasonable questions or chat about it with her dad. Say something to her dad within her earshot about how hard she works at it and buy her a gymnastics magazine because you thought she might like the article you did. Ask her which nail polish she likes, say you got an extra manipedi coupon, does she want one? Look through a magazine and sigh over make-up and ask her if she likes this style or that.

If you have no shared interests, think what she responds to as a sign of caring from her parents and do something adjacent but not replacing. Small gifts, making meals or snacks for her, helping her with her chores, writing cheerful post-it notes on her door, etc.

Most of all, don't expect immediate results. Think months not weeks.
posted by viggorlijah at 3:24 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is important to keep talking to her - not whyyounottalk? talking, just positive, friendly input talking.

She may not be responding because she can't, because there's too much cooking inside. And that can seem intimidating, for real, to be stonewalled like that.

Just keep loving her through it - it's harder for her if she ends up feeling like her paralysis is hurting others.
posted by The Noble Goofy Elk at 5:45 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You also need to think about the relationships in her life and how you came to be her stepmother. Lots of kids hold onto a dream that their parents are going to get back together, no matter how long they've been apart or how bad it was when they were together. That can be a difficult thing to get past no matter what you try.

Other suggestions: pay attention to every single interaction you have with her and count how many are positive vs negative. You forgot your lunch, please pick up the towels in the bathroom, have you finished your homework yet, etc. I guarantee that she is noticing the negative ones. Quit that, and work on catching her being good. Let her know you appreciate things she does or says, or make a nice comment about her friends. But only do this if it is natural, not smarmy - it's a fine line and it's worthy of the greatest ridicule if you are smarmy about it.

Another idea: if her mom or dad has a birthday or occasion coming up, maybe offer to help her shop or bake or make something for them. Don't insist, just offer.
posted by CathyG at 6:05 AM on March 28, 2014

Eyebrows McGee: I always suggest, when one is trying to bond with a teenager, you find a TV show that you both like and make it together appointment viewing. Same side by side conversation benefits during commercials, a shared interest to talk about ... you can even share fannish things you find online to each other on social media.

A million times this. Anything where you can be in each other's presence for extended periods of time without having to directly interact. Certain crafts could work for this as well, or cooking together, or going to the movies, but TV is ideal, frankly. Also, it could just be a show she likes that you are at least willing to watch. Let her "convince" you to become a fan.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:08 AM on March 28, 2014 [5 favorites]

Best answer: To add to the above post: driving places with her may make conversations easier. You're stuck together but you can't look each other in the eye. Of course when I did this with my kids the various electronic devices all teenagers have these days that effectively allow them to shut out the world had not yet been invented.

Be patient, take it slow and easy, don't go overboard making efforts to try to get through, just be there, and be kind. Think of her more as much younger sister, or cousin, or niece. You are not her mother.
posted by mareli at 6:24 AM on March 28, 2014

Best answer: Without knowing more, one possibility is: Maybe things are fine the way they are? I mean, maybe
she just doesn't need or want a closer relationship to you, and is fine with you being a mostly non-aggravating but boring housemate? But I guess the main problem is that you don't know whether she hates you, is indifferent or merely introvert. In that case, you still can't lose by being calm, self confident, non-aggravating and simply there.
Even if she never warms up to you.
posted by Omnomnom at 6:34 AM on March 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: re-read kagredon's comment.

You are the adult here, so it is up to you to set the pace, not look to the daughter for acceptance. She's too wrapped up in her own teenage goopiness to give you indications of acceptance and furthermore it is not her job to do so. If you feel you need her 'ok' or her approval then you need to investigate where that is coming from.

Don't try to please her. Don't try to control her responses. Don't try to read her mind. Just be yourself. Your adult self - friendly, calm, steady & in control of yourself. Learn to be more concerned about HER than you are about YOURSELF.

Yes the dad can mention to the daughter 'hey I know it's growing pains but Mrs. T cares about you, can you cut her some slack' but nothing more than that.

Without more info about the situation, that's the best I can say.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:12 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't be scheduling outings or crafts times with her. Teens tend to resist scheduling stuff. They kind of have to fall in to doing something with you.

I'd go for little opportunities. Ask her opinion about something (not Big Opinions, small ones - "which scarf goes better with this shirt? Your father is lousy with this stuff" - she adds value to your life.)

Talk to your husband about opportunities for you to be the person looking out for her. Example -- you're going out to dinner as a family (not your idea, but your husband's) and you say "X, where would you like to go?"

"X, would you mind grabbing the milk from the fridge...thanks" (if she's standing next to it) not "get me the milk, please" or "I need you to get me the milk."

Other examples: "X, I'm running to the store. Can I get you anything? Can you think of anything else we need for the house?....oh! Yes -- OJ! Thanks!"

Opportunities to reflect on things she has said that you learned from or had an impact on you in a positive way. For example, "That comment you made the other day, about Bobby at school and how he could really just apologize to the teacher and the issue would go away. Well, I really thought about that and realized that I owe a coworker an apology, so I did it! I apologized and just like you said, we get along great now, so, thanks! You probably didn't know you were giving me advice."

