I’m completely confused by my step daughter. She was 7 when I married her mom and we’ve had two kids since. She’s 13 now and a few months ago she stopped calling me dad. I don’t know what changed. I’m starting to feel weird introducing her as my daughter because she gives me a weird look when I do. I really do think of her as my daughter. Her own dad has never been in the picture and I’m trying to be a dad for her. We’ve always had a good relationship but something has changed and I just don’t know what to do. I tried asking her about it but she shuts me out. Any suggestions? -bobby74
A special response from a Step-daughter:
It is quite encouraging to see you seeking help with your current situation. It is honorable that you want to do the right thing by your daughter –even as you struggle to figure out what exactly that “thing” is. The reason I use the word encouraging is because I grew up as a stepdaughter too -and you give me hope. The fact that you stepped out in search of answers in admirable and is probably something you would never see the dads who’ve been in my life doing. So I am inspired. My step-dad came into my life when I was four –so just a bit younger than your daughter was. When I was five my mother told me she was pregnant and she was marrying her boyfriend and then that weekend my father told me he was marrying his girlfriend and that she was pregnant. My world was in complete disarray. You can only imagine how going from being an only child to now having two half siblings that were going to be born around the same time, not to mention still dealing with the fresh effects of divorce; was a lot for a young girl’s mind to handle. Your daughter is dealing with many of those same confusing emotions.
“What is wrong with me?”
I don’t know what the situation is with her biological father but that’s a tricky thing. I can tell you that when my biological father disappeared from my life I was left with a sad feeling of abandonment. After he was gone there was an emotional void. I wanted a dad! When a father is absent a part of a child’s heart dies. For young girls, what remains is the constant search for love, acceptance, and attention. If she’s known him and he’s left her then you will have an uphill climb ahead. Having half-siblings is probably also tough on her. I saw how differently my step-dad treated me compared to my new baby sister. I wanted that. I was almost desperate for it. One evening my mom asked me to call out to my step-dad who was working in our field to let him know dinner was done, I would typically call him by his first name but when I found him -to my surprise- when I called to him- the word “dad” came out. From that moment on he became my dad. I won’t go on much further into detail except to say he was not nearly as good a man and dad as you are. Like most girls her age your daughter seeks love and approval from a dad. She wants to be delighted in.
I’m not a psychologist, Bobby. My credentials are that of experience and it is my hope that my perspective helps you in some way. The teen years are hard for girls. You daughter is struggling like many other girls, but added to all the other challenges of teen-girl life is the constant reminder that her dad is not there for her. Right now, your daughter is experiencing a difficult and confusing time in her life; the teenage years. To top it off she may have this longing in her heart that she can’t completely come to terms with. She may not want to talk to you about it for fear of hurting your feelings. She may not even be able to express what exactly she is feeling. However, knowing that she is hurting will help you as you move forward. With this piece of information you’ve already won half the battle, because instead of being offended by it like some step-fathers are, you can understand it, embrace it, and walk alongside her in a loving manner. This is after all what she needs; love, attention, and approval. She may not think her feelings are valid or justified -but you can validate those emotions that are running deep within her. She may feel guilty that she even has these feelings since she does after all have a good relationship with you as her father. As I said, girls are complicated.
I also wanted to touch on another topic since she does have two siblings. My (step)dad wasn’t the greatest father. Favoritism played a role and my sister was my dad’s baby. There was a noticeable distinction in the way I was treated. I already felt emotional about abandonment but then I started to feel like I also didn’t measure up and was an outsider. These feelings can make a young girl develop the habit of asking herself “What is wrong with me?” In your case you stated that the two of you had a good relationship. I don’t know anything other than what you shared but I have to pose a question. Is there any difference in the way you treat her compared to her siblings that may be misinterpreted by your daughter? I realize this may be unintentional and so slight that you don’t realize and it goes unnoticed by you and your wife. However, for your daughter it may be a BIG deal. This is a defining time in her life. Attention is still attention whether good or bad, so if she is attention seeking by not calling you dad or by giving you a weird look when you introduce her as her daughter then I would say she has succeeded in getting your attention. This is what she wants. Women are so complicated- even little ones! They want your attention/for you to chase them and then when you do they shut you out. So confusing, I know!
Girls can be a ball of emotions, especially at her age. It is difficult for me to pin point exactly what the problem is. It could be related to you, or it could be quite the opposite and be completely unrelated. What I suggest is to go out of your way to intentionally show her love, affection, and acceptance. Do something unexpected that speaks to her heart and says, “You are special to me!” Take her to a movie- just the two of you. Let her know you enjoy spending time with your “oldest daughter” –and that oldest daughters are special. It should help a little. There is a new movie out that is geared toward fathers called Courageous. It’s got a great message. If you haven’t seen it yet, it might be worth your time. You might find it to be a good tool for you in your situation. The movie is from a Christian perspective but –whether a Christian or not- the message about being a strong father is the key focus of the film. It will give you an opportunity to talk about the subject of fatherhood and allow you to tell her that’s the kind of dad you’d like to be in her life; one she knows she can count on and who will be there for her. Those words can mend a lot. Don’t expect her to jump into your arms or cry or even react -even thought she might. Teen girls are unpredictable. They will determine who you are by how you act most of the time. Your actions are your portfolio of work and if you are consistent in your action and message it will eventually give her the reassurance she needs. Little, positive, off-hand comments about your wonderful daughter mean a lot to her -especially when she thinks you don’t know she’s listening. Those mean even more.
The teen years are a bumpy ride –even for biological dads. Stepdads have to find that challenging balance between compensating for what their kids are missing, while staying focused on raising good kids. Remind yourself that she’s yours every day –and keep loving her like she is. In time you’ll earn the key to her heart. I truly and sincerely wish for the best for you. I hope that your relationship with your daughter strengthens and grows into something beautiful and wonderful. Your success with your daughter warms my heart. It’s obvious from your letter that you already have the most important tool needed to be a good dad; you care.