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noraasnave's avatar

What are my first few steps to break/help this cycle?

Asked by noraasnave (3042 points ) June 24th, 2012

My wife and step daughter seem to be intertwined in a reciprocating cycle, which I would love to help them out of. Wife (W) (age>32), Step Daughter (S/D)(age8). My Son (S) (age 12), My Daughter (D) (age 10)
-Some kind of grief cycle due to late husband(W)/father (S/D) death by suicide 5 years ago.
-S/D pretends to be sick/tired/happy/sad to manipulate W. W always falls for it. (Did I mention that she has Law degree and dual Bachelor’s Degrees)
-S/D manipulates W into helping/doing S/D’s chores, While W encourages S and D to be independent and to do chores on their own.
-S/D pretends to be sick to stay home from school and then is miraculously better and goes to McDonald’s for lunch with W, W doesn’t think twice or notice, but makes my S and D go to school if they are running a fever with no other major symptoms!!
-W appears to NEED to be manipulated by S/D, because no amount of discussion changes or diminishes the manipulation.
-S/D acts like a normal 8 year old girl around me, because I see right through her manipulation, and will not hesitate to apply fair discipline as required to all children.

This isn’t any kind of emergency, but I would like to help somehow besides watching nothing change. These behaviors seem to be on a slow downward spiral, characterized by a weariness for W because so much emotional and physical energy is required by S/D. I usually get the brunt of this imbalance expressed in a lack of patience towards me.

So far I have been journaling to express, digest and work through this and I feel like this experience is developing me as a listener and a person. Still I feel like I am helplessly watching the future life of my S/D and the happiness of my W slowly spiral down the drain.

I have much more thinking out loud to do on this topic, but W isn’t open to my thinking out loud lately, because so much painful truth blunders out of my mind into open space.

Thanks in advance for the paradigm shifting insight flutherers!

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18 Answers

gailcalled's avatar

cy.

Still I feel like I am helplessly watching the future life of my S/D and the happiness of my W slowly spiral down the drain. This is powerful language and certainly sounds serious enough to me to be described as an emergency.

How about finding a therapist immediately and figuring out who goes when?

You and wife, perhaps, to start?

And your step-daughter is clearly acting out and cannot be anything but very unhappy. At eight, she needs help.

How has she coped with her father’s suicide, and has she had some professional counseling for that, if nothing else? That is major stuff.

bkcunningham's avatar

They are intertwined in a codependent relationship. They have a life changing experience in common and their behavior is sort of like post traumatic stress syndrome. It isn’t hopeless and it sounds like there is a lot of love in your family. Please, get counseling from someone you trust and respect. Even if your wife doesn’t want to go, go by yourself. It won’t hurt and will only help. God bless you guys. I hope you work on this.

EDIT: I want to add that you could find yourself getting involved in the codependent situation as an enabler trying to “fix” everyone. Don’t do it. Get some counseling and be happy.

geeky_mama's avatar

@noraasnave – before I answer your question I’d like to draw you a picture of where I’m coming from. I’m a custodial step-mom to a teen (high-school) aged SD, and parent to a daughter (11) and son (soon to be 8).

Let me first observe that as a step-parent I often saw (and see) times where my SD is/was manipulating her parents (and sometimes playing all three of us against each other) – and often I was the first one (as the step-parent) to be able to clue into the dynamic. There truly is something to that ability to see a bit from the outside looking in occasionally as a stepparent.
I remain the most skeptical of the three parents in our little parenting triangle – (SD’s biomom is alive, but not the primary home/household for SD)...though in my case, I have the advantage in that I’ve been the primary caretaker (along with her dad) for my SD since she was about 2yrs old. So, she really doesn’t remember a time without me.

There is also a younger brother at her biomom’s house and his father is deceased like your SD’s father. We help parent this boy (SD’s half-brother) although he is only related to our family by his connection to our SD.
He has had a relatively hard time dealing with the loss of his father and is about the same age as your SD.

