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My Girlfriend’s Teen-Aged Daughter Is Disrespectful

by Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From the U.S.: My girlfriend and I have been seeing each other for the last eight months. We get along great, have similar values, goals, philosophies on life and many other things in common that are very difficult to find in a mate.

I have a soon to be eight-year-old son and she has a daughter that just turned 17.

My son and my girlfriend have a great relationship. His mother is still very much involved in his life as we split custody of him 50/50. My son and I are also very close. I’m very much enjoying him while he’s young and still looks up to me and thinks I’m “cool.”

However, my girlfriend’s daughter is an entirely different story. We get along fine, but don’t communicate much outside of greeting each other and the occasional small-talk. Her dad died about 9 years ago and my girlfriend has raised her as a single mother. In spite of having a child at a young age, my girlfriend was able to complete her degree and provide a very comfortable home for her and her daughter. As a child who grew up in a single parent home myself, I am amazed at what my girlfriend has been able to accomplish. Her daughter has it better than many kids I know that have both parents at home. She has everything any kid could ever need or want.

Their relationship is very strained and has been for years. Her daughter seems to harbor a lot of anger and doesn’t respect her mother like she should. She isn’t expected to do much around the house, doesn’t have a job, refuses to get a permit or a driver’s license and lists her boyfriend as one of her three top priorities in life. She gets great grades, but has never worked for anything outside of schoolwork.

She’s leaving for college later this year and I’m concerned about a couple of things.

1.) To me and others; she doesn’t respect her mother like she should and frequently crosses the line when they disagree and argue.

2.) I’m not her father and don’t know what, if anything, I can or should say when I’m present during the arguments they have.

3.) I’m very uncomfortable with the thought of my son being around her because I never know when they’re going to get into one of their frequent blowout arguments.

4.) I love my girlfriend and see a future for us, but I would take serious issue with her daughters behavior and would not be able to accept things as they are in the event that we marry one day.

How can I be of help when I’m not sure what the boundaries are? My girlfriend has told me multiple times that it’s okay for me to involve myself, but her daughters behavior is so outrageous to me, that I’m afraid that I might cross the line if I attempt to communicate with her while I’m upset.

Your girlfriend is fortunate indeed to have found someone as sensitive as yourself who truly appreciates all she has managed to accomplish. You are correct not to try to parent her daughter at this point. There is too much that is unsettled between the mother and daughter.

I’m very concerned that your girlfriend allows herself to get into fights with her daughter. My guess is that it was just the two of them for so long that they developed more of a buddy relationship than a mother-daughter one. It’s very common and not something your girlfriend needs to be ashamed of. But if she wants to normalize the relationship in such a way that there is room for you to co-parent, she will need to take the lead to stop the fighting. She also needs to be mindful of the impact her fights with her daughter are having on your young son.

I strongly urge the two of you to find a family therapist who specializes in teen issues. Putting a halt to one kind of relationship and starting a different one is hard work. The two of you need a third party to hear some concrete examples of what causes the fighting and disrespect and to offer some suggestions to your girlfriend about how to make changes. Your girlfriend needs to learn how to be less reactive to her daughter’s provocations. You should go to appointments too because you need some pointers on how to support your girlfriend so she can do what needs to be done.

By the way: Nowhere is it written that parents need to fund higher education for someone who is disrespectful and unappreciative and who doesn’t pull her weight in the household. A college education is a gift and a privilege, not a right. As tempting as it may seem to get her out of the house and off to school, maybe you and your girlfriend should consider whether she is mature enough to be in college. It may do her good to work for a year and to gain a better appreciation for how hard her mom has had to work to provide so much for her.

If it would be too difficult to have her living at home, consider a “gap year” experience like City Year. That would give her some good experience in the real world and would add to her resume. Take a look at http://usagapyearfairs.org

I’m not for a moment suggesting holding off on college as “revenge” or a punishment. Telling her to wait shouldn’t be grounded in anger but instead be a wise parenting decision. She has some growing up to do before she is ready to take full advantage of the tremendous gift of an education.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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