Reader Question Regarding Manipulative 13-Year-Old Step-Daughter

My step-daughter (13) is the second youngest of a blended family of eight. She lacks empathy and has high anxiety. She lies, manipulates, distracts to get what she wants and avoids any real responsibility. How does a step-parent navigate this situation?

As I’ve stated elsewhere, I am not a licensed mental health professional; therefore, I do not feel comfortable giving personalized advice. However, I will share a few thoughts I had upon reading this question. First, have you expressed your concerns regarding your step-daughter to your spouse? If your answer is no, why not? If you feel that your spouse will refuse to hear you out, or will listen to you but then invalidate your concerns, there are larger issues to deal with, and I would urge you to explore why you don’t feel comfortable raising this issue with him/her.

If you answered yes to the question above, does your spouse acknowledge that your step-daughter’s negative traits A. exist and B. are problematic? If you said no to either one, you’ve got your work cut out for you. In that case, my suggestion is to seek individual counseling for advice regarding how to cope with your situation and how to help the other children involved.

However, a yes response to both A. and B. is encouraging. Your step-daughter may benefit from individual and family counseling sessions. At such a young age, it’s possible her behavior is a coping mechanism, and a licensed psychologist can help make that determination as well as help her work through it and implement some positive behavioral modifications. Family sessions are useful for showing your support and everyone can learn healthy ways to respond to her attitude without reinforcing it.

Of course, if it turns out your step-daughter’s behavioral issues are more serious, it’s imperative to introduce a qualified therapist who can develop a treatment plan and realistic goals for the child. It’s possible she may also need medication to help reduce her anxiety. Something else to consider – is the other parent involved, and will s/he agree to therapy? You may need to go to family court.

Your original question may seem relatively simple and straight-forward, but even a mental health counselor wouldn’t be able to answer it without knowing more about the child, her history, and family dynamics. Before figuring out how to navigate, you’ll need to determine whether or not you and your spouse are on the same page regarding your step-daughter. Her manipulative behavior affects the entire family, and it needs to be addressed.

Living with Toxic Relatives

Anyone who’s come out of a long-term toxic relationship knows that a manipulative, vindictive ex can all but ruin your life. They’ll at least do their best to try. My husband’s abuser managed to sabotage his career, basically setting him back to square one. She did this even though taking away his means to support himself also meant taking away his means to pay child support to her. An emotionally healthy woman with a handful of kids will look for a job to help support herself and her children. An unbalanced wreck in the same situation will spend all of her time plotting and scheming until she succeeds in cutting off the only source of income she does have.

To me, this is one of the most baffling aspects of psychopaths and the personality disordered. When they perceive that someone has wronged them, they will go out of their way to harm that person, even when it is inevitable that they themselves will be negatively affected by the outcome. I truly believe that many of them do have the foresight to understand that they will suffer consequences for their own actions, but they go ahead and implement whatever malicious plot they’ve devised, because they so badly want to cause someone else’s suffering.

My husband was in the military, and we were living all the way across the country from ex-BPD when she strategically tried to destroy his life. (In hindsight, the distance was the biggest blessing). We packed up and temporarily moved in with one of his relatives who lives in between our home state and the one we had just moved from. My hubby had a job prospect in the area; it didn’t pan out, we wound up staying with the relative and her family longer than we had planned, and she turned out to be highly manipulative which made an already stressful situation almost unbearable.

My husband eventually landed the job that he would have for the next several years, and we got our own place. He was quickly promoted to a management position, and eventually I was hired on with the company too. The owners turned out to be the most heinous, emotionally manipulative, abusive people either of us has ever worked for, and maybe I’ll get into that some other time. Eventually, this company wanted him to move back to our home state, and they promised him a promotion. He never got it, the work became intermittent, and we wound up staying with his parents for much longer than expected.

The idea was to move in with them for several months while my husband set up his surgery (to correct an injury and improve mobility), recover from the surgery, and give us time to search for a rental property. However, The Universe rarely takes our plans into account, and things got crazy almost as soon as we arrived back home.

Which brings me to the reason I started writing this post. I recently wrote a flash fiction piece that was inspired by our stay with the in-laws, and I figured why not supplement it with a blog post summarizing what really happened. I’ve started reading back through my journal entries and will post soon.

Welcome to My Dysfunctional Family

As we start the new year, I was reflecting on my goals for 2019, and that got me thinking about how much can happen in a year. A few years ago, my husband and I started a tradition of writing down Happy Thoughts throughout the year and stuffing them into a jar, then we read them to each other during the first few days of the new year. We’ve been doing that this week, and I’m realizing how much I have to be grateful for, and I don’t want to take anything for granted.

I grew up in a dysfunctional family, so it astonishes me that it took me as long as it did to recognize it when I found myself entrapped in it in my adult life. What’s more puzzling is that, even after my own experience, I didn’t see my best friend’s (now my husband) Stockholm Syndrome for what it was. In my defense, I was still licking my wounds and trying to make sense of what I had been through. I was also blinded by optimism and a renewed sense of hope.

So many people feel obligated to maintain unhealthy relationships because of a little shared DNA, and I’ll never completely understand that. I left my abuser, and I had no trouble disengaging from my narcissistic father. (I came to see both of them for what they were at roughly the same time.) DNA? That’s superficial. Toxic is toxic, and I refuse to feel obligated to enable a narcissist or to unduly stress myself out.

