Help Your Teen Adjust to a Stepfamily

By following Dr. Susan’s steps, you can help your teen adjust to a stepfamily and give your new blended family the best possible opportunity for success.

Dr. Susan Bartellby Dr. Susan Bartell, author of Stepliving for Teens: Getting Along with Stepparents, Parents, and Siblings

When Neil and Kathy’s mother, Carol broke the news that she was engaged to be married, the two teens (ages 13 and 16 years) responded with something less than excitement.  In fact Neil stormed off to his room and slammed the door, while Kathy yelled that her mother was about to ruin the family.  Carol was exasperated, especially since Neil and Kathy had always liked their mother’s boyfriend, at least up until this point.

As the parents of all teenagers know, weathering life with an adolescent can be tough at the best of times. And certainly going through remarriage can be trying for you and your teens, particularly if you and they have already gone through a difficult divorce. Experiences like the one Carol had are not unusual.  Nevertheless, careful forethought and a good grasp of typical adolescent issues can go a long way to easing the way for your teen into a new stepfamily. And, as you can imagine, if your teen makes a reasonably smooth transition into the stepfamily, it will be that much easier for everyone else as well.

The suggestions that follow are designed to help your teen become properly prepared for a successful entrance into a new stepfamily.

Don’t expose your children to every casual date

When you are dating, it is important to protect your children, no matter what their age. If you introduce them to everyone you date, they will have a small feeling of loss each time it doesn’t last longer than a few dates. So, by the time you meet someone with whom you plan to remain, they will be skeptical and unwilling to trust you or your new partner. This will put the new stepparent at a disadvantage before even beginning and decrease the chances for a smooth entrance into the stepfamily. It is therefore better to be selective, introducing your teen to only the people with whom you feel you have a serious chance at a future together.

Introduce your children to your new relationship slowly

Teenagers can hold a grudge for a long time. So when you plan to introduce them to your new partner, do so under the best possible circumstances. A short meeting is always best and it should not include the other person’s children. Plan to do something that your teen will enjoy (e.g. dinner at their favorite restaurant). You can even make suggestions for conversation to your child and your partner in advance of the meeting in order to help things run smoothly. A good first meeting will go a long way to a positive long-term relationship.

Give your teen space to get used to the new person.

Most parents are very anxious for their teenager to like their new partner and they try very hard to make this happen. However, this usually backfires, because most teens do not want their parents to make them do anything, especially not something as important as liking someone who may become their stepparent. By giving your teen space (which may mean many months) to develop a relationship at his or her own pace, the end result will be greater acceptance, less fighting and ultimately a much better chance at a tranquil stepfamily life.

Introduce future stepsiblings slowly

When the time comes (after your teen has developed a relatively good relationship with his or her future stepparent) to meet potential step-siblings, this must also be handled with care. Plan a short meeting at first — a weekend long visit could turn out to be a nightmare for a first-time meeting. Find an activity that will please all the children (taking ages into account) and don’t allow much “down time”. There will be plenty of time for unstructured hanging out when everyone is feeling more relaxed. When it is time to plan an overnight visit be very thoughtful about where everyone will sleep. Teens are very sensitive about having their space invaded by other children, and forced intimacy could set up a bad stepsibling relationship in the future, not to mention huge fights with you. When teens feel that you respect their feelings, they will be much more open to being accepting of a new stepfamily.

Don’t spring marriage on your teen

When marriage becomes imminent, or even probable, it is important to discuss it with your teen right away.Teenagers are very sensitive about being included in important family decisions. And, in general, it is important for you to make them feel like valuable members of the family under all circumstances. Although you do not need your teen’s permission to remarry, respecting their desire to be included in serious matters, will help you smooth your teen’s way into the new marriage.

Include your teