Stepfamily Teens Straddling Different Homes: Ron Deal, Gayla Grace & Kara Powell
Identity, belonging: They're burning questions in any teen. How can you feed these in your teen, so their transitions between vastly different stepfamily homes mean they grow stronger, more resilient, and grounded in Jesus Christ? Author Kara Powell discusses the needs of teens in stepfamilies with Gayla Grace and Ron Deal.
There’s 50 different answers, at least, that we could glean from Scripture about who God says we are. But one that we think is really important for young people to know today is that Jesus makes them enough. In the midst of trying to satisfy all these expectations and feeling like they don’t cross that bar—the single word “enough”—that Jesus makes you enough. In fact, Jesus makes you more than enough. -- Kara Powell
About the Guest
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morewww.fulleryouthinstitute.org). Kara also serves as an Advisor to Youth Specialties and currently volunteers in student ministries at Lake Avenue church in Pasadena, CA. She is the author of many books including Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas t...moremore
How can you feed strong identity—so transitions between stepfamily homes mean your teen grows stronger? Author Kara Powell gives real-life ideas.
Kara: There’s 50 different answers, at least, that we could glean from Scripture about who God says we are. But one that we think is really important for young people to know today is that Jesus makes them enough. In the midst of trying to satisfy all these expectations and feeling like they don’t cross that bar—the single word “enough”—that Jesus makes you enough. In fact, Jesus makes you more than enough.
Shelby: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Shelby Abott. And your hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson. You can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on the FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I am excited for our listeners to hear an interview that Ron Deal did on his FamilyLife Blended® podcast today. It’s going to be a great one.
Ann: Yes. As most of you know, Ron is the director of our blended family initiative. Before we get into the interview, we have something that’s pretty exciting.
Dave: The Summit on Stepfamily Ministry this year is virtual.
Ann: What is the Summit?
Dave: It’s an equipping time for leaders and churches, especially leaders with blended family situations. It’s really an equipping time for all kinds of leaders. We’ve been there; I’ve spoken at it. It isn’t always virtual. This time it’s virtual, which means you don’t have to be at a specific location. You can watch it from anywhere. It’s going to be a powerful time.
Today Ron sat down with Dr. Kara Powell. She’s at the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary. I heard her years ago at an Orange Conference, and she’s dynamic. Her book The Three Big Questions That Change Every Teenager is fabulous.
Ann: Today we’re going to listen to—this is episode #86. Ron sat down with Gayla Grace, who serves on the team as well, and they interviewed Dr. Powell about these three big questions teens are asking.
Dave: Do you know what those are?
Dave: We’re going to find out.
Ron: Gayla, have you ever preached a sermon your kids weren’t listening to?
Gayla: Oh, my goodness! [Laughter] And the older they got, the more that seemed to happen.
Ron: Man, been there, done that. “Son, I’ve got answers that you don’t have questions for, but I’m going to tell you the answers anyway.” [Laughter]
Gayla: That’s right!
Ron: You know, I think that’s part of parenting. Isn’t that part of the touch-and-go sort of, “Is this something that is helpful for my kid? Or, is it not?” We have lots of questions, too!
Gayla: I found, as ours got closer to leaving for college, you start going through this thing in your head, like, “Have I told them everything I need to tell them?” Then, you start downloading whether they’re ready to hear it or not!
Kara: Oh, yes. Gayla, I created a list because as each of our kids—our two olders have hit twelfth grade—yes! All the things I wanted to make sure I talked to them about. For sure. I’m there.
Ron: That’s going to be her next book, as a matter of fact. [Laughter]
Kara: Quite possibly. Quite possibly.
Ron: So, what are the three big questions?
Kara: We think they boil down to identity, belonging, and purpose. Let’s unpack those questions a bit. Identity—who am I? Belonging—where do I fit? And purpose—what difference can I make? Those of us who are over 30—we’re certainly wrestling with those questions, too. I would say identity, belonging, and purpose are the three big questions of what it means to be human. For those of us over 30, those questions are more at a low simmer. For teenagers and young adults, those questions are at a rolling boil.
I will say, as a parent myself, one of the big gifts of this research has been that if one of my kids is doing something that just seems a little off for them, like a little strange. Something that seems a little out of character. If I step back and ask, “Why are they so insistent on getting that time with their friends this weekend? Why are they resisting whatever they might be resisting because they’re hungry to get to church?” Or whatever it is.
If I ask, “What are they after?” Are they after identity? Or are they after belonging? Or are they after a sense of purpose? It’s like the penny dropped for me, as a parent. I all of a sudden understand, “Oh, that’s what’s motivating them! That’s why they’re doing what they’re doing.” It helps me empathize and know how to respond to them.