As of this writing, I haven’t spoken to my father in almost ten years (same for the narcopath I lived with; it was a clean break, no further communication), and it hasn’t been difficult at all. My husband went no-contact with his narcissistic mother a few years ago, and he doesn’t miss her either. I realize not everyone has an epiphany moment, or their toxic relative (or lover) does something so unforgivable to them, that trying to salvage the relationship is no longer an option, but I want to tell you that not having to deal with toxicity in your personal life on a regular basis is a much more peaceful way to exist.

Whether it’s a lover, a parent, sibling, or even a child, no one should have to endure emotional, psychological, or physical abuse out of a sense of duty or obligation. It may be difficult, but you can remove the negativity from your life. You are good enough, and your needs are just as important as anyone else’s. You can have hope and aspirations. You can live up to your full potential.

On Forgiveness and Confrontations

Cover of "Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their...
Cover via Amazon

I am currently reading Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Forward, PhD. Most of her information and advice is spot on. However, I disagree with her on a couple of issues. Before I get into those, I should probably fill you in on why I’m reading this book.

As stated in my introduction post, I lived with a sociopath for a number of years, and my significant other was ensnared by one for over a decade. If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve had your own major encounter with a psychopath, or perhaps you have a loved one who has. And if that’s the case, you may already have learned that the reason some of us get involved with sociopaths is because we’re trying to resolve childhood issues. We had high conflict, sociopathic, or personality disordered parents, and we got stuck in dysfunction; we don’t know what normal, healthy relationships are all about.

As far as my parents are concerned, I’ve already made my peace. When I say that, I mean I’ve made my peace within myself and, as a result of that, I was able to make my peace with them. (I want to point out that this was partly a result of the relationship I had with the psychopath. As I was discovering what he was, I realized he and my father seemed to have come from the same template. So it gave me some deep insight into the relationship I had with him, as well.)

My SO comes from a highly dysfunctional family also, and has made significant progress as far as understanding how that has affected his life and his choices. He has learned to recognize when he is being manipulated, and he stands up for himself. We both still read books like this one to continue to gain valuable insight. For me the subject is still fascinating.

Getting back on topic, Dr. Forward tells her clients that forgiveness is not essential. I respectfully disagree. Unfortunately, many people seem to think forgiveness and absolution are one and the same. They are not. Forgiveness does not equal absolution. The two are not synonymous. Forgiving someone does not mean that you will continue to allow them to abuse you or that you will pretend like the abuse never occurred.

It’s been my experience though that forgiveness is a process. You cannot simply state that you forgive your abuser and expect that magically, all of the hurt from the past will disappear, you will have your self esteem back, your toxic parent(s) will be grief-stricken at ever having hurt you and will become the perfect parent(s), etc. Strangely, many people seem to think that that’s how forgiveness works. It has to come naturally. For me, it’s been part of the healing process. It gradually started to happen on its own, without any conscious effort on my part. (Other than struggling to make sense of everything and to recover from it all.)

I realized I had forgiven these people when I got to the point where I could think of them, and unpleasant incidents from our past, without feeling strong emotions. Now, especially when I recall traumatic incidents from childhood, they almost seem as if they happened to someone else. I don’t feel anger, confusion, emotional distress, helplessness, hatred or a wish to lash out. Sometimes there’s a little sadness at the fact the we humans can be so cruel, but that’s not what this post is about.

The second thing I disagree with Dr. Forward on is her urging all of her clients to confront their toxic parents. I don’t think a confrontation is necessary for everyone. She suggests putting it in writing or arranging a face to face meeting. The patient basically outlines the abuses/neglect they suffered, how they were affected by it, and that they are not going to tolerate any ongoing abuse or disrespect. I think there are plenty of people who could benefit from writing a letter that they never intend to send. (Writing in a journal is another option.) If you’re struggling with going no-contact, then the response to your confrontation might help you decide. However, if you already know in your heart that no-contact is the only way to have peace in your life, then what’s the point of a confrontation?

Dr. Forward suggests that the confrontation is to prove to the patient that he/she can stand up to their parents. In my experience, in order to do that, you must set solid boundaries and stop allowing the parents (or anyone else for that matter) to cross those boundaries. When you can do that, then you know that you are okay. When you no longer allow them to abuse you or treat you with disrespect, when you can calmly tell them that you’re going to walk out/hang up if they keep acting like children, when you can refuse to give in to guilt and manipulations, when they are no longer able to push your buttons, then you are fine.

You can stand up to your parents without confronting them with the past. In some instances, a confrontation may make things worse. For me, I simply don’t see the point – it wouldn’t be helpful to me at all. Everyone is different though and, if you feel the need for a confrontation, Toxic Parents will help you prepare for one. Check your local library, or you can purchase the book on Amazon or e-bay.

There’s one more thing I want to mention. Dr. Forward gives examples of how toxic parents typically respond during these face to face encounters. Not surprisingly, they react exactly the same way personality disordered spouses/lovers do, when we call them on their bullshit. Essentially, they respond with denial, blame shifting, false apologies – in hopes of sweeping everything under the rug, making excuses/rationalizing, the martyr routine, and – my personal fave – the whiny, melodramatic why-are-you-being-mean-to-me crap. I couldn’t help noticing the pattern, and it made me wonder if Dr. F would also advise her patients to have a face off with an ex spouse/lover. I doubt she would, and doing so with one’s parents hardly seems like it would be particularly helpful for the same reason.

Each of us is different, and it’s important to do what’s best for you. If you find this book helpful, and you want more, I’ve comprised a short list of books that have been helpful to me during my recovery. If you’re interested, you can view it here.