It is nearly impossible for me to know your unique situation but I’ll tell you what’s resulted so far in my own step-parenting adventure and leave you with a few questions to chew on.

A. I used to point out to my husband when I felt SD was “getting away” with something or manipulating us. It caused a lot of conflict. He’d get defensive and say no, he wasn’t giving her special treatment (though I was sure he was) but she’d manipulate things over and over. I finally made a conscious effort to try to back off. I did this for 3 big reasons:
– It was hurting my marriage (which was otherwise very good)
– It was hurting my relationship with SD
– I came to the realization that what I was battling over wasn’t important enough to the bigger picture because SD was otherwise a really amazing, smart, funny and just great kid.

To this day – SD will occasionally beg-off sick from school. She isn’t actually sick – and she’ll beg me for McDonalds for lunch, too (that rang a bell from your story!).. but she’s a straight-A student in honors classes in high school and is such a good kid in all other ways…it’s hard to begrudge her skipping occasionally.
Moreover, for our SD, she seems to most often ask to skip when she’s feeling “down” or has some other bummer event at school – -it’s like a coping mechanism.

B. Perhaps your SD is actually experiencing depression (though at age 8 it’s doubtful she can put it into words to explain it)—and skipping school or talking her way into a sick day to have some extra time with her mom is what she thinks will make her feel better.
Think of it from her point of view.. maybe at school kids mention doing stuff with their dad or make a Father’s Day present..and while she can hold it in for the day…she’s thinking of how her “real” dad is gone. As good as her relationship may be with you—perhaps she idealizes the deceased parent and it makes her wish..and/or makes her feel sad or different from the other kids. Maybe it’s tough to spend a day feeling “different” from the other kids in some way. Maybe that makes her want (in a form of escapism) to take a day away from it all with her mom.

C. Last observation from our household.. Our older kids often accuse me (mom) of going easiest on our youngest (nearly age 8) as the “baby” of the family.
I try very hard to expect the same (at about the same ages/level of development) out of all 3 kids—but the older kids still see it as they have it “harder” than the youngest..

Have your own kids noticed / commented on the double-standard with SD and them?
Do they chalk it up to favoritism or age? It’s just something to ask them…and perhaps if they say something to your wife (their step-mom?) about what they see…it might be better for her to hear it from them?

Here’s the questions I’d chew on (in your shoes):

1. What harm does it do for SD to occasionally co-opt her mother’s attention and feign sickness to get out of school/events? Is she otherwise doing well academically and socially?

2. If there is any negative aspect resulting from this behavior from SD (either from the other kids seeing her getting special treatment, or her skipping things causing poor grades or problems with others) how can you effectively get the message across in a way that won’t cause your wife to become defensive?
Would she “hear” it from your kids? Would she respond better to a written letter (stating what you’ve observed – in the least judgmental terms possible)?

3. Might your wife be able accept a suggestion of letting you take over some extra care for SD? One way to give your wife a bit of a “break” from extra emotional/physical energy your S/D seems to need would be to offer to take over for her. Can you carve out the time to be the one to help (micromanage) her doing her chores? Can you do extra one-on-one time with her and take her to Micky Ds? The more you can do this the more you can both improve your relationship with SD and free up your wife so she will hopefully be able to be more patient with you. (And in turn, break the cycle a bit from it always being your wife + SD).

Sorry for the lengthy answer.. hopefully some of the above helps.

marinelife's avatar

This sounds like a really difficult situation, @noraasnave. I suggest family counseling. Because of your wife’s grief and probably guilt and anger as well over her late husband’s suicide, she is opening herself to manipulation by the child.

It is a family issue that is affecting the whole system including your relationship with your wife. A professional family counselor is required to intervene.

