Adjusting to New Stepfamilies
As the mother of two teenagers, I am keenly aware that they are not the easiest individuals to live with at the very best of times. With raging hormones, a constant struggle to find independence and individuality, even the slightest changes can bring out the worst. When the change is permanent, as in a new stepparent, it can be difficult for the entire family.
Susan Bartell, a licensed psychologist from Port Washington, N.Y., and the author of Stepliving for Teens: Getting Along With Stepparents, Parents and Siblings (Price Stern Sloan, 2001) and Mommy or Daddy: Whose Side Am I On? (Adams Media, 2002), specializes in helping children and their parents. She says that careful forethought and a good grasp of typical adolescent issues can go a long way toward easing your teen into a new stepfamily.
"As you can imagine, if your teen makes a reasonably smooth transition into the stepfamily, it will be that much easier for everyone else as well," says Bartell. "A thoughtful, sensitive approach to helping your teen adjust will go a very long way to maintaining or creating successful relationships for you, your teen and your new family."
A child who is old enough to remember their home and family before it was disrupted by divorce may have initial feelings of resentment toward the new relationship. The child is used to seeing his biological parents together and may have mixed emotions about seeing a parent "dating" someone else.
"Introduce your children to only the people with whom you feel you have a serious chance at a future together," says Bartell. "A short meeting is always best, and it should not include the other person's children."
When a parent is involved in a serious relationship, it is important to remember that preparation is the key to success. Plan short, friendly outings with your children and your new partner and always choose something that your teenager will enjoy.
"A good first meeting will go a long way to a positive long-term relationship," says Bartell. "Give your teen some space to develop a relationship at his or her own pace. The end result will be greater acceptance, less fighting and ultimately a much better chance at a tranquil stepfamily life."
The Next Step
Communication is crucial when a parent feels that marriage is imminent. Don't assume that your teen doesn't see the signs. They will feel slighted if you don't include them in the plans.
"Teenagers are very sensitive about being included in important family decisions," says Bartell. "And, in general, it is important for you to make them feel like valuable members of the family under all circumstances. Although you do not need your teen's permission to remarry, respecting their desire to be included in serious matters will help you smooth your teen's way into the new marriage."
Aileen Jacobs of Rockford, Ill., remembers that she met her future stepmother long before they became a family. "What I see as the most important thing is the fact that my dad asked me how I felt about him living with her and if I had any things to say about it," says Jacobs. "He also asked my permission for them to get married. I was always invited to things, college graduations for my stepbrother, birthday parties. They made me feel welcomed and accepted."
To help with the transition, Bartell suggests that the parent and stepparent do a lot of preparation before the day arrives. "Talk to your kids," says Bartell. "And don't have the stepparent do any discipline for at least a year or until a more 'friend-like relationship' is established."
When a parent remarries, some teens feel a sense of loss. If they have been alone with you for a long period of time, they often feel as though they are being replaced. "In fact, children of divorce are often very sensitive to issues of loss," says Bartell. "Including him or her in such matters as picking dresses, making a guest list and planning a menu will make your teen feel important and also [will] alleviate concerns that your new marriage will mean that he or she is going to lose you to a new partner."
If the teen is interested, it can be very meaningful to include them in the actual wedding ceremony as an usher or a ring bearer. "Some parents give a 'ring' or other symbolic item to a stepchild to indicate that they are committed to the child as well as his or her parent," says Bartell. "Take cues from your teen. Some want to be involved, where others don't feel comfortable."
Steven C. Atkins, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist and clinical associate and instructor for the department of psychiatry-child section at Dartmouth Medical School in Lebanon, N.H., tells parents that it is important to discuss the rules and expectations that each member has for the family. "When a new family blends, members may be dancing to different beats," he says. "In fact, this is inevitable. By talking about expectations, a new dance can develop over time so that the new blended family members will learn how best not to step on each other's toes."
On the Home Front
Even the best stepfamilies are going to go through growing pains, especially in the first year. Don't be surprised if you hear your new stepchild shout, "You're not my father!" These words are infamous among children struggling to adjust to their new family. It's important for the biological parent to set guidelines for acceptable behavior and be consistent with discipline where needed.
"Many teens test their parents and stepparents to see whether they will continue to be patient, understanding and welcoming," says Bartell. "The most difficult period is the first year after the wedding."
Bartell suggests setting up regular family meetings in order to provide a forum for all members of the group to voice their feelings and concerns – good and bad. A teen who recognizes that his feelings are being valued will make greater efforts to make the new family dynamics work. "Teens who feel respected are always more likely to treat their parents with reciprocal respect," says Bartell.
Sabrina Glidden of Eaton, Ind., became the stepmother to a 14-year-old boy more than three years ago. "He was shy at first, and the more I offered to play with him, the more he'd warm up to me," she says. "Then on his way home to his mother's house, he'd act kind of indifferent – not looking at me or directing everything he said to his dad. It seemed like an indication that he was feeling guilt over having a friendship with me."
Glidden's advice to parents is to give their child space, but to remember that they are usually more open than we think. "Small acts of kindness, such as keeping their favorite cookies on hand or having their photos displayed in your home and wallet, go a long way. As teens, they want to be individuals, and they welcome eye-to-eye relationships. Leave the authority to the parents of the teen; you be the friend."
If you cultivate patience, concentrate on the positive and keep your sense of humor, the transition will go much more smoothly for everyone.