"I made these cookies. Any chance you have time tonight to help me decorate them?" Note: decorating stuff is already laid out and you've already decorated some of them. So she can "fall in" to participating. If you try to schedule something, she'll either say no or cancel at the last minute. The key is that you can survive decorating them yourself if she declines. There's no "responsibility" to help, no "live up to your commitments" speech if she declines. Suppose she says yes to joining you, follow up with "should I add any more colors for the frosting?" Don't ask for help with the cleanup, but if she offers, take her up on it and give her the easy stuff to do -- as you would with an offer from a friend. You're not there to "teach her to clean up" but because you invited her to have fun.

Everybody is always trying to "teach" teens the things they "have to" do. The further away you are from being her mom or dad, the more fraught this is -- this is a lesson I'm constantly re-learning.

You're basically in the position of an aunt who has come to visit, and not the favorite aunt.
posted by vitabellosi at 7:33 AM on March 28, 2014 [9 favorites]

You can't expect anyone to automatically like you, or engage with you or anything. This goes triple for anyone from the age of 12 to 19.

Take it slow and be natural. Don't push it. Start with simple questions that can be answered in monosyllables.

"Do you want a sandwich?"

"Do you like this show?"

Eventually, things will warm up, or they may be warm and said teenager is just not communacative, or is shy.

Dealing with teens is maddening, even if they like you, the chemicals in their brains make them ornery and mean.

Also, this is what I learned from teaching, you may have the best of intentions, but no matter what happens, it won't be like it is in the movies and on TV.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:45 AM on March 28, 2014

Best answer: Also, the realtionship between step mother and step daughter is inherently difficult. She may resent you which means literally nothing you can do is going to help in the short term. Obviously, I don’t know the situation in this case, but if she’s close to her Mum, she may feel it would be disloyal to her to have a good relationship with you. This may change in time, or it may not.

It literally is a minefield when you are dealing with a stepdaughter. I had a terrible experience with my own step mum, terrible. A very common mistake step parents can make it to bad mouth the other biological parent, treat the step kids with disdain, undermine the previous relationship/marriage etc etc.

The very fact though that you’ve asked this question indicates to me that you care and that immediately makes you a better step mum than my own was!

The only advice I can give is to be yourself, be engaging, be genuinely interested in her life, ask questions, listen to what she says and remember it. Be patient. Don’t try too hard, be there for her no matter what. Just keep consistent in how you act around her and she’ll eventually come round (probably!).
posted by JenThePro at 8:23 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm far removed from being a teenager, but I have had a very hard time warming up to my dad's fiancé (my mom died a few years ago). It's less about her and more about that I miss my mom, that my dad is a lot nicer to her than he was to my mom which is hard not to resent, and that my relationship with my dad has changed as a result of him having someone he wants to be with and talk about 24/7.

It's still a work in progress, but I think the fact that there has been no pressure to interact with, be friends with, or have a relationship with her has actually helped quite a bit. I feel I have the space to get to know her on my own time and terms - helpful considering the speed with which their relationship has progressed. My dad placed no expectations on me that I spend time with her or even like her. I am respectful, but otherwise we don't really have anything in common aside from my dad. Over time, I have become less awkward around her and more relaxed. We're not sitting for long conversations or braiding each other's hair by any stretch, but it's better. And I feel no judgement from either party about whether "I'm doing it right".

So I say, you don't have to take any disrespectful attitude from her (and her dad should address that as he would if she were like that with any other adult), but otherwise, keep it light and absent of expectations of bonding. When she realizes she doesn't have any parental expectations on that front to rebel against, she may relax.
posted by cecic at 8:34 AM on March 28, 2014 [4 favorites]

I am a (common-law) stepmother, and I've been incredibly lucky that my stepdaughter and I got along well from the very beginning, and haven't had any major issues in our relationship. But I met her when she was 9, and now she's almost 13, and I definitely see a difference in how she interacts with me now compared to when we met, which I chalk up to the beginning of adolescence. Like now she can be a little more snarky, makes less eye contact, and generally can get a bit of an attitude. What works for me is recognizing that it isn't personal, and just waiting it out, and she always warms up after a while. But I think that what makes that possible is that we had all those years when she was younger to build a strong relationship. How long have you known her?

I also like CathyG's idea of offering to help her do something for a special occasion. My stepdaughter and I just arranged a surprise party for her dad's birthday, and it was a great bonding experience. We both adore her father, and have been able to use that as something we have in common, instead of competing for affection. Maybe you can find something to do for him that you do together.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 11:03 AM on March 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Need more info. How old is she? How long have you two been together? Do you live together? What is her relationship with her bio mom like? How often does she see her dad? How does she act around other adults? Her peers?

More importantly, what is her dad's take on all of this?
posted by radioamy at 11:26 AM on March 28, 2014

try to engage in a conversation she will not engage with me or look me in the eye

Unless you're leaving out some important information, there is no problem here. You don't need a teenage girl to look you in the eye. She doesn't owe you a conversation.

There's a lot above about crazy teenagers and their hormones, and that may be true. It may also be that she's shy, or private, or doesn't like you. Depending on how long you have been with her father, maybe she sees you as a stranger she's stuck with. Are you trying to engage her in real conversations, or are they actually "report your day so I can evaluate whether you did anything wrong", which are usually the conversations kids mysteriously don't like.
posted by spaltavian at 8:26 PM on March 29, 2014 [1 favorite]

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