Helping Teens Accept a Step-Parent
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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Here’s a common scenario: you’re a single parent of an older child or teenager. You fall in love with a wonderful person, the two of you get married (or not), and Wonderful Person moves in with you. But your child is not on board. What can you do to smooth things over between them?
The first thing to remember is that acceptance is not something you can make happen. Assuming that Wonderful Person is making an honest effort to be lovable to your child, here are some guidelines that should make things at least tolerable for everyone.
1. Never refer to Wonderful Person as your child’s “step father” or “step mother.” This is a term of honor and something only your child can bestow. At the same time, Wonderful Person should not refer to your child as a “step son” or “step daughter.” Instead, each should refer to the other by first names or by their relationship to you (“my mom’s husband” or “my husband’s son”). Relationships are built, not legislated. And while you might be able to encourage the “step-” stuff with a young child, it just won’t fly with your preteen or teen.
2. Wonderful Person should avoid telling your child what to do or giving any sort of unsolicited advice. Just as Wonderful Person would not think of telling your best friend or your next-door neighbor how to live her life or make decisions, WP should afford your child the same respect and courtesy.
3. Instead… Wonderful Person should find a way to ask your child’s advice or help. Wonderful Person’s questions have to be sincere and not contrived. But asking a teen’s opinion on a purchase of some sort or asking if the teen can help with a home rehab project that needs another set of hands… these will go over well. Again, the point is that Wonderful Person must treat your child as an equal not a child. This is adult to adult, not parent to child. Remember, Wonderful Person is not your child’s parent.
4. Wonderful Person should leave any sort of discipline to you.
The relationship your Wonderful Person wants to have with your child is something that has to develop over time. From your child’s perspective, the two of you have been doing just fine without Wonderful Person. If anything, Wonderful Person is a distraction to the relationship you and your child have enjoyed. Your child will naturally be protective of you and skeptical of the value of Wonderful Person. Slow and gentle is the way to build the new relationship between Wonderful Person and your child. It may never be terrific. It may take a decade to develop. But trying to force things will backfire.
Now… your own role. Actions speak louder than words and nothing you can say will convince your child that Wonderful Person is a valuable addition to the family. Let your child see that you are happy. Let Wonderful Person demonstrate respect and care for you and your child. Teens and preteens are working out how relationships work and are super sensitive to injustice, disrespect, and falseness. Show through actions what good relationships between adults, and good relationships between adults and adult-children, look like. With sensitivity and respect you all can achieve a happy family life.