One of my favorite parent educators, Roger Allen, once said, “I have good news and bad news about the terrible twos. The good news is that it only lasts 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 15 or 16 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.
- 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ongoing parental and family conflicts surrounding Ryan brought about a depression that sometimes expressed itself in withdrawn behavior and sometimes irritability.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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Student ministers, leaders, and volunteers should:
- 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.