The challenges of being a step-parent to teens

Becoming a stepparent is arguably one of the most difficult transitions an adult may have to make in his or her life. Essentially, an individual is coming into a family that has already established its own routines, rules, and dynamic. That being said, it is not surprising that stepparents frequently have to put forth a great deal of effort in order to maintain a balance in their transition from “outsider” to “insider.” These challenges are only multiplied when stepparents come into a family with teenagers. Although parenting teenagers is difficult enough for the teen’s biological parents, it can be even more challenging to step-parent teens. Fortunately, however, there are some things stepparents can do to establish a health, balanced relationship with their teen stepchildren.

Consider the following tips for step-parenting teens:

Talk to your spouse

Although ideally you and your partner will have discussed your role in his or her children’s lives before you made the decision to marry one another, it is crucial that you open up the floor for discussion again in order to ensure that some critical issues are resolved.

First and foremost, be sure that as a stepparent you understand what the rules and guidelines were before you entered the family unit. Keep in mind that teens can be extremely manipulative in order to get what they want. They may attempt to “use” you for leverage in a debate with their parents by asking you for permission when they know that their biological parent will not approve. Being fully aware of the rules allows you to support your spouse’s decisions regarding discipline, punishments, guidelines, and other rules.

It is highly unlikely that you will be able to serve a disciplinary role in your stepchild’s life. Teenagers are often set in their ways and the argument of “you are not my mother/father” will certainly present itself in tense situations. Therefore, it is important that (while you are not a direct disciplinarian) your spouse explains to his or her teens that they will be required to respect you not only as a stepparent and as a member of the family, but also as an adult.

Talk to the other biological parent

Conflicts in blended families can arise when a biological parent who lives outside the home clashes with a new stepparent. In order to avoid misunderstandings, confusion, frustration, or any other negative emotions, be sure that you attempt to hold an open and honest discussion with your stepchildren’s biological parent. This discussion will essentially allow you to listen to his or her expectations about what role you will play in your stepchildren’s lives. Let him or her know that you have absolutely no intention of replacing them in any way and that your main goal is to serve as an additional resource for him/her, helping to provide supervision and/or guidance (when necessary). Chances are, the biological parent will appreciate the fact that you are considering his or her when you attempt to shape your role as a stepparent in his/her child’s life. Not only will this support a healthy and non-confrontational relationship between you two, it can also help to provide a “united front” for teenagers. If teens see that stepparents and biological parents are getting along, they may be less inclined to rebel against the stepparent and more inclined to openly accept them into their lives.

Shape your role

After having conversations with your spouse and his or her ex, you will have a much better idea about what each of them expect from you as a stepparent. This knowledge will enable you to begin shaping the role that you would ultimately like to play in your stepchildren’s lives. Ask yourself how much effort you will put into being a “friend” or how much guidance you will be willing to offer. Will you attempt to establish a close, intimate relationship with your stepchildren, or will you maintain civility and command their respect but remain at an emotional distance?

In most cases, it is wise for a stepparent to attempt to define his or her role in a stepchild’s life as a friend rather than as a disciplinarian or a surrogate parent. Stick to the boundaries you set forth for yourself as a result of your discussions with your stepchild’s biological parents and work outward from there.

Establish a relationship with your stepchildren

In order to become a “friend” for your teenage stepchildren, it is crucial to strike a balance between effort and distance. Some teenagers simply need space and will eventually come around when and if they need guidance or support. Other teens will remain at a distance unless they begin to note a considerable effort made on the part of the stepparent. Get a feel for the type of person your teenage stepchild may be.

Typically, honesty and straightforwardness goes a long way when talking to teens. Let them know from the get-go that you have no intention of replacing a biological parent and that (while you will support his or her parents’ disciplinary methods and punishments) that you do not want to serve as an authoritarian figure in their lives.

Be patient

Keep in mind that relationships are not established overnight. Give your teen stepchildren some space and time and allow them to come to you. Stepparents need to be patient with their attempts to transition into an already established family unit. It is crucial that you do not force the situation, which could ultimately lead to feelings of resentment and mistrust from your stepchildren.

Maintain realistic expectations

Above all, it is important that stepparents maintain realistic expectations about the nature of their relationships with their stepchildren and about their roles in a blended family. We may all hope for a Brady Bunch-like blended family where everyone simply gets along and loves each other, but you should not assume that your stepchildren will immediately fall in love with you and welcome you with open arms into their lives.

In summary, it is clear that bringing a new member into an already existing family is certainly an adjustment. While the transition may be difficult for all members of the family, it is important to remember that with effort, time, and patience, blended families CAN establish a happy, healthy family dynamic.