Taming Step-Parent Guilt

Taming Step-Parent Guilt

Question from a guilt-ridden step-parent:

I am seeking advice for myself that will hopefully help me to connect with my step-daughter.


Long story short…my stepdaughter came to live with us when she was 6 years old she is now 14. Her biological mother is not part of her life. I see her as one of my own daughters, we do not say step-mom or step-daughter, (I have two other daughters 12 & 13).


Although, I love her dearly, I do admit that I have always been more critical towards her. I hate that about myself…and lately I start to think of how we only have four more years with her until she graduates from high school and begins a new chapter, and it pains me to think that all the criticism will overshadow the good memories.


I appreciate any advice you can give me to help me mend our relationship. Even though I can be very harsh with my words, my step-daughter never hesitates to tell me, “I love you, mommy,” everyday; and sometimes her saying this to me angers me…I think maybe because I feel guilty.


I am so tired of this up and down roller coaster…there are good days but then there are bad ones…I would love to be consistent in the way I show love to my girls ALL OF THE TIME.


I like to start my parent coaching the same way I tell parents to start their conversations with their children – by saying what I see. I can tell that your wish to consistently show love to your girls ALL OF THE TIME is deeply heartfelt. I suspect that is also a strong commitment. You are looking in the right place to make the changes you desire – inward.

The first thing to do is to bring some love and understanding to yourself.

Look back at how you came to be where you are with loving eyes. When your step-daughter came to live with you she was instantly your new oldest child – always new territory for any parent. Plus you were apparently not her primary influence during the formative years of her life, which were probably rocky if they led up to the circumstance where her biological mother would no longer be there for her.

Yet out of love for her and your spouse, and perhaps a sense of duty, you became responsible for her. Feeling responsible for people and things you cannot control is a psychological powder-keg! You would unconsciously recognize that, so your automatic control mechanisms would kick in, probably more so than with your own children.

It’s hard enough to feel confident that you are doing the right thing for a child you’ve raised from infancy, but when that child comes to you with her own issues (probably including abandonment), it’s almost impossible to avoid doubting yourself. Self-doubt will lead to self-criticism and defensiveness  which will lead you to over-correct, criticize and even blame her. (You can read this blog post, if you are interested in a new twist on blame.) You won’t like criticizing or blaming, but wouldn’t be able to stop since it’s unconsciously driven. That’s why your first step is to stop the cycle of criticism by looking at yourself with loving eyes and understanding what’s been driving you.

You said your worry is that she will remember the criticism more than the good times.

That worry is probably more true of you than her, so make sure to check with her on it. Looking through old family pictures together and hearing her comments might be very reassuring for you. Plus, as you said, she reassures you daily that she loves you anyway. While it’s hard for you to hear that sometimes (I address that below), I hope you will begin to see that it’s actually true.

And just so you know, all kids don’t react to criticism in the same way. My oldest daughter Colleen amazed me with the way she handled criticism from her art teacher in high school. I would’ve crumbled under the kind of constant criticism that woman dished out, but my daughter just brushed it off with, “That’s just how she is. I know my work is good. She’s just trying to help me do my best.” Her years with that teacher made her self-confidence even stronger! So you never know. (You can read my younger daughter Betsy‘s blog post here for an insightful discussion of criticism and judgment.)

If you don’t like criticizing children and can’t stop, “owning” the problem in do-overs after the fact can make a big difference in your relationship with them.

Kids can brush off your behavior when they know it’s your problem, not theirs. As long as you don’t put the blame on them or try to justify your criticism, they can accept that it’s just this thing you do, not who you are. It’s the same thing you need to learn to do for yourself. Your intentions, not what you do, say who you are for your children. Be sure you tell her your intentions often and share what’s in your way. With a 14 YO you can have honest conversations about your inner struggles, so she can begin to understand and accept herself better, too.

You said you thought your angry reaction to her “I love you” might be from guilt.

Here’s another reason that it might make you angry, especially if it comes after an incident that drew your criticism. During or after those incidents, out of frustration you may have the thought, “Why can’t she just do things right? Then I wouldn’t have to criticize her and instead could show her I love her.” Thoughts like that make it look like she is the one with the power, and then instead of fixing the problem, she tells you she loves you. What are you supposed to do with that?!!

Understanding the real answer to your question, “Why can’t she just do things right (or the way I ask, etc…)?” might help.

A lot has been written on kids with abandonment and attachment issues for adoptive parents. It might be worth looking into. But the explanation that makes sense to me is that kids with abandonment fears often have an unconscious mechanism of testing you as in, “If I do this will you leave me? How about this?” It’s them seeing how far they can push you and still feel safe that you won’t abandon them. Each time you don’t leave, they push a little farther because they want to feel safe in your relationship no matter what, but never really can because they have had an unforgettable piece of proof – a parent leaving. When you have a reaction that threatens their connection with you, they back up and urgently try to rekindle it. Your step-daughter’s “I love you,” may be part of that. That may be the roller coaster you describe. It feels like a push-pull because that’s exactly what it is: “How far can I push you? But please don’t leave!”

Like our own unconsciously driven behaviors, kids can’t stop unless they become aware of what’s running them.

Again, since she is 14, bringing understanding and love to conversations about her own inner struggles could be very beneficial, although a full awareness probably won’t occur until she grows up. You can talk to a therapist about that. My colleague, Dr. Theresa Kellam licensed psychologist, might be a good place to start. She can tell you more about the type of help that’s available: theresakellam.com

Meanwhile you can sit down with your daughter and brainstorm some practical solutions for other ways to respond to each other during those moments of criticism and pushing.

One way to turn around a disagreement is by saying what the other person wants instead of focusing on what you want. When you understand each other’s true intentions, solutions are easier to find. Or if you have specific recurring struggles, during your brainstorming session you could ask what she wishes she could hear you say to help her feel loved, not criticized, and you could tell her what you wish you could hear her say when you feel pushed away, then come up with reminders you can use in the heat of the moment. The key will be to stop and really listen to each other like what the other person wants is important, because to that person it is!

The thing to remember is that neither one of you can “just stop” doing what you are doing.

If you feel like what I described above is on track, even if your solutions don’t always work, you can at least bring a greater awareness to your do-over conversations of the real reasons you both do what you do. To be effective, do-overs should happen at a later time when you are both calm.

The only thing your children really need to know for you to maintain a long-term healthy relationship with them is that you care and are doing the best you can do. If your best doesn’t feel good enough to you (guilt), then that’s where you start. A hefty dose of self-love can make all the difference.


  1. This blog post has so many juicy insights, I’m going to print it out and study it! So powerful and liberating to know that no one can “just stop” what they’re doing if they don’t know what’s driving them–and if they subconsciouy believe there’s no other way to get that driving need filled.
    thank you for such a deep and generous answer to your readers question! and blessings to you, step-mom. You and your step-daughter are each a blessing to the other.

  2. Neil |

    Wow! Very insightful!

  3. Great article, Sandy!

  4. Katherine, Neil and Carrie,

    Thank you so much for your comments. I answer a lot of parents’ questions behind the scenes for Rachel Macy Stafford of http://HandsFreeMama.com She and the parents are very generous in allowing me to share our Q&A’s here to help others. I am very grateful to them and to you for taking the time to let me know it is meaningful to you.

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