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Stepparenting Teenagers

Adolescence is a natural time of turmoil in nearly every family.
By Ron L. Deal


One of my favorite parent educators, Roger Allen, once said, “I have good news and bad news about the terrible two’s. The good news is that it only last around 18 months beginning at around age 18 months to three years old. The bad news: Kids are subject to relapse at any given point in time—usually around age 15.”

That perspective about teenagers is something that all parents eventually experience first-hand. Perfectly good, compliant, respectful children hit age fifteen or sixteen and completely lose their minds. At least, that’s the way it feels to us parents.

“What happened to my baby?” Susan asked me. “Josh used to worship the ground I walked on and then one day, he changed into this sarcastic, prickly kid I didn’t like.” That’s when her husband, Josh’s stepfather, chimed in. “I’ve always had a struggle with Josh, but now things are even worse. What do we do?”

Partly because teenagers are again wrestling with establishing an emotional identity separate from their parents, I guess you could call this period a second “terrible-twos.” This happens with most teens, in most families. Stepfamilies are not, of course, immune to this process. But the ambivalent stepfamily identity can make matters even more confusing. Here are four common traps that complicate the process.

1. Teen depression, sadness, and/or anger. The initial loss that ended a child’s family (out-of-wedlock birth, death of a parent, or parental divorce) and the ensuing losses that resulted (change of residence, schools, loss of contact with parent and extended family, etc.) repeatedly bring emotional costs to adolescents.

Ryan was mad at the world. “My mom and dad still fight all the time and my stepmom treats me like I’m second class compared to her kids. I just keep to myself and keep my head down.” The ongoing parental and family conflicts surrounding Ryan brought about a depression that sometimes expressed itself in withdrawn behavior and sometimes irritability.

Needless to say, Ryan was difficult to get along with. What he needs from his parent and stepparent is an extra measure of patience, without tolerating disrespectful behavior, and someone to help him cope with what can’t be changed (a counselor). Hopefully at least one home can be emotionally safe for him.

2. Taking it personally. Given the ambiguous nature of the stepparent role, it is easy for stepparents to take personally the uncooperative attitude and grumpy—but normal—behavior of adolescents. “I just wish my husband wouldn’t take Josh’s petulance so personally,” Susan shared. “Josh is just as much a pain to me as he is to Jeff.”

While it’s true that some teens can target negativity toward the stepparent, more often than not, Susan’s perspective is right. It’s not personal, just a necessary evil of adolescent development. Jeff would do well to not take things so personally so he doesn’t overreact and take Josh’s behavior as a rejection of him as stepfather.

3. The struggle to let go. I often remind parents that we are working ourselves out of a job. If we do our parenting job well, our children will likely launch out of our home in independence. The irony of this for stepparents is that when it comes time to push the bird out of the nest, it can feel like defeat. “I’ve worked so hard to bond with this kid,” a stepmom shared, “it feels weird to let her go.” Yes, it can. But let her go, you must.

4. Striving for “mom/dad” status. Insightfully, new stepparents don’t expect stepchildren to immediately call them mom or dad. But often stepparents secretly long for the day when the child begins to regularly refer to them with that term of endearment. If that doesn’t happen after a number of years—sometimes coinciding with adolescence—some stepparents emotionally withdraw with hurt feelings. This can be experienced as rejection by the stepchild who doesn’t understand why the withdrawal is taking place.

What stepparents need to understand is that only a third of stepchildren ever grow into using the mom or dad label for their stepparent, and that many years together doesn’t increase the percentage. The mom/dad label is generally reserved by children for their biological parents. Stepparents need to do themselves and teens a favor and let go of this expectation so it doesn’t lead to unnecessary hurt feelings.

Adolescence is a natural time of family transition and turmoil. It’s hard enough as it is; an understanding of the above dynamics will help you to not inadvertently make it worse than it already is.

 

TAKING ACTION

Couples:

1. Biological parents and stepparents should talk frequently during their child’s adolescence. Bounce your perspective about the child’s behavior off the other to see if there might be another side to consider.

2. Teens need a safe place to process their emotional sadness. Bring up losses or extended family struggles that have resulted from death or divorce, and give permission to grieving together. This provides a child perspective and support.

3. Stepparents may need to grieve what will never be. A child moving out of the home before you’ve had sufficient time to bond or not ever hearing “mom/dad” are just two examples. Biological parents should not be defensive about their child; rather, listen and grieve with your spouse.

4. Have a family meeting to discuss the changes taking place with your adolescent. Be flexible with boundaries when appropriate to show respect for their increasing independence while also maintaining the expectation that the child show respect to both parent and stepparent.

Ministry:

Student ministers, leaders, and volunteers should:

1. Read a book or attend a stepfamily conference to more fully understand stepfamily dynamics. Then they’ll be able to help stepparents discern a “stepfamily issue” from an “adolescent issue.” This perspective helps to de-escalate unnecessary family tension.

2. Encourage stepparents to attend student retreats, camps, and ski trips. By doing this, stepparents will take advantage of fun, bonding experiences with stepchildren.

© 2011 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

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Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit www.RonDeal.org and www.FamilyLife.com). 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g., ABCNews.com, Today.com), in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.

 

 

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