Stepparenting an Adolescent: What to Expect
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Stepparenting an Adolescent: What to Expect
A little knowledge goes a long way. Understanding what teens are normally like will help you understand when your stepteen is having problems.
Misconceptions and Corrections
Here's what you may think:
- Teens are awful, thoughtless, and impossible.
- Teens from “broken” families get messed up with sex, drugs, and criminal elements.
- The stress of a stepfamily added to the normal stresses of adolescence lead to depression, eating disorders, and suicide.
Here are the realities:
- Adolescence is a time of stress, and, yes, your stepteen may be awful and cruel at times. A new stepfamily doesn't make it easier (but may not make it harder, either).
- Adolescents can be charming, warm, caring, and interesting to be around. It's a joy to watch kids come into their own.
- Teenagers don't want an adversarial relationship any more than stepparents do.
- Rebellion is part of any teen's job, and your stepteen is not necessarily going to be more messed up than other teenagers.
- What matters is not the structure of the family, but the quality of it.
Adolescence 101 for Stepparents
Teenagers are beautiful, angry, sexual, sassy, messy, moody, and often lethargic. Think of them as lions: big, gorgeous cats with huge feet who lie around all day in the sun but spring into action without notice to rip the steaks off an innocent grazing zebra.
I was 25 when I got my stepkids. Aaron was 15 and Rachel was 12. Luckily, neither kid realized what a small difference in age there was between us (and I didn't tell them!). There was one advantage of being so close in age: I was still fairly tuned in to the teenage psyche. I still remembered clearly what being a teenager was like.
If you're older than I was, time has probably taken its toll and you may not have a clue about whether your teenage stepkid is “normal” or not. Talk to other parents. Read some books. Educate yourself. In the following sections, I've included a few details about what to expect. But I feel I gotta add this major disclaimer: Because all human beings go through adolescence, and because human beings vary widely, I'm generalizing. Take what applies and move on. I'm only suggesting possibilities here.
Hormonal changes (moodiness, lethargy, and so on) begin about two years before any outward physical changes can be seen.
When Does It All Begin?
Adolescence is a combination of physical and social shifts that begins for different kids at different times and in different orders, depending upon the person. When my husband Bill was 13, he grew 12 inches, from 5 to 6 feet, in three months. His legs stretched like silly putty, and his point of view literally altered drastically. (While his body raised an octave, his larynx stayed behind in the same physical location, changing him from a soprano to a baritone.) My physical transformation from girl to woman seemed as sudden to me, from “Flatso” to “Va va va voom!” over the course of a summer.
It's not always that drastic (Bill and I share a flair for the dramatic, even in puberty), but for every adolescent, the shift from child's body to adult's body is profound, affecting mind, mood, and self-definition. “Who am I? What kind of person am I going to be?” the adolescent asks, and then tries to find out, in all sorts of ways.
Pushy and Rebellious
Teenagers (and preteens) are rebellious and reactive, and they do exactly the opposite of what they are told. This is a normal and essential part of growing up and becoming a free-thinking, self-reliant adult. It's their job to establish their own identity and to separate from their parents. It's not a pleasant job, but somebody's gotta do it. (Ironically, they sometimes act the least free-thinking and self-reliant just as they are asking most for more independence.)
While your stepteen strains against the reins of authority (that's you and your partner), your challenge is to remain calm. Understanding the teen's job description helps. When he pushes you away, he's not deliberately hurting your feelings. It also helps to understand what “normal” rebellion looks like so you can help prevent (or deal with) the more destructive and self-destructive forms. Some high schools have parent education nights that can truly help.
I Kid You Not!
About 35 percent of all American teenagers have a stepfamily.
Master of Disguises
One day she's a biker chick, the next a prissy cheerleader. A week later her hair is bleached and dyed green, she's got pierces in the oddest places, and she's asking permission to get branded (ouch!). Watch closely. If the identity changes are manifested on things that can change (like clothes and hair), you probably don't have to worry. It's a peer thing. (Now's the time to haul out your old high school yearbook and look at how bizarre and awful you and your chic friends truly looked.) The time to worry is when the style is irrevocable (branding and tattoos won't wash off when Junior wants to look like a young stockbroker), or when the disguise seems more than skin deep (a bubbly kid changing into a morose one, a quiet one becoming hyper-energetic, or wild fluctuations in weight or other odd behavior shifts).
Kids need to feel like part of a group. Young adolescents assert their independence and uniqueness by trying to look and act exactly the same as all the other kids. Don't worry about this sheeplike behavior. Most people grow out of it, and the older people get, the more individualistic they become.
Social Butterfly, Lone Wolf, and Clinging Vine
All teens, step or not, would rather be with friends than with a parent figure. With custody issues and visitation battles, sometimes an essential is left out of the picture: the fact that teens often don't want to hang out with any family that much. Teenagers are social beasts. They want to be with their friends. They need to hang out with their friends—it's part of establishing their own identities.
Much of the distance you'll feel from a stepteen has little to do with whether he likes you. He wants to hang out with his buddies not because he has something against your very presence, but because, for many teens, too much time away from friends verges on physically painful. Peers matter. As stepparent to a teen, be sensitive to his social needs. Try not to push for too much family togetherness. And lay off the guilt trips about it—they won't help.
At the same time, stepfamily life may affect the teen's quest for independence. It's hard to rebel against your parents when you feel insecure about their love or worry about how much you matter to them (kids often feel as though they're in competition with their stepparents for their parent's attention). A teen may end up clinging to a parent as tightly as a limpet clings to a sea-swept rock.
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