I can’t stop my partner’s daughter being really rude to me

<span>Photograph: Giulio_Fornasar/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Giulio_Fornasar/Shutterstock

The dilemma I am really struggling with my partner’s daughter. My partner and his ex separated several years ago, when his two children were just four and six. They went through an acrimonious split and he eventually won full custody of the children. I moved in recently and have been in their lives for about six months now. At the beginning, his daughter was affectionate; however her attitude has changed towards me. I think she also believes if she rejects me enough, then I will leave and she will have her dad to herself. I really try to keep the trauma of the break-up she has been through in mind every day, but it’s getting harder to accept her mean behaviour. She ignores my existence, making no eye contact, not answering any questions until she’s made to and even then when she does it’s monosyllabic.

When my partner has spoken to her about it, she becomes aggressively upset, demanding to know exactly when and where these things have occurred so that she can blame me. I am walking on eggshells in the house all day. I have tried ignoring the behaviour, but I really find it too upsetting. The more I ignore it, the more I am separated from the family “group” and become an unwelcome outsider.

Philippa replies In these situations I always say, steer into the skid. What I mean is when a car is going sideways, instead of locking the steering wheel in the opposite direction, you steer in the direction you are skidding – the direction you feel like you don’t want to go – then you are steering with the momentum, so you have it with you when you drive out.

Don’t become her equal in this. You aren’t, you have more power over your life than she has over hers, so don’t think that you are in a battle with her – because you have already won the battle of who lives in her house. Muster up your last drops of goodwill towards her to imagine what it must feel like to believe that someone seems to be stealing Daddy’s love away from her. She’s not a bad person, she’s a kid.

Think of the long game. His daughter needs lots of assurance

I would not react emotionally – difficult, but you are a grownup and she is a child, so you can bracket some of what you feel. I would put her feelings into words. Now, this is not easy because, at the moment, they are not very nice feelings. So, next time she’s mean, with all the goodwill in the world, and all the love and sympathy you’ve got, articulate for her what she really wants. “It seems to me you really want to drive me out, don’t you?” or “You probably wish I was your real mum. I’m sorry, that’s hard.” Don’t go against her, don’t tell her what she should be saying, doing or feeling, but go in the same direction, putting her actions and behaviour into words. To help you muster the love and goodwill you need for this, imagine what it is like for her living with someone she is seeing as an intruder. You don’t want to articulate this I’m sure, but if you can do so, and with understanding for her, you will be steering into the skid. You will be going in the same direction and it is only from this position, where she feels seen and understood, that you can begin to brainstorm solutions with her. She is probably feeling insecure and wants and needs more one-on-one time with her dad. You could say, “You and your dad should have some quality time together and me and your brother will hang out.”

And it’s not a bad idea to concentrate on having a great relationship with her brother; she might even start to want some of that action.

Share the dialogue you and I have had with your partner and see what he thinks. I reckon, right now, that he doesn’t want to upset his daughter and wants to give her what she needs to feel secure, which means not punishing her for mean behaviour. Think about this: there is no such thing as bad behaviour – all behaviour is communication. What needs to happen is someone – it could be you – has to be patient and teach her how to say what she feels, so she doesn’t act out how she feels. And what she feels is what she feels; she can’t help that. But paradoxically she is less likely to feel it when she can express it, and be accepted and understood. And you can say what you hope will happen, too, after she feels heard and understood.

You don’t want to put your partner in the horrible position of having to choose between his daughter and you. Think of the long game. You and your partner are hopefully together for ever. Right now, his daughter needs reassurance that she is as important as ever she was, which may mean making her more important until she feels secure. It is not rewarding bad behaviour, it is understanding the behaviour so that it doesn’t need to happen.

It is tough to live through this, but don’t take the hate personally and that will lessen the power of it.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk
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