I don’t say to my kids, “You know what you’re really after is a sense of belonging.” [Laughter] I don’t say that aloud to them. Although we do talk about identity, belonging, and purpose. I can share some of that. Internally, I use it as a kind of diagnostic, for me to understand. But in the heat of the moment, I don’t generally share that aloud with my kids.
Ron: I’m a little curious about the “simmer” vs. the “rolling boil.” Is it a simmer for us over 30 because we’ve sort of figured a few things out? Or is somehow society is not pushing that at us as hard.
Kara: I’d say it’s probably both. If you look at what developmental psychologists have said over the decades, they would say that identity, for instance, is kind of a quintessential question for young people.
I think what’s interesting, Ron, is I think times of transition are when these questions heat up. I have a friend who is unemployed, was laid off from his job. Dave and I have a good friend. He, in his early 40’s, he’s wrestling. The heat’s being turned up on these questions for him, about identity, belonging, and purpose because of being in the season of unemployment.
If you think about teenagers and young adults, they’re in constant transition. That’s why there’s so much heat about these issues for the young people we care about most is because they’re in the middle of so many liminal or transitional seasons.
Gayla: And even more so in blended families. You think about the constant transition that these kids are going through. This magnifies what she is saying.
Ron: Yes, that’s right. I’m processing that thought. That’s very insightful. There’s so many changes and transitions—almost all of them unwanted. It leaves you in a very different place, and you start asking a whole new set of questions again in light of what’s going on.
What’s a good example, Kara, of that whole identity or belonging thing being a fresh question for a kid who’s just gone through a parent’s marriage, for example.
Kara: I’m glad you mentioned belonging. I have some wonderful psychology faculty colleagues at Fuller Seminary. Many of them, not all of them, but many of them would say that belonging is actually the tip of the arrow of the three questions for the typical young person. Belonging leads the way and has a unique influence on identity and purpose.
Think about that 12-year-old, that 15-year-old, that 17-year-old who is moving from one family situation to another family situation; whether their parents are going through a divorce, or as you’ve said, there’s a new parent/stepparent and maybe even some new stepsiblings that are coming into the family system, coming into the home. I think it brings new stressors when it comes to belonging—but also new opportunities to create a new sense of family and a new sense of belonging in which everyone really feels at home.
Again, these transition seasons are unique opportunities for us as adults to make sure that we’re attentive to kids needs and that we’re helping them to get what they need in terms of whether it’s belonging, or that sense of identity, or sense of purpose.
Ron: That was really good because I was about to turn the corner and go, “Ok. Parents listening now,” and they’re just becoming mindful of something going on in one of their child’s lives. They’re thinking, “What do I do? How do I be helpful in this moment?” How would they check in with a child around this type of thing? We talk a lot on this podcast about stepping into a child’s thoughts and bringing it up; not just sitting on it and expecting them to bring it up. We step into that space first to show them we’re willing to go there. I’m wondering how a parent would step into the belonging question.
Kara: If we’re talking about, say, a teenager. I think there’s something about the parent’s own self-disclosure that’s really powerful. In fact, just last night with my husband and our two daughters—our college daughter is home—I was talking about my own struggles with identity and how I struggle with feeling insecure. My girls’ eyes kind of lit up, like, “What, Mom? You struggle with feeling insecure?” I said, “Oh, yeah.” And here's how your dad helps me, because it was in the context of talking about who helps us grow.
I said, “Your dad’s helping me grow.” I shared a little bit about when I feel insecure, their dad, my husband, reminds me of who I am in Christ. That’s where their eyes kind of got big. Literally, one of them said, “Mom, you get insecure?” I said, “Yes, absolutely.” It was my opportunity over leftover hamburgers last night at home to talk about my own journey with identity.
I would say the same as a family is being reformed, for us as adults, parents, stepparents, to volunteer; to be the first one to go in the deep end, metaphorically, with our kids, and say, “You know what? Sometimes in the midst of this new situation, we’re all trying to figure out where we belong. Here’s when I tend to feel like I most belong in our newly formed/reforming family. But here’s when I sometimes struggle.” Let that be an open door to see if your young person is open to sharing about any struggles they might be having with feeling like they belong in this new form of family.
Ann: This discussion is so helpful.
Dave: Yes, it is.
Ann: You’re listening to FamilyLife Today, and we’re listening to a portion of the FamilyLIfe Blended® podcast with Ron Deal, Gayla Grace, and guest Kara Powell.
Dave: And it only gets better! So, let’s go back.
Gayla: I went immediately to being a stepparent because there’s so many times you don’t feel that you belong. And just to express that, not to do it in a way that you’re trying to put guilt on the kids or anything negative; but just to say that the feeling of belonging or not belonging is huge! We need to wrestle with that. So, that’s an easy conversation to bring up because so many in blended families are feeling it—not just the kids!
