Often everyone’s adjustment to stepfamily living is easier with an infant or younger child. Younger children are still in the impressionable age of attachment. They tend to be more compliant with significant adults and open to bonding with a new person entering their lives. In contrast, a teenager is at an age whereby they are seeking to become more independent. As they try to figure out how who they are and where they fit in, a teenager’s focus naturally shifts towards relationships with friends and other people outside their family. This will happen irrespective of their family structure.
Following parental divorce, teenagers can also be more affected by divided loyalties and unhelpfully more involved in their parents’ conflict. They can be prone to keeping adults at a distance. Consequently, adjustment to being a part of a stepfamily can be more awkward and difficult.
Different skills are required.
Current thinking acknowledges that adolescence is a time when their brains are undergoing a massive upgrade. Quite literally, they are learning how to think and how to act. A teenager’s increasing cognitive skills play a significant role as they take risks and learn to understand (and appreciate) the consequences of their behaviour. All of this means that caring and connecting with adolescents requires a different set of skills than with younger children.
A few things that are be helpful for stepparents and parents to keep in mind are:
- Push back is a normal part of development for this age group.
- Fighting is not intended to be a personal attack on stepparents or parents. It signals a desire for greater independence.
- Teenagers want to be treated with respect. They want their new maturity to be recognized, and they want to be seen as independent. However, they also need to know they are still cared for.
- Teenagers need to be given space by their parents and carers to make certain choices for themselves and to make mistakes. They need to know that their parents and stepparents are available to offer opinions when asked. They also need to know that whilst they can try new experiences there are limits (and that they are still not allowed to do anything and everything they want!)
A little knowledge goes a long way.
Adolescents and adults each use a different part of the brain when interpreting other people’s feelings. Adults will call on the rational prefrontal cortex (upstairs thinking brain) to read facial expressions. This leads to a more accurate understanding of what someone might be feeling. Adolescents, on the other hand, will recruit the amygdala (the downstairs emotional brain) to interpret emotion. The amygdala is designed to be super sensitive to danger or threat. It also runs on impulse and gut reaction. When you’re interpreting through this lens, you’ll be more likely to read anger or aggression when there isn’t any. Hence why a lot of teenagers will accuse the adults around them of being angry, when (initially at least) the adult is relatively calm!
This stage of development has to run its course. There are some great resources out there about teenage development, take time to check them out. Having information about what is going on for a teenager can help stepparents and parents to cope and remain calm in the face of teenage defiance.
- Webinars and Blogs include Michelle Mitchell and Karen Young’s Hey Sigmund
- Books such as ‘From Boys to Men, guiding our teen boys to grow into happy and healthy men’ by Maggie Dent; ‘Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain’ by Dan Siegal; and ‘Being 14’ by Madonna King
- Ted talks like Sarah Blakemore’s The mysterious workings of the adolescent brain
Hard conversations & discipline.
Be it conversations about drugs, alcohol, sex or discipline, let the biological parent do the hard stuff at the outset. While your step-teen can certainly come to you for advice, you shouldn’t be the one having these hard conversations about difficult topics. Nor should you be the one determining and enforcing the rules. Step back and allow the biological parents take the reins. Teenagers will not easily accept discipline from a ‘new’ stepparent with whom they share little history and who they did not choose to be in their life. It’s best to go slow. Focus on building rapport as opposed to asserting adult authority.
Side note – While a stepparent should shy away from being the disciplinarian, they also deserve to be treated with respect. If that isn’t happening, then that’s the topic of another conversation that needs to happen between the teen and their parent. In these situations a stepparent is better spending their energy on keeping the lines of communication open with their partner.
Let them have 1:1 time with your spouse.
Despite what they might say, during adolescence, teenagers still need their parents. They require the safety that comes from these relationships being secure and healthy. Therefore, it’s important they continue to have the opportunity to spend 1:1 time with their parent.
If you’re always around and don’t let that 1:1 time happen, not only could the parent-child relationship suffer, they could begin to resent you which isn’t going to benefit anyone.
Be aware of transitional periods.
Changeovers and transitions can be worse with teenagers than with younger kids, simply because they tend to be moodier anyway. Give them time and space to recalibrate when they return to your home after time spent with their other parent.
Look for small moments over big gestures.
It can be tempting in those early ‘getting to know you’ stages to go that extra mile, to make special efforts and not get comparable effort in return. This can leave a stepparent feeling resentful for feeling taken for granted and giving too much. Take comfort in the fact that relationships with your teenage stepchildren will take time to develop. They also tend to be made in small, everyday moments. Such as when you both find yourselves singing along to a song on the radio. When they need a lift to school and you’re the only one available to act as the Uber driver. When you both become lost looking for the location of a restaurant for dinner. When they’ve had a hard day and you help them unload the dishwasher without any expectation of anything in return.
Big gestures are great for special occasions such as birthdays but aren’t sustainable on a day-to-day, long-term basis. You can also leave yourself open to accusations that you are trying to “buy” affection. You are better to look out for small moments – that’s when authentic conversations tend to flourish. Authentic conversations, even brief ones, are where connections are created or begrudgingly given respect earned.
Show interest in their interests and meet them where they are at.
Speak to your step-teen in the same way that you would like them to speak to you. Ask questions about what interests them and discover what they enjoy about it. Don’t let indifference, grunts or one-word answers put you off.
It is also important that when they do talk, that you listen. Don’t give commentary or rebuttals or jump in with a teaching point, advice or a solution. Add to the conversation with comments such as “Sounds like this is important to you” or “You have clearly put a lot of thought into this, I’d love to hear more about what you are thinking.”
When you do have the opportunity to spend time with them, join your step-teen in an activity they enjoy. Let them teach you something. You can hate it. You can be bad at it. Spending time with them doing something they love (even if it’s a game on PlayStation or creating content for tik tok) can do wonders for a relationship.
Relationships take time.
Just remember that a relationship with your step-teen will take time. Expect rough spots. Things won’t always be smooth. Compromises will inevitably be made. But teenagers don’t want an adversarial relationship any more than stepparents do. (Honest, they really don’t). Teens just have a lot going on, developmentally, personally, emotionally and socially. As difficult as it might be, when faced with a rude, belligerent and disrespectful teenager, try reminding yourself that your step-teen’s behaviour and attitude very likely has more to with their own internal struggle than it does with you.