A stepchild with problems creates problems for the entire family. High-stress behavior never happens in a vacuum; even one member of the family “losing it” is one too many, and this affects the stepfamily as a whole.
Divorce, death, remarriage, a new family configuration—these are all very hard things for a child to adjust to. Children of divorce are at risk for depression and stress, and this can sometimes turn into self-destruction, violent behavior, failing in school, and addiction. Most kids will show some signs of stress, so don't immediately leap to thinking your stepkid is having big trouble. Give it some slack time, but be wary.
How will you and your partner know if the adjustment is happening? If you are new in your stepchild's life or not very emotionally close, watching for changes in behavior may be difficult for you. After all, you don't know the child! Here's where your partner will need to take a leadership role.
How can you and your partner tell if a kid is in trouble? There are several key telltale signs to watch for, including these:
- School problems
- Peer relationships
- Problems at home
Your stepchild's response to school is an excellent indicator of how things are going. Watch for a sudden drop in grades, change in interest, or increased absenteeism. It may be that something nasty is happening at school, or it may be a reaction to stuff going on at home. Either way, you and your partner will need to deal with it.
Check for a change in friends. Is your partner's pretty little Miss-Goodie-Two-Shoes-straight-A-girl suddenly piercing her midriff and hangin' with the bad crowd? If she's still getting those A's, she may just be playing with new styles of living. If she's losing her old friends, acting belligerent, and messing up her grades, it's time to check it out. How old is she? Might it just be the tumultuous tides of adolescence? Or perhaps you're all living in a new community and your stepson is having trouble making new friends. Is he usually shy?
If you don't live with the child, it's going to be especially tough to figure out how the peer relationships are going.
Problems at Home
You'll get your best sense of how a stepchild is adjusting (or not adjusting) by how he or she acts at home. Yes, expect sullenness, especially toward you. But if you're seeing evidence of self-abuse or addiction, if the child is committing crimes, or if things are unbearably strained, your stepchild—and the family as a whole—may need some additional help.
It's hard to admit that your stepkid is in real trouble—it's human to try to deny it. But it's better to look at it now than suffer the consequences of letting it go too far.
School involvement (for you, your partner, or both) is a good way to keep an eye on your stepchild's well-being. If the teachers know you as a concerned parent, they'll be more likely to keep an eye on your child to see how he or she is doing. Call for a general chat; don't wait for conference time or to be called into the office!
Self-Abuse, Eating Disorders, and Addiction
Watch out for signs of serious trouble, depression, or self-abusive behavior, especially in the teen years. (You may want to take a look at Stepparenting an Adolescent: What to Expect which is all about these crazy teen years.) Keep paying attention to what's going on, even if they initially ignore you—the more trouble they're in, the more they will ignore you. Part of good stepparenting (indeed, parenting of any kind) means persisting in showing your care, concern, and positive reinforcement, even as the child cuts you cold. Believe me, they do hear the care in your voice, and it matters. Giving a child a sense of his own strengths will help him learn to respect his body, respect and care for himself, and feel confident enough to resist peer pressures.
Here's a list of things to look for as you assess whether your stepchild can use some outside counseling:
- Self-abuse includes cutting, burning, extreme risk-taking, and other self-destructive behavior. While pierces, tattoos, and branding may be the style, there's a difference between minor risk-taking and keeping up with the crowd, and major self-damage caused by depression.
- Eating disorders, including anorexia (self-starvation) and bulimia (bingeing and purging), are common among teens and younger children. If your stepchild is developing an eating disorder, you may be the last person to notice. An anorexic's loss of weight may be so gradual that you don't notice. Many bulimics maintain a normal weight. Eating disorders require professional help, so don't try the do-it-yourself approach.
- Substance use is different from substance abuse, and many kids do some experimentation in their teen years. When a child or teen is already stressed, however, substance use can easily turn to abuse. Substance abuse is rarely so obvious or glaring as trash baskets full of empty gin bottles, track marks on an arm, or scary people tromping through your house bearing syringes and burning all your spoons. Look for other signs: plunging school grades, change in weight, loss of interest in life. By the time a child is addicted to a substance, there are usually a lot of other visible troubles—hey, problems leak.