Dealing with Your Adolescent Stepchild

Find tips on working with your partner to parent a teenager successfully.
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Dealing with Your Adolescent Stepchild

You can make life around your household easier if you try the following:

  • Don't take it personally. Think of your stepteen as somebody who is hormonally impaired (he is!). Try to be tolerant, and give it time.
  • Don't try to compare or compete with the other bioparent. Be more yourself than you've ever been in your life.
  • Spend time alone with your stepteen doing activities that interest you both.
  • Be neutral about your partner's ex. If provoked by the stepteen about him or her, take five deep breaths and take the high road. (“We're very different people. I'm glad you have both of our influences in your life.”)
  • Don't push for affection, attention, or response.

Encourage your partner to follow these steps:

  • Reassure his kid that he'll never abandon her emotionally or physically, and that nobody (meaning you) will ever come between the two of them.
  • Spend time alone with his kids doing things they used to do, such as talking together and playing games.
  • Occasionally side with the kids against you (ouch) and, also occasionally, let you and your stepchild side with each other. (United fronts are important, but let it be a front, not a stone wall.)

Your partner should let you and your stepchild work out your own disagreements (boy, this can be hard). Both of you can help matters by following these pointers:

  • Be nice. Your stepchild is sensitive in his new body and hormone-laden mind. Try not to nag. Work with him, perhaps at a Family Meeting to find ways to get information across. Write notes. Leave simple messages on the answering machine (“James, the garbage man comes on Wednesday, so please take out the trash.”). In How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish suggest using very short communications: “James, Garbage!”
  • Let Go. You're looking for balance here, giving her more autonomy while remaining involved in her life. She needs room, but she also needs guidance and interest.
  • Show you care. He'll treat you with nonchalance, but you show you care anyway. Don't be put off by his seeming indifference. “Kill 'em with kindness,” is what I say!
  • Be aware of transitional periods. The coming-and-going transitions can be worse with teenagers than with younger kids, simply because they tend to be moodier anyway. Give them time and space to adjust.

Discipline and the Stepteen

Adolescents thrive on the balance of caring and positive discipline, but things are complicated by this step business. It usually takes a long time for a teenager to respect a step's authority enough to do what you ask her to do.

  • Go slow. Build rapport before asserting your authority.
  • Talk about it. Verbal communication is the most important aspect of discipline. (Communicating with Stepchildren.)
  • Hands off! If it needs to be handled, let the bioparent do it. Do you really think any self-respecting stepteen will listen to you? Discipline should always be lighter for teenagers than for younger kids. Allow consequences to be as natural as possible; let them demonstrate what they've learned.
  • No scolding. Voicing disapproval just doesn't work. Saying, “You're gonna flunk chemistry if you don't study” may be taken as a challenge. He's not dumb; he knows very well what will happen if he doesn't study. Don't make him prove it to you. Show him the respect of letting him make his own decisions, and live with the consequences (so long as nobody is in physical danger).