Stepparenting an Adolescent: What to Expect
The Hormone Years
Teenagers are very sexual beings. They think about sex and romance all the time. Freshly minted hormones course through their veins. Plus (and this is the annoying part), they tend to think that they invented sex, that you are an old fogy who did it a few times maybe and never do it anymore. Or they flirt with trouble—and you. Teenagers and preteens are a mass of roiling hormones, and it's common to find some of that hormonal energy directed at you. Your new, sexually supercharged relationship with your partner may be adding to the cause; the kids may just be more aware of sexual energy.
Teens often become sexually provocative. If you find your stepdaughter walking around the house in a tight bikini or landing in your lap for a neck massage, or if your teenage stepson lifts weights around you in a muscle shirt, you may find yourself reacting on a physical level. You are the adult here; you must resist this energy. It might help to make your partner aware of flirtatious behavior you're seeing. The child should not be reprimanded, but it is important for the lines of communication to remain open.
It's very common for a parent who is attracted to a stepchild to be overly strict. You may also find that you are uncomfortable being physically affectionate with a teen or preteen stepchild, or that the child is uncomfortable with you. If hugs and embraces are uncomfortable, you can instead be affectionate and loving with your words and your smiles.
Moody, Moody, Moody!
Respect the moods of a teen. Can you imagine it? Do you remember it? It's hard being a teenager. Not only is your body betraying you by sprouting all this hair and odd fleshy bumps, but there's school and work pressure, an increased understanding of the world and what terrible shape it's in, and all that pressure of what you're going to do with the rest of your life. If all teens have it bad (and all teens do), the stepteen has an added stress: a new stepfamily to get used to. A moody teenager needs room to simply exist, and he also needs you to offer to talk about it. Do some active listening, but don't push.
Teenagers need privacy: time alone, private space, and private thoughts. Respect this need and don't pry. Knock on a closed door (and wait for an answer) before entering. Don't ever read a kid's journal. You'll be sorry, and if you're found out, you will break the trust between the two of you forever and ever and ever.
Don't Be Wicked
Allowing privacy doesn't mean absolving yourself of responsibility. Maintain an active interest in your teen's life, but do it by creating the space for him to come to you. Just don't pry.
If you have something to talk about with your stepteen, save it for an appropriate time. What makes the time appropriate? When the teen is ready. You can get a teen ready for a “big talk” by making an appointment first. And make the offer at least somewhat attractive. “Janine, can we have a chat after dinner? We'll talk over hot chocolate, okay?”
The “I Don't Care” Adolescent
Teenagers define cool. The slouch, the poker face, and the lazy, slacking attitude. Do you think they really don't care? (You're wrong. They care desperately. It's an act.) The stepparent who is feeling insecure can easily take the nonchalance of the average teen as rejection of the highest degree.
Inconsiderate? You Bet
Your stepteen may not show much interest in getting to know you, the step. All kids tend to ignore grownups (you read about this in Building a Relationship with Your Stepchildren), but you may simply not matter that much to your stepteen. Hey, it wasn't up to her that her parent found and fell in love with you. Friends come first, second, and third for the adolescent. A parent comes fourth. How does it feel to be in fifth place? Now think back to your own teen years. It's your friends you remember most, right?
Defender of Truth
Teenagers have built-in b.s. detectors and no tolerance for phoniness or hypocrisy. Don't try to be somebody you aren't. You'll be seen through and skewered with disdain. Teens are notorious for scoffing at adults who dress too “young,” for example.
The Humiliation Factor
All parents, not just stepparents, are embarrassing. You're so uncool. Your clothes are so dorky. Need I continue? Try not to feel too insulted when your stepteen makes you drop her off around the corner from her rendezvous spot because you're driving a brown, functional Taurus instead of a totally cherry '63 Mustang.
Sweet, Thoughtful, Supportive
Teens do get a bad rap. These years are a time of great growth and exploration. You, as a stepparent, get a front row seat watching one of the greatest shows on earth—presto, change-o—the ugly ducking becomes a swan! It's an interactive show, too. You get to participate! You'll have fun, you'll have moments of great satisfaction, and you'll catch those looks of affection and gratitude.
Adolescent Child of Divorce
Divorce is traumatic for the whole family. How do teens, in particular, react? After it's over, after the re-partnering, now that you are in the picture, what's the best living situation for your stepteen?
Regression means reverting to childish, immature behavior, usually due to emotional distress of some sort.
”You're Getting a WHAT?”
Adolescents are egocentric, and their initial reactions to their parents' divorce is to feel that the divorce is something that's being done to them. Parents should expect an extreme response (on the other hand, a teenager's response to everything tends to be extreme!). A teen may experience and express anger, sadness, regression, denial, and he may act out (taking risks, coming home late). Experts suggest getting outside help when an intense reaction lasts more than two months or is extreme or dangerous, such as deep depression, running away, or displaying abusive behavior.
“Where Am I Gonna Live?”
Friends matter. Stability matters, too, and adolescents tend to do best when their outside life is disturbed as little as possible. Look at it this way: A teenager's life is composed of family, school, social life, and activities. Disrupting the family is bad enough, but disrupting it all at once (moving to another home, community, and school) can be very hard on a teenager. Look, even her body is new right now.
Kids also differ in their needs. My stepson Aaron didn't mind doing the 60-mile bus journey twice a week between his mom's house and ours (he said it gave him time to think), but it was hell for 14-year-old Rachel, whose school and friends were near her mom's house, who hates buses, and whose idea of traveling light is one jumbo suitcase, plus a special pillow and a small backpack. (In later years, Rachel lived with us full-time while she finished college, so it all evened out.)
Here are a few suggestions:
- Try to keep a teen's exterior life as stable as possible during the times of breakup and re-partnering.
- Be objective, if you can, about which parent would be best for the teen to live with during this big time of change. Consider who is better able to give supervision, attention, and physical space to the teenager. Which parent's lifestyle is more appropriate?
- A teenager should definitely have input into where she'll live, but don't put her on the spot by making her choose between your households. Loyalty issues can tear a teen apart. If she expresses a preference, listen. (Yes, even if she wants to go live with that old goat of a dad instead of living in peace and prosperity with you and her biomom.)
- Try not to take it personally if the other household is “chosen.” He's going to be your stepson for many years to come, and all relationships have different seasons. Think long-term. Perhaps your household's turn will come (and perhaps sooner than you think).
Moving In with the Other Bioparent
It's fairly common for a kid who has lived primarily with one parent for years to want to change households and live with the other parent. Part of this is the adolescent's quest for identity and trying on new roles and new lifestyles. Part of it may be that it's not always easy for a teen and a teen's parents to get along. Household shifting is especially common when a boy has been living with his mom and wants to be in closer contact with his dad, a male role model. As a stepparent, be prepared for a sudden change in your lifestyle. You may have a live-in stepkid with little notice, or all at once you may find yourself with far less child in your daily life.
More on: Nontraditional Families
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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