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

It seems to me that your wife feel guilt and overcompensates when it comes to S/D. I think that’s normal, people sometimes think their partner’s suicide was about them and that it’s their fault and that their child was deeply traumatized. I think this is a sensitive situation. You can see what’s going on from the outside looking in but their partner/father’s death was quite traumatic to them, you’ll never really get it. I would have a conversation with my partner first.

noraasnave's avatar

Wow…a lot of helpful thoughts and questions. To show how much I appreciate and crave them I will attempt to respond to each one. But first, more information:

All three children are attending counseling individually. D is taking a mood stabilizer which is helping a great deal and has been for about 6–9 months so far.

I recently signed myself up for counseling as I was dealing with the diagnosis of a progressive illness (M.S. luckily in its early stages). I put some pieces together a little better when I had to pick them up (figuratively speaking). So my view of our family was seen a bit clearer. I went through12 weeks of counseling and felt much better, and the term was up so I opted out for the time being.

I am awaiting a call back from a special research/therapy group from UCLA called FOCUS, not sure what the acronym stands for specifically, but they talk to us all separately and give us surveys of a sort, for us to fill out, then at some point bring us together and show us how each person feels, it is supposed to bring out communication problems and give us strategies for overcoming them, we are planning on doing family counseling after that to keep us talking.

W and I spoke at great length last night. We discussed some of the problems I see, she promptly decided that she might need to see counselor to continue to work through the grief and PTSD she is periodically dealing with.

NOW to the questions:
@bkcunningham I did realize in my journal last night that I was enabling many if not all of the cycles, and initiating them by calling them into question. Thanks for the encouraging comments!

@geeky_mama S/D was 2 years old when the suicide happened, she went to preschool, She was picked up by grandparents and never saw her daddy again. Truly tragic.

-S and D have not commented on the double standard, but constantly act out in negative ways, though not violent, towards S/D. They also act out towards W whenever I am out of earshot. I think they can see the double standard but don’t know how to express how it makes them feel. I am hoping that the FOCUS program will draw some of this out, because I don’t want to ‘feed’ them answers: “Does it make you feel sad that Mom treats Makayla differently that you?”

-The manipulation of the SD annoys the hell out of me, because I watch this beautiful intelligent woman whom I adore ‘jump through hoops’ sometimes hourly at the beck and call of an 8 year old girl. SD requires time and attention similar to a disabled child in my estimation. Academically SD is so flawless that she cries and has an emotional meltdown, if she feels she might not get 100 on a homework assignment. Socially SD wants the love and accolades of everyone, publicly she wants to appear flawless, from the moment she enters home she puts her hand in her mouth and sucks her fingers every moment until bed, if she is writing or playing video games she takes her hand out of her mouth for the time required to move or write then back in it goes.

-My wife read my post on fluther last night and confronted me about it. My body language and posture was off at first, which caused her to misunderstand everything, but once I expressed the frustration I feel and that I want our home to be a place where everyone feels safe and loved (with tears flowing down my cheeks)...she got it. Rubbing her feet also helped her listen a bit better and stop jumping to conclusions.

My wife and I read the posts that hit last night before we went to bed, and I think that settled her down a bit more to know where I posted the question and what my motives were for doing so. I think I can safely put the idea of me “taking over discipline and supervision of the SD” in the near term, and I appreciate the suggestion.

@marinelife @simone_de_beauvoir
Thanks for the thoughts I agree with both of you. I recognize that they are stuck in a cycle which got them through the hard times immediately after S/D father/ W husband’s suicide. My counseling snapped me out of ‘survival mode’ and now I look around to see everyone else in my family in ‘survival mode’...in other words only happy when mind-numbingly involved in something 16 hours of the day, otherwise unhappy.

gailcalled's avatar

@noraasnave: Would your wife like to open her own account here and ask her own questions and get the collective’s wisdom on her take?

I was 44 when my father committed suicide in a violent manner, and I will never be the same woman as before the event. I had years of therapy, but was an eager participant in the process.

noraasnave's avatar

She has been on fluther for quite some time, and it appears she is formulating a response.

bkcunningham's avatar

A good foot rub while talking always helps me focus and see my husband’s point-of-view more clearly. I think you guys are going to be A-okay. You have to be partners when it comes to the children…ALL of the children.

madsmom1030's avatar

grrr- I mistakenly erased my lengthy answer- I agreed to more counseling to help deal with everything on my plate.

