My stepdaughter says she hates me. Is it time to leave?

She is locating all her fury for her loss and heartbreak in you, but to an extent you are, too, says Annalisa Barbieri

illustration of girl's face with red figure in one eye and green in the other
‘The first issue to address is you and your husband.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Hlcarpenter.com
‘The first issue to address is you and your husband.’ Illustration: Lo Cole/The Hlcarpenter.com
Annalisa Barbieri

Last modified on Fri 12 Feb 2021 14.44 EST

My husband and I have been together for six years. He was widowed when his children were small and I met him two years after his wife died.

My own daughter lives at home and cannot live independently. She was a teenager when I met my husband and was very happy for me; we had left her father some years earlier as he was an abusive alcoholic, and there is no contact. I believe my daughter is incredibly balanced given her experiences.

My stepchildren are now teenagers. The older one spent a lot of time in hospital when young; we get along really well. But my stepdaughter, who is 13, has never warmed to me. Our relationship has always been tricky: she often argues with me and has also taken things of mine. The situation has now deteriorated. She shouted at her dad that she hates me and wishes he’d never met me. We have since tried to sit down as a family and talk, but she won’t look at me or direct conversation towards me, referring to me as “she”. Worryingly, she said she hates living here and doesn’t feel this is her home. She was able to say how angry and hurt she feels, and has agreed to counselling, which is positive.

Do I stay or leave? I’m not proposing leaving would be good for my stepdaughter, as I think it would send lots of negative messages. But I’m not sure I’m strong enough to survive this: I have a demanding job and a daughter who needs a high level of care.

The issue isn’t so much my stepdaughter, as I think her turmoil is entirely understandable. It’s whether my husband can both parent her through it and protect me from her bile.

I don’t think you should leave, certainly not yet, and not over this. Furthermore, if the issue is your husband, as you say, then that’s what needs to be addressed. I don’t think your stepdaughter, or either of the other children, should suffer any more loss or upheaval until you’ve tried to sort this out.

I spoke to Alison Bruce, a psychoanalytic psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk). She rightly pointed out the enormous amount of loss your two families have had to deal with; we made a list and it was extensive. It’s great that you and your husband found each other, but I wondered if, in the understandable focus on remaking a family, anyone stopped to look at the ruptures endured. Did your husband or his children have any grief counselling? Where has all that pain gone?

You are all dealing with complex issues, but, as often happens in families with problems, one child – here, your stepdaughter – becomes the “difficult one”, and she is the youngest and at such a tender age. Issues not dealt with in childhood (in this case, her grief) often rear their head again in adolescence. Despite this, Bruce felt that your stepdaughter shouldn’t be the only one to go to counselling at this point; this would reinforce the idea she alone is the “damaged one”. She almost certainly isn’t.

The first issue to address is you and your husband. “You both need help in thinking all this through and supporting the children with their various issues,” said Bruce. “You need to understand each other’s perspectives and create a space where your differences can be acknowledged and respected.” Bruce recommended couples therapy. “Tavistock Relationships hold computer couple sessions so you could get help right away, even now during the pandemic.” Later, you could look at family or individual therapy.

Your stepdaughter is locating all her fury for her loss and heartbreak in you, but to an extent you are doing the same with her. “You and your stepdaughter share similar feelings of being robbed and usurped,” said Bruce. “Little wonder she might be stealing from you. Perhaps she feels you took her father and her old family away. You both feel cheated, rejected, mistreated and misunderstood.”

I can imagine how frustrated and hurt you must feel, how “easy”, in some ways, it would be to walk away. But by joining with your husband, seeking help and sorting out your issues, you will not only show responsibility, you can then help the others to heal and move forward.

Every week Annalisa Barbieri addresses a family-related problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa on a family matter, please send your problem to ask.annalisa@hlcarpenter.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions: see gu.com/letters-terms.

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