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My spouse’s 16 year old daughter is mentally ill. She has been diagnosed with Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and is in treatment. Of late, her behavior has worsened to the point where she responds with screaming to most if not all requests (such as cleaning room or to pick up after herself). She is particularly aggressive with me.

Since I

  1. see her for about 20-60 minutes a day due to nature of my work schedule
  2. am never communicated with by her therapist [the family of the former step-parent pay for the treatment]
  3. was never integrated into her life when I came into it 2 yrs ago

    -- what if anything, can I do and how much if it all should I be involved?

My spouse (the father) has no opinion on what I should do. The therapist never stated one. His ex-in-laws never interact with me.

I am a professor, I work with children and have an excellent rapport and success with students — so I am not unable to interact with young people.

  • Hi, welcome to SE.Parents. I can understand that you have a huge problem here, but how you handle your step-daughter is very much tied up with her medical condition, and we can't offer medical advice. So with regret I've voted to close this as off topic. – Paul Johnson Feb 21 '19 at 18:15
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    I'm a bit confused. How old is she? What is the nature/diagnosis of her mental illness (it matters.) If you see her so little, under what circumstances is she aggressive towards you? What do you do when it happens? Why, if you're married to the parent, were you not integrated into her life? – anongoodnurse Feb 21 '19 at 18:15
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    @PaulJohnson: I respectfully disagree. OP is not asking how to treat the daughter (which would be off-topic), but how to interact with the daughter in their role as step-parent. Step-parenting is very much OT. – sleske Feb 22 '19 at 9:19
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    Yes, sleske, that is the correct configuration. I was being vague for privacy reasons, apologies. Thank you so much for youe insightful answer below – MataHari Feb 22 '19 at 11:48
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    @sleske In view of edits and the discussion I have now retracted my Close vote. – Paul Johnson Feb 22 '19 at 12:10
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My spouse’s 16 year old daughter is mentally ill and in treatment. (She has been diagnosed with Reactive attachment disorder (RAD) and is in treatment.)

This sounds like a difficult situation. It's hard to give specific advice in such a complex situation, but I'll try to give you some ideas that may help.

Of late, her behavior has worsened to the point where she responds with screaming to most if not all requests (such as cleaning room or to pick up after herself). She is particularly aggressive with me.

It seems like you sometimes try to (help to) discipline her. While not necessarily a bad idea, discipline and setting boundaries is:

  • always a difficult part of parenting
  • particularly difficult for a step-parent
  • even more difficult if the relationship is like you describe

So my first question would be: Is it really worth the fight to try this? To put it bluntly: If nothing comes of you trying to make her pick up after herself, consider dropping the attempts. Yes, I know this sounds like "giving up", but you tried, it did not work, and maybe it's time to try a different approach.

Instead, speak to her parent (father?), explain that it makes you unhappy / annoys you if she e.g. does not pick up things, and try to find a solution. Maybe her parent needs to speak to her, maybe the three of you together... . The parent is a) responsible for the daugher, and b) invited you in their life, so they have a certain responsibility to both of you, and thus needs to be involved in finding a solution.

Since I 1) see her for about 20 min a day to an hr [due to nature of my work schedule] 2) am never communicated with by her therapist [the family of the former step-parent pay for the treatment] 3) was never integrated into her life when I came into it 2 yrs ago—what, if anything, can I do and how much if it all should I be involved?

Again, that's not something we can answer for you. How much you want to be involved is something all three of you must decide (independently, then together). You will have to find a balance: On the one hand, you (presumably) live together, so you will need to find some common ground. On the other hand, the daughter is not your daughter, and almost grown up, so you can't expect her to want to cuddle you every day...

Again, try talking to the parent and her (you may sense a déjà-vu here ;-) ).


Finally, my personal advice would be for you to try and find a counselor for you. This is a very tricky situation, and I believe you could use someone help you navigate it. You could go with your partner, maybe even (later) all three, but consider going alone first, just to get your own things sorted. Talking to a trusted, good friend or relative is also an option, but IMHO a professional, who is not involved otherwise, is often even more helpful.

Personally, I have encountered difficult situations, and a few hours of counseling have greatly helped me. Best of luck to you!

  • There’s nothing to add, sleske. Perhaps, there are movies and fairytales occupying with this theme. Invite her to this movie with similar emotions. It doesn’t have to be the identical constellation. I actually can just remember Endless Love with Brook Shields. – Albrecht Hügli Feb 22 '19 at 12:31
  • Getting her to do smthn or anything with anyone is basiy impossible. She spends nearly all her time with her iPad (including in class, during class, in school) and shuts out any and all interactions with others – MataHari Feb 22 '19 at 15:28
  • +1. Great answer. – anongoodnurse Feb 22 '19 at 17:38
  • @MataHari: Well, yes, she's in therapy for a reason. But that is not primarily your responsibility. – sleske Feb 22 '19 at 19:40
  • True. I have concluded that, my best and only option is to discontinue any involvement. Her father has relegated prime parenting to his ex’s family, and they want no third parties involved. So I am best off steering clear rather than being caught midst turmoil. – MataHari Feb 22 '19 at 20:11

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