I think more information is also needed that my spouse didn’t bring up when we were talking that plays into how my daughter behaves. she was 3 and a half when her father killed himself. this past year she has just begun to realize that he did it himself and doesn’t understand then how he could love her and kill himself. about 4 months after her dad’s suicide I became gravely ill and almost died from a benign liver tumor that caused massive internal bleeding and almost died. she was again dropped off at school and picked up and her other parent was gone- or very sick. she wasn’t allowed to see me for 6 sicks and when she did I was very sick. spent three weeks in the hospital and got out only too have more complications and be hospitalized for another 2 weeks. her grandparents have been the ones to take care of her. now we are moving to texas and she will be far away from her extended family. added to that my husband has recently been dx’d with early stage MS- a brain problem and he bio dad was severally bipolar which she knows was also a brain problem. I feel this is alot for an 8yr old to deal with and it would cause me anxiety. I am not naturally a disciplinarian but am willing to try and be fair with all 3 children.

bkcunningham's avatar

@madsmom1030, that is a lot of information for an 8 year old to be given and to try and process. It is understandable that she is acting out and confused. That is a lot of information for a grownup to have to deal with.

More than that, it is a lot of information and “life” for you to have to be dealing with. I hope you are able to get a good counselor, even if it is a friend, whom you can talk to and share some of your thoughts with. You’ve been though a great deal.

After losing your first husband, it must be really scary that @noraasnave was diagnosed with MS? You find something to hold onto and the wind is knocked out of you again. Tough stuff.

wundayatta's avatar

Before I read your response, I was thinking that this is your problem that you need to deal with on your own. How is the way your wife handles her daughter hurting you? If it is hurting you at all, that’s kind of what you need to come to terms with. However, in a way, it is not your business how her relationship to her daughter affects her. That is up to her. They both share an experience that you don’t, and they are the ones who have to cope, and in many ways, you cannot understand. You have to trust them.

Your stepdaughter may indeed need extra comfort. Don’t be fooled that she is a perfect student. Most people try to be perfect when they are afraid of loss. It is the only think they can think of to do to keep people from leaving them. Your stepdaughter doesn’t want to lose another father, and yet, she is dealing with a lot of stress because of what happened to her father.

In my house, these are called mental health days. The kids get to call them when they want, although there is no McDonalds. My daughter is carrying a 4+ GPA, so we can’t say she isn’t taking care of business. And personally, I think school attendance is overrated. Kids benefit from staying home alone.

I wonder what your wife’s behavior means to you? Do you think she is coddling her daughter? Do you think this is unfair in some way? In particular, is it unfair to your kids?

You know, we have this value of treating all kids the same in a family, but I don’t think that is right. Children are different and need to be treated appropriately. Also, she can not have the same relationship to your kids as she has to her own. You are, after all, step parents, and that makes a big difference.

I think you can allow things to be different, but I wonder if that is what bothers you. I wonder if you feel that your children are somehow being shortchanged. If that’s the case, that is something to work on, and maybe negotiate with your wife, but I’m not sure it’s something that is unfair.

noraasnave's avatar

@wundayatta I welcome your viewpoint. Fair and unfair are terms that don’t really help, just about as useful as blame and fault. When we first started living together we recognized and tried to guess what realistic expectations would be for our blended family. We are as naive as any educated people are. Real Life as always has much to teach us all. We are hungry to learn.

My Grandmother gave me an insightful bit of wisdom years ago ( when I was a single parent the first time): “Every child is different: each child requires different disciplines, rewards, and show of affection.” I almost brushed her proverb away like so many other platitudes and cliche’s, but decided to hold onto it and test it out, and in agreement with you…it checks out.

Equality is unreasonable and doesn’t fit….being equitable seems to have become a rough measuring stick for us. My S’s counselor had a good analogy, that we are all wheels on a car…each wheel has to be aligned, THEN the entire has to be aligned. If either step is not followed then the vehicle moves right back out of alignment. So it is with counseling.

