Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Stepdaughter needs emotional support during family changes
Michigan: I made the mistake of peeking into my 12-year-old stepdaughter's journal, where I learned she does not like me as much as I thought. She calls me names and says she hates me; in the real world, she is unfailingly sweet and enjoys helping me care for her infant brother.
This girl is a bit of a chameleon; it's tough to tell what she's really thinking. All were surprised at how well she seemed to handle her father's divorce and remarriage. Do you think I should tell her what I saw?
Carolyn: Don't tell her! Gah!
Please instead pay more careful attention to her, armed with this new information. Also try to think like a 12-year-old, and give her plenty of room to figure out who she is.
Right now she's a parent-pleasing little girl, trying on a separate, private persona. She's at an age where she's going to chafe at her parents anyway; that's the fundamental dramatic tension with any child, but 12 is when it's starting to hit its peak.
Also consider: Has her sweetness lulled you into giving her more child care responsibility than a child should have? Kids can really appreciate a responsible role, but it goes wrong quickly if it becomes too much; kids still need to be kids.
And they're not little adults in the sense that they feel entitled to speak up when they're feeling put-upon. She might feel particularly afraid to upset a stepparent, or just not comfortable enough with you to say no to one chore too many.
Also factor her nature into it, and start thinking of her as a pleaser — i.e., someone who would rather hide her frailties than risk letting someone down. Be liberal with the generic reminders that it's okay for her to make mistakes, it's okay not to want to babysit sometimes, it's okay to be crabby.
Anonymous: Re: Diary: Please don't tell her you read it. I was that 12-year-old girl, and I put on my best face in the wake of a divorce and was a people-pleaser who knew that if I was nice to stepmom, my dad and stepmom would be happy, but inside I was a roiling mess. (Outside too — anorexic.) My only safe harbor was my diary.
And my sister read it and told my dad and stepmom, who were shocked. Then I felt as if I had nowhere to be myself and got further reinforcement that even showing my real feelings in private was dangerous! What that taught me was to make a thicker mask.
Please don't take what she wrote as a sign she is lying or conniving. Instead, realize she needs you to look out for her proactively, rather than wait for her to tell you something bothers her.
I resented my stepmom because I hated the whole divorce and upheaval, and she was the easy target — the outsider. But now, as an adult, I appreciate how she bent over backward to be nice to me even when I wasn't the best stepchild, and we are now close.
Carolyn: So well said. Parents can have every intention of keeping their kids safe, but you underscore here that a parent's idea of emotional safety can differ dramatically from an adolescent's.