Kara: You know, Gayla, as you were talking, I had a memory. I was probably 11; my younger brother was probably 9. I remember my mom and my stepdad—all four of my parents growing up were phenomenal people, loved Jesus. I remember Mom and Jim sitting Matt and my brother down and talking to us about how some of the joking we were doing toward Jim was actually hurting his feelings and making him feel like he wasn’t really part of the family.
My brother and I, we were being sarcastic - 9 and 11, or 10 and 12-year-olds. I think in some ways it was our attempt to make Jim feel like part of our family. Yet, it was having the opposite effect. It was really hurtful to my stepdad. I’m really glad that my mom and stepdad sat us down. I’m also glad they did it together because it was both the mom, who we’d known our whole lives, as well as this new adult who we’re learning to love, sharing about belonging in our family and how what I was doing—my brother and I were doing—was actually hurting my stepdad’s sense of belonging.
I do think we as parents, stepparents, there are opportunities to share ways that our family, our new family, is creating a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose; or maybe where there are some struggles or points of tension.
Ron: That’s a good story. I know you’re capitalizing, Gayla, on the whole boundary setting there. We’ve talked about that a lot in that illustration. I also want to jump in and say that I know it feels weird to go vulnerable if you’re the stepparent because it feels like I’m setting myself up, and isn’t that risky. And, yes, it is. And at the same time when you say, “This is who I’m going to be, and I’m going to share this part of me with you,” I think more often than not, it does facilitate bonding.
I think what the child perceives is, “Oh, I can trust you. You’re not trying to be all that and a bag of chips. You’re just a regular person like me.” That actually helps a child open up. It certainly did for you, it sounds like.
Kara: Yes, absolutely. As you were talking, I was thinking about a principle I use in general when it comes to conversations that could be tricky with a young person. It’s a phrase that actually comes from fruit tree picking. You can tell just by the way I said that, that I don’t know a lot about what’s involved in fruit tree picking. [Laughter]
But I do know this. We happen to have an orange tree in our backyard. When the oranges are starting to get ripe, we give a gentle tug. That’s the phrase—a gentle tug. If the orange is ripe when we give that gentle tug, then the orange comes into our hands freely. If the orange is not yet ripe, it’s more of a battle.
I think the same is true, probably in relationships in general, and certainly in relationships with our children or stepchildren. If there’s a tough conversation we want to have, then maybe we ask a first question; we share vulnerably, and see how our child or stepchild responds. Do they walk with us as we’re share vulnerably? Or, are they not yet ready for that?
I think my mom and stepdad, they gave a gentle tug by sharing how Jim was feeling a little left out by the joking my brother and I were doing. At least my recollection is we responded and said, “Wow. Thanks for telling us. Sorry,” in a 10 to 12-year-old type way. I think that was us being open. I’m sure there were other circumstances where we wouldn’t have been open or maybe weren’t open to that gentle tug. I think there’s ways to ask that first question, put your toe in the water and see how that young person responds.
Ron: I’m pulling back from this conversation, and if you’re listening right now, the point is—your kids are asking some big questions. Any time you can step into the middle of that and offer some guidance or just connect with them around those questions, I think you’re moving your heart closer to them. Maybe you’re the biological parent; maybe you’re the stepparent. We’re helping them wrestle with the questions that begin—how would you say it, Kara? We’re helping them move further down the road to finding their own answers?
Kara: Yes. And finding Jesus’s answers. That was what was so fascinating in our research, especially when we spent time with 27 diverse teenagers, many of whom were from blended families. We identified, what are they currently using to answer those questions.
Ron: Would that be Google? [Laughter]
Kara: Yes. Exactly! Mechanistically, yes, absolutely. But what are the internal narratives they’re currently using to find a sense of identity, belonging, and purpose. And what would be better Jesus centered narratives that we can point young people to that ultimately satisfy. I believe Jesus’s answers are the answers that ultimately satisfy.
Actually, I think a lot of discipleship is more fully embracing Jesus’s answers to our identity, belonging, and purpose questions. As parents, stepparents, caregivers, and grandparents, we have the opportunity to accompany young people and try to nudge them toward those better answers.
Ron: Give me a quick contrast: finding my own answers, or finding Jesus’s answers. What does that look like? And how might a parent play a role in helping a child with that?
Kara: We talked about belonging, so let’s move to a different one of the questions. Let’s move to identity. Who am? What we saw as we spent time with young people is that there’s two primary, dominant answers right now, that they use currently. First off, they define themselves based off other people’s expectations. So, who am I? I am what my family expects, my teachers expect, my friends expect, my boss expects, my church expects, etc. They have all these different theaters of action.
