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I’ve recently been in e-mail dialogue with a concerned stepmother.  She’s stepparenting three elementary- and middle-school-aged children whose mother died several years ago. 

My heart went out to her as I read about her situation.  Her husband works a lot, which leaves her to be the primary parent most times of day except evenings, during which her husband is often too tired to deal with discipline issues.  Why is this heartbreaking for me to learn?  Because as great and caring as this stepmother is, those kids need their daddy.  They need the surviving parent to be involved, especially with their discipline. 

She mentioned that the two youngest (boys) seem to be taking to her structure and boundary-setting well.  Her stepdaughter, 13, is a different story. The relationship is rough, further complicated by such early teen behaviors as eye rolling and snapping back.  She comes across as kind of a loner, and is seemingly happy this way. 

This is heartbreak number two for me, for so many reasons.  First, after trading multiple messages it seems as if this stepdaughter does not have any females she looks up to in her life.  Layer that with having a busy dad, and she is in a situation where she is neither accepting love from a woman, nor receiving as much support as some children do. 

Second, this astute stepmom, only married one year, has already recognized that no one is talking about mom. “It’s almost as though the subject is taboo,” stepmom said.   That statement carries a personal sting for me, as I know our stepfamily had difficulty integrating mom into the conversations in the early years.  Thankfully I didn’t shut it down when it did come up, though I felt uncomfortable.  It didn’t come up naturally very often, and it is the responsibility of the big people in the house to bring up the deceased parent from time to time.  Anniversary dates such as birthdays and the anniversary of the death are great opportunities.

Third, the dad in this family believes everything is going fine, both in the family and with his daughter.  In fact, he may be afraid that bringing up mom will pitch his daughter back into the deep sadness he’s seen in the past.  This is a common reaction from the surviving parent, be it blissful optimism, denial, or a protective mechanism. 

What I told this stepmom is, “How could everything be fine when this girl has lost her mom?”  Think about it. The bottom line is everything will be fine until it’s not.  Do you want to start dealing with the grief now, while the kids are still relatively young, or wait until later when the life stakes are higher? 

I have been through, with my own stepdaughter, the phases of thinking, “She seems happy.  Everything must be fine.”  It’s so much easier and harmonious to do nothing, I know.  But what experts recommend, and I can second from personal experience, is that it’s healthier to help your grieving child chip away at the underlying hurt which is no doubt bottled up inside this stepdaughter, not to mention her younger brothers who seem even more “fine” than she does. 

This stepmom is taking some action already in the form of counseling for herself.  I am praying that she can take the time to gather some informed perspectives on stepfamily development, and then find the courage to get some talk about mom and about grief going in her family.  Since my audio series and book are still in process, I would like to recommend a book I’ve used in my research.  Guiding Your Child Through Grief, written by Jim (the surviving parent) and Mary Ann (the stepparent) Emswiler, offers a great chapter about stepparenting a grieving child.  And the rest of the book is a good read for surviving parents and stepparents alike. 

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in Northern Colorado.  For more information on her book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child, go to

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2 Comments on A Reader Writes: If Everyone’s Fine, Why do I Feel Stressed?

  1. Diane Fromme says:

    This comment came to my email from a fellow stepmom:

    For the step mom with the 13 year old step daughter: Dad needs to step up! Daughter needs grief therapy…(my step kids did well at a summer grief camp). But the family also needs some group therapy as well, surely the younger boys notice the sister’s behavior and will eventually think that it’s ok for them to treat step mom in the same way. Step mom is very courageous and in my prayers.

  2. Carly says:

    I can relate! Their Mom has been dead over 6 years and we FINALLY have family counseling after my husband got a call from the school psychologist saying that his Son is CUTTING HIMSELF. Can you believe it?! After years of my ranting about getting counseling for his children and not being heard finally he understands what I was talking about. His daughter has been dealing with this as best she can but we NOW have an outlet. We have role playing, drawing sessions, you name it. Some sessions end in sadness and anger however we don’t speak of it till 24 hours after our session. By that time the pressure is off and we can talk with ease. It may take a desperate action on the part of his children to make him take heed that you need help as a family. After a month we can already feel an improvement in our relating to one another. We are also going to get individual counseling to deal with our own issues once the group sessions end. This step mom is in my prayers.. I can SOOOOOOOO relate. God Bless her and all of us dealing with these issues!

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