When Becoming Step Parent to an Adolescent

Step-parenting an adolescent is different than with a young child.

Posted Nov 14, 2016

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

After single parenthood, widowhood, or divorce, when a parent marries, a step-relationship is created between one’s children and the new partner.

The step-family task is neither simple nor easy. First socially, and then psychologically, these new relationships can become extremely complex, confusing, and often conflicted. Step-families mix people up.

Just consider the diversity. Coming from different living situations, social experiences, personal values, past histories, and prior and ongoing attachments, the stepparent and the stepchildren are thrust into household intimacy. Now they are expected to accommodate all these differences so they can function as a family unit. For all concerned, it’s hard to figure out how to act and react, how to fit in, deal with differences, and get along.

Statistics attest to the difficulty of keeping a stepfamily together. “Remarriage involving stepchildren have a greater rate of dissolution than those without,” according to Wikipedia. I believe marriage involving step-adolescents can be even harder.

In general, everyone’s adjustment to this reconstituted family is easier with a younger child. Still in the impressionable age of attachment and similarity and compliance to significant adults, the little girl or boy is often open to bonding with a stepparent. By contrast, an adolescent, who is now detaching and differentiating from childhood and parents, has more tendency to keep the stepparent at a distance. Thus the stepfamily adjustment can become more awkward and difficult.

Where the little child may have seen much to gain in relation to this new adult in the family, the adolescent may feel she or he has more standing and autonomy to lose. Consider the challenge.

The Stepfamily Challenge

As mentioned, a dependent younger child is usually more inclined to go with the flow of parental marriage and the stepfamily adjustment than an adolescent, who often feels yanked around by family change and has become more independently, individually, and assertively inclined.

At the outset, it often comes as a surprise that family relations during adult courtship and now with marriage are not the same. Role changes change relationships. Once the fun-loving friend of their parent moves in and begins acting like a serious second parent, the relationship can feel offensive for the adolescent stepchild. Once the enjoyable teenager of the partner-to-be becomes a source of daily demand and interference in the new marriage, the relationship can feel less welcome for the stepparent. From this marital change, normal ambivalence can develop on both sides of the step-relationship.

Adolescent Adjustments to Parental Remarriage

One thing that can help the stepparent who may be encountering more teenage resistance is taking the time to appreciate some of the adjustment demands that the new parental marriage can make on an adolescent. Consider just a few.

Intimacy with a stranger. “It's like living with an adult I don’t even know. Now I have to watch how I dress and undress in my own home!”

Conditional caring. “When my stepparent doesn’t like how I behave, or I don’t like how they behave, there’s no history of love that we can fall back on the way there is with my parent. We care for each other so long as we like how each other acts.”   

Difficult attachment. "My parent loves this person who a lot of times I don't even like."

Less attention to go around. “Now there’s more competition for attention than before. I have to wait for my stepparent to be away if I want time alone with my parent.”

Additional loss. “When one parent moves out, you lose some of them, and when the other parent remarries you lose part of the one remaining to their new partner. It’s just never the same.”

The end of reunion fantasies. “Well, now I know for sure Mom and Dad will never get back together. Remarriage to my step-parent put an end to dreams of that!”

Seeing parents change. “I thought getting used to a stepparent was going to be the biggest change, but no. The biggest change is seeing my parent become more like the person they just married.”

Phasing in the Stepparent Role

I believe the best advice for a beginning stepparent with an adolescent is to go slow in two ways — as an adult authority and as an introducer of family change.

As an adult authority, it’s usually best to let the biological parent be the Corrective Authority when it comes to family discipline at the beginning, while the stepparent can act as Contributory Authority when it comes to providing valued permissions and household benefits. Let the biological parent do the hard stuff at the outset while the stepparent gets to do some of the good stuff so a positive relationship to the adolescent has a chance to build.  

As an introducer of family change by starting a new practice, stopping one that is old, increasing, or decreasing the frequency of some family behavior, I believe it’s generally best to go slow. First, fit into the ongoing family before trying to fit it to the stepparent. Allow adequate time for everyone to just get used to living with each other. 

Pitfalls of Beginning Step-Parenthood

There are four pitfalls I have frequently seen beginning stepparents fall into with an adolescent. For your consideration, here they are:

First, the stepparent can demand too much change too soon and can create a family reputation of being tyrannical that generates entry resentment. As previously suggested it is usually best to become familiar with the existing family flow before trying to change it.

Second, a stepparent silently going along with the partner’s parenting at the outset can be at the expense of the marital dialogue that needs to get started. It is usually best to keep the needs of the developing marriage a top priority by including in the emerging relationship an ongoing discussion of parenting ideas, concerns, and agreements.

Third, it can be tempting for the stepparents to over-give to stepchildren when getting started, making a special effort and not getting comparable effort in return, and then feeling resentful for feeling taken for granted and giving too much. It is usually best to not over-give to stepchildren to get along. 

Fourth, it can be easy for the stepparent’s “invisible efforts” to be overlooked and go unacknowledged by the parent — all the ways and occasions the stepparent silently goes along and bears with adolescent behaviors and parenting responses that secretly feel foreign, irritable, or even wrong. Better for the stepparent to share these feelings of incompatibility with the parent and for the parent to listen and credit the tolerance of unfamiliarity and self-restraint that stepparenting requires.

Finally, on a personal note, there is this: To the life of an adolescent, I believe a stepparent can contribute a lot.  As an adolescent child of parental divorce and parental remarriage on both sides, my stepmother and my stepfather introduced formative influences into my life that I benefit from to this day.

I gained an appreciation for reading from my bookish stepmother and some capacity for practical problem solving from my engineer stepfather. Not that we didn’t have our moments of disagreement and disenchantment, but we also had companionship and communication that mattered more the older I grew. These relationships were definitely worth the effort.

For more about the effects of divorce and remarriage on adolescents, see my book, Keys to Successful Stepfathering (Barron’s 2010, second edition).

Next week's entry: Adolescence and the Worrisome Transition to High School