Then, the second answer they tend to use—closely related to the first—because of all these different sets of expectations, they end up feeling inadequate. They end up feeling like they’re not enough. You have a typical young person walking around feeling like they’re not smart enough, they’re not pretty enough, they’re not popular enough.
We spent quite a bit of time with young people of color, and those young people often don’t feel Latino enough, Black enough, Asian enough, as they’re navigating multiple worlds. That creates an ongoing sense of inadequacy, stress, anxiety for young people.
Let’s contrast that with what I think is Jesus’s best answer to who we are. There’s about 50 different answers, at least that we can glean from Scripture, about who God says we are. One that we think is really important for young people to know today, is that Jesus makes them enough. In the midst of trying to satisfy all these expectations and feeling like they don’t cross that bar, the single word “enough,” that Jesus makes you enough, that Jesus makes you more than enough.
Ann: Ron, that’s so good. How would you say we convince our kids of that? We can say it, but how do they capture it in their hearts?
Ron: In some ways, Ann, I would say that we can do things to help our children feel like they’re enough in Jesus. In other ways, we can’t do that for them. It’s something they have to find within themselves. For example, anytime you compliment a child, validate a child, speak about their giftings, help them get good at something—all of that helps them feel better about who they are.
When we couch all of that into their worth because of Jesus, that’s what transcends any performance we do in life, right? If it’s just on your skill set, when you have a bad day, then you’re not worth much. But if your worth and value ultimately comes from Jesus.
Here’s the hard part about that. I know I struggle with am I good enough. There’s a lot of us as adults that are competent, capable people. We still wrestle with inadequacy. What’s that about? Ultimately, it’s about coming back over and over again to, “It’s not about me. It is about what Jesus is doing in me.”
I think we have to share that struggle out loud with our children, so they see us wrestle with it so they get some perspective about their own struggle to find their worth and rest in Jesus. When we do that in collaboration or in front of our children, I think it makes it easier for them to see that they, too, are on this journey with Jesus and striving to rest in Him. It’s just part of the human condition.
Dave: In some ways, Ron, is it even more critical in a blended situation? When my dad walked out, those three questions became critical to me. I lost my identity and belonging, and I felt less than. I think that’s part of the blended situation, right?
Ron: Unwanted grief and sadness and transition that takes place in a child’s life makes it harder for some of these things to come to fruition in their life. Which is why the Summit on Stepfamily Ministry is our annual equipping event for lay couples who want to lead small groups in their church; pastors; children’s ministry leaders; on and on. We help leaders understand blended families. This year the event is virtual—Thursday, October 12. Here’s the cool thing—you can register as a individual or a couple, and you can watch from your home.
You can also encourage leaders from your church to join. With a church registration, you can have somebody else say, “Yes, I’ll come to that,” the day before the event. They’re just jumping in with your group, and you’re going to experience the day together. It’s a great way to develop momentum towards stepfamily ministry in your church, whether you’re started doing some things; or you have no idea where to begin.
Our theme this year is “merge.” How do you merge blended family ministry into your existing church structure, your ministries for adult ed, for marriage ministry, or children, students—you don’t have to create a whole new blended ministry. How do you integrate some basic principles into what you’re already doing. That’s going to be our focus.
Ann: And when is it, Ron?
Ron: Thursday, October 12. It’s a one day, all day event. It’s virtual, comfort of your own home. Come join us.
Shelby: I come from a blended family, personally, and I know how vital it is to have specific, biblical help that’s relevant to my family’s needs. That’s exactly what we’re doing with FamilyLife Blended®.
I’m Shelby Abbott, and you’ve been listening to Dave and Ann Wilson with Ron Deal on FamilyLife Today. Ron, Dave, and Ann have been listening to a FamilyLife Blended episode with Gayla Grace and Kara Powell. If you want to find the full episode of that conversation, you can search for episode #86 on FamilyLife Blended podcast. You can find that wherever you get your podcasts.
If you’re listening to this conversation and wondering, “How can I help kids in my church or in my community who live in blended families?” You may be interested in this year’s Summit on Stepfamily Ministry. This year’s Summit is a one-day, virtual event. No travel involved at all. So, if you haven’t been able to attend in the past, this is the perfect time to do so to learn more about how you and your church can minister to blended families in your community.
You can learn more about the October 12 virtual event and register, you can go to summitonstepfamilies.com. That’s summitonstepfamiliels.com. Or you can find the link in today’s show notes.
Coming up tomorrow, Dave and Ann Wilson are joined by Sean McDowell and John Marriott to talk more about deconstruction, having an open dialogue about embracing people’s questions and doubts within the Christian community. That’s tomorrow. We hope you’ll join us.
On behalf of Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Shelby Abbott. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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