I understand that there is a cycle between W and S/D…I have been willing to stand back and let it runs its course as required, but I am concerned because it appears to be hindering the development of both of them, I believe myself to be locking them into the cycle by my influence.

wundayatta's avatar

Why do you think you are locking them into a cycle? I mean, how is that mechanism working, do you think? And why do you think their relationship is hindering their development? What standard are you using to decide that?

I think they may have particular problems that are very difficult to deal with, and you may need to understand more about what is going on. I think your step daughter is confronting some extremely tough issues at a very young age. Why did her father choose to die? That is difficult for anyone to understand, but even more so for a child.

Plus there is the issue of what is appropriate to say. My son was 8 when I got sick. We have not spoken about my desire to die, yet. I don’t know if he knows. I don’t know how I would have spoken about it to him at that time. I think I would try to tell him the truth now, although even at twelve, I’m not sure what he would be able to take in.

But issues of loss are tough. Throughout most of my life I was convinced I could lose my parents affection because I didn’t perform well enough. Later on, I was always afraid I would lose my significant other (after I lost my first SO in a disastrous way). How do you communicate these things to a child of 8 years old? I have no idea. My instinct is to just tell the truth, but my truth is different from other people’s truths.

Then again, it’s kind of simple. He didn’t want to die, almost certainly. What he wanted was for the pain to stop, and he could not find a way to make the pain stop. Nowadays, we have medications and therapy that work better, but it isn’t easy to find the right combination that works. It’s a lot like cancer, though. It’s outside your control. The treatments don’t always work. It can kill you in the end. There is no certainty in the world, and if anyone gets sick, we will do the same thing: work hard to treat them and make them better. We love the people in our family, and we won’t let them go without a fight.

noraasnave's avatar

Their survival mechanism is mysterious, because it was something created upon a death they both experienced vividly. They had to somehow move on, and continue with life with a million questions, most of which couldn’t and still can’t be conclusively answered.

In many ways they are stuck in the moment after, and in many ways they have moved on and pushed out of ‘survival mode’ a bit. This is life…or death actually. They have moved through the grieving process as far as they can alone, and so I suggested they get some help and move a bit further down the road if possible, for their own sake’s and happiness, and for the sake of our blended family.

In my opinion the cycle works like this:

S/D acts against the rules of our home, she whines, pretends to be sick, and throws a fit to manipulate W to feel sorry for her, cutting off the discipline process which is in place and working for the other children. I am thereby resentful that S/D isn’t subject to the same rules and disciplines so the other children.

I become upset that special consideration is given simply because S/D throws a big fit, or suddenly has developed an illness which included a hacking cough. The more upset I get about the situation the more it draws W and S/D together to comfort each other, to the point where they have been in S/D’s bedroom for hours following.

The conclusion of the cycle is that W and I discuss this whole cycle, both sides express angst, everyone feels better, and the cycle is reset, cocked, and loaded for the next iteration.

Let me define my ‘upset’. I quietly brood about the inconsistencies. I haven’t ever exhibited any violent or abusive behavior. When I get really very upset I get sarcastic about S/D getting away ‘with murder’.

bkcunningham's avatar

I’m not a professional, but it sounds to me like what you are doing now isn’t working. I’d try something different.

noraasnave's avatar

@bkcunningham You are absolutely correct. We are starting the FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) program. It is definitely a different approach to aligning our family as a whole and reconciling all members to the whole. We have attended the first appointment and it seems promising.

Our key strategy is to keep growing, changing and trying with short breaks for intense tears, journaling and prayer. We read books on all these topics as well periodically just to keep the creative juices flowing.

bkcunningham's avatar

Fantastic, @noraasnave. I’ve read a little bit about FOCUS. It seems like a very good program if you are motivated. I hope with all of my heart you all get through this tough time. It will get better. Hang in there and love each other.

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