If you are a stepparent who is joining a family with teens, you might feel overwhelmed, but you are certainly not alone. The U.S. Bureau of Census reports that two out of three marriages or cohabitations end even when children are involved. Furthermore, about half of 60 million children in the nation who are younger than 13 live with an adult who is not a parent.
Practical Tips for New Step Parents
While the staggering statistics confirm your solidarity with millions of stepparents across the nation, you need actionable steps in order to be an effective stepparent. The following guidelines can provide you with a road map of where to start.
- Prepare for transition. Your stepson might continue to hold out hope that his biological parents will reunite. When combined with raging hormones, the teen will feel especially emotional and might overreact. Sadness, tears, anger, denial and hostility are all typical responses when a marriage ends and a new relationship begins. His fears might be complicated if he is moving to a new residence on top of the recent changes in your relationship. Give your stepson permission to work through his feelings. However, if he sinks into a deep depression or becomes violent, seek immediate help.
- Work with your new spouse. He or she has developed a system and worked out consequences, homework and other teen matters. You will need to be on the same page with the parent of the teen. After all, they have invested their life into raising this child, and you are joining the journey near the end of the road.
- Do not try to replace your stepchild’s biological parent. He or she will need to continue to maintain a relationship with the biological parents. Don’t feel threatened as you are not in competition for the love of the child. Instead, you are focusing on the best interests of the child and on his or her happiness.
- Don’t take his emotions or attacks personally. He will naturally vent and possibly blame you when his parents’ marriage ends. He might have believed that they would work out their relationship until you actually move into the home. He is grieving the very real loss of a dream.
- Do not overstep your limits. You have not earned the right to become heavy handed with discipline. Instead, let the primary parent handle discipline for at least the first 12 months. Once you have established your role in the home, the children will likely respond more favorably to your input.
- Expect Some Rebellion. Teens become rebellious, and although this has frustrated generations of parents, they need to test their limits as part of becoming an independent adult. They are establishing themselves as their own individual. Teach them how to speak their mind while being respectful at the same time. For example, let them know that it’s okay to express their anger, but it’s not okay to punch holes in walls or to call someone names.
- Give Your Teen Space. Typically, the media portrays teens as moody creatures, which isn’t too far from the truth. In addition to the regular hormonal challenges that all teens face, the step teen deals with a new family and will possibly need to process through emotions over the loss of his or her family of origin. Give him space, but make sure that he knows you have a listening ear when he needs to talk. Respect his privacy and don’t push a conversation.
- Schedule weekly family meetings. This time allows everyone an opportunity to share their feelings and discuss possible changes. Listen for both negative and positive feedback, and ask if they have ways to make improvements. If you need to address some issues privately, you can schedule an appropriate time for more personal conversations at these family meetings.
- Don’t smother your new stepchild. While your intentions might be good, you simply can’t form an instant bond with a teen. They need time to adjust to all of the familial changes. You can’t ‘buy’ a child’s love or worm your way into a relationship by trying to be ‘cool.” Simply be yourself and allow an organic bond to grow.
- Expect to hear that you are not the child’s “real” mom or dad. While true, the teen is attempting to intentionally hurt you and minimize your role. Instead of engaging in an argument, stick to the facts. Admit that you are not their biological parent but reaffirm your love for him, emphasizing your concern.
- Do plan fun activities together. Spend time outdoors on physical activities that help you connect as a family. Your teen might enjoy skateboarding or just going for a walk around the neighborhood. Fishing, camping, trips to the library, going out to eat and even baking or fixing meals together can help you bond with your stepchild. Involvement in these or other activities, such as going for coffee or seeing a movie, at least once a month will help you get to know each other better.
- Anticipate Possible Moves. At some point, your stepson might want to move in with his other parent. This switch might be part of his search for identity, or he might simply want to spend more time with the other parent. Discuss what’s best for him with all of the involved parties.
Resources for Stepfamilies
You might need to seek parenting help from professionals who understand your struggles. The following list represents just a few of the plethora of resources available for stepmothers, stepfathers and step Families.
- Designing Dynamic Stepfamilies provides secular or Christian counseling for families looking for peace.
- The Stepfamily Network, a nonprofit organization, promotes respect and harmony in the family.
- The Stepfamilies website offers a great starting point for additional links and resources for all things related to stepfamilies.
- The Second Wives’ Club provides support specifically for women on a subsequent marriage or with stepchildren.
- The National Fatherhood Initiative, founded in 1994, is a non-profit organization created to fight the problem of absentee fathers.
You can also check out numerous resources at your local library or for purchase.