Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.This summer is going to be so hard. My parents separated three years ago and I kinda got used to it. My dad also disappeared from my life. I saw him two Christmases but that’s it. Now, here they go and get divorced, and my dad is back, and he got shared custody of me and my little brother. I don’t feel like I even know him anymore and my little brother doesn’t know him at all. I think it’s wrong no one asked us what how we felt. Anyway. We have to go his place every other weekend during the school year. Now that it’s summer we get a week with him and a week with our mom. His weeks fall on the Fourth of July and on my birthday. Ugh!

– 12-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Change is tough. In your situation, the change isn’t one you selected. Sadly, you weren’t given a voice during the custody hearings. You still have a voice with your parents.

This summer sounds different from your past summers. You sound not only frustrated but also angry. It’s OK to feel these strong emotions; it’s not OK to keep them inside. Find a trusted adult and share what you shared with me. Ideally you can speak with your mom and dad, but a grandparent or other family member will work. Be respectful but honest. Your ability to communicate clearly with me shows you’re able to use your words to express your feelings. This is an important skill. You are worthy of respect; I know you can look for good things to make this summer better. I hope it goes well.

The rest of my message is for your parents, since they obviously care about you and your brother enough to want time with you. Please show this column to them.

  • Blending families can be challenging, but your children will grow and thrive best if you are able to:
  • Talk it out: Communicate honestly with one another. Dad, you’ve been absent a while. Could you share time with your ex on your child’s birthday or a holiday? Mom, you may feel resentful towards your ex. Can you work together for your child’s best interest?
  • No Guilt: It’s easy to make a child feel guilty for time spent with the other parent. Think of your child’s needs and listen to hear what they really say.
  • No Compete: Don’t force your child into choosing between the two of you. This isn’t a contest.
  • Respect: Honor and respect your child’s feelings

Q.I’ve been asking you questions since middle school! Here’s one I’m really troubled by. How do I get my new husband’s 12-year-old to like me or at least talk with me? I never thought I’d be a stepparent, but here I am! All she does is roll her eyes at me, give me the stink eye, and stomp off with her earphones on and her phone in her hand. She’ll even say goodnight to her dad and ignore me. Any hints?

-– New stepmom

Mary Jo’s response: Thanks for remembering me from school!

You’re describing typical 12-year-old behavior. Being a new stepmom compounds the distance between you and your new daughter, but her behavior sounds like the behavior of many 12-year-olds. You’re an adult; strategize with your husband and strive to create a healthy relationship.

  • Be patient: You may feel like an outsider. Take time to ease into your relationship. Try to be chill and not force yourself on her. She needs time to adjust, as do you.
  • Weigh your words: Don’t put down her mom. In fact, try to talk with her mom and communicate parenting tips so your stepdaughter receives consistent messages. Ask her dad for advice – he knows her best.
  • Lay ground rules: She doesn’t need to like you, but she does need to respect you. Treat her with respect as well. Discuss common courtesy (acknowledging you, speaking with you, thanking you for kindnesses). You and your husband hope to raise a human of character, so you should set a tone of respect. Discuss rules around phone use and keep them.
  • Be honest with her: Tell her if you feel uneasy. Try to see this change through her eyes.
  • Be yourself: You’re worthy. Your stepdaughter is worthy.

Here are some hints for navigating the tween years (11 – 14) with young people:

  • Breathe: You will survive this time; your stepdaughter will as well. Before you freak out over tween eye rolling, breathe. Pause. Then breathe again! Try to stay calm.
  • Behavior: Yes, you should set guidelines for respect, but don’t take her behavior personally. It may be about her friends, school, or maybe her hair.
  • Isolation: Don’t let her isolate herself. Plan family outings. Involve her in healthy activities. Don’t isolate yourself. Involve other trusted adults. Get to know her coaches and her teachers.
  • Get help: Counseling can help anyone at times. Don’t wait until a problem becomes huge to seek support.

When she’s an adult, you’ll want a strong relationship. Concentrate on creating a foundation for that relationship now.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at

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