Teens are a separate species: they are equal parts self-conscious, irreverent, sharp-tongued, and messy in all senses of the word.
As they wade deep into the waters of identity and autonomy, they become magnets of conflict. Set a boundary they don’t like? They will push back in loud and ugly ways. Make a harmless comment on their jeans with the thighs ripped out? Doors be a slammin’.
As unstable hormones fuel many of their interactions, the adults in their lives, parents, teachers, bosses, and coaches take the brunt of their bad behavior.
But the most villainous character in the teen drama is the stepparent or the expletive Mom or Dad is dating, as they are commonly known. Only a small percentage of lovely teenagers accept the new stepparent figure with grace and generosity. The rest, unfortunately, apply their teenage ways to making life miserable as an act of protest.
For those who bonded with their stepkids earlier on, stepparenting a teen can be easier but not risk-free.
Teens will tolerate a stepparent with whom they had a decent relationship before the hormones set in but still may not be willing to accept input or authoritative parenting from someone they don’t consider to be their parent. Stepparents are a favorite lightning rod for teens. “He’s not my parent! Why should he be able to tell me what to do?” or, “You married her; I didn’t. She has nothing to do with me.”
When looking for fertile ground to establish autonomy, stepparents are low-hanging fruit.
If a child is meeting his or her stepparent for the first time as a teen, it is a prickly situation at best. Most teens have zero interest in bonding with either new adults or new adults with younger, annoying children. They never have the thought, “Oh, awesome. Some new person is going to be living with me and I must get to know everything about them so we can become fast friends!”
Where you see a potential for a caring adult to influence and guide your child, your teen sees a random person who is going to take their parent’s attention and try to exert control.
So how does one handle the teen-stepparenting conundrum?
The most important thing the adults involved can do is to seriously adjust their expectations and take the long view. Setting an expectation for cordial behavior is good, expecting the teen to happily engage in family time with the new stepparent, not so much. Teens are like cats: they like things on their terms, without any forced compliance. The more the stepparent can back off and take an approach-with-caution attitude, the better the relationship in the end.
The other piece that can make a big difference is not assuming a parenting role. Imagine your best friend invites you on a trip, but she also invites her other close friend from high school whom you don’t really know. Not ideal. You’d rather be alone with your friend, but okay. This is the model for your relationship.
Treat the teen as you would the high school friend: be extra nice, show deference, deal with any issues through a third party, and allow space for them to have their own relationship. When a teen feels that you support his or her alone time with Mom or Dad and that you aren’t going to try to dictate the household’s dos and don’ts, he or she is more apt to let you in.
Small steps, with a focus on putting a protective bubble around autonomy and the teen’s relationship with his or her parent, will inch you closer to the relationship you want. And once the teen years are over, if the groundwork has been laid, the road opens up for more connection.