Dear Carolyn: My husband and I will welcome our first child together in October. He also has two daughters: a 10-year-old from a past relationship, who visits often but does not live with us; and a 3-year-old from his previous marriage, who is with us half the time. The 10-year-old really likes me, and I feel the same way about her, but for various reasons (mainly their ages and the amounts of time we spend together), I have bonded more significantly with the toddler.
The 10-year-old is very sensitive about this and likes to make comments, sometimes provocative ones, implying that I love her younger sister more. Some of these comments are easier to laugh off than others. I sometimes lie awake and worry about this as something that will always be an ugly cloud hanging over our relationship.
Now, with a baby on the way, the 10-year-old’s comments have increased in frequency and intensity. She is a very sweet little girl and ordinarily does not say things just to be sassy — I really think she means it. Amid all my excitement about expanding our family, I’m beginning to feel a real sense of worry about the consequences it will have for my relationship with the oldest. I am not all that experienced at talking to kids in this age group.
There’s no age-group language you learn to speak, for any age. There’s just shared experience. “On Golden Pond” makes this point beautifully, if you’d like an unusually well-acted training video.
There’s also no upside to laughing off what you rightly identify as a real concern. When she implies favoritism, ask for clarification: “Ooh. You said that like you meant it. Is there something you’d like to talk about?” Gently, gently.
And if she does trust you with the underlying truth, no matter how dark or wrong it sounds to you, thank her for her honesty. And, be careful not to negate her with, “That’s not true!” She won’t believe you anyway. Instead, say you’re sorry to hear that she’s hurting.
Then talk not about kid vs. kid, but about the problem with comparing loves. Or, I should say, ask your way there. She loves her dad, yes? Her little sister? Her best friend? Her mom? Her (other relative here)? Then ask — does she line everyone up in her mind in order of most- to least-loved, or does she treat each love as its own thing? Listen to her answer. Talk about it, too ... just a little, since she’s 10 after all. Assure her that you don’t compare, you just love who you love for who they are.
And then, separately, figure out what you and this very sensitive 10-year-old can enjoy together, one-on-one, during a regular block of time you set aside just for her. Stalk your Walter (see the movie!). Her home life has churned its way to a second stepmother; her distrust of her place in your life is organic and valid. If you want to assure her of her value to you, then dedicate to this cause the most meaningful currency in kidville: your time. Establish an activity that’s just yours with her, and keep showing up for it, even — especially — after you give birth. That’s your conversation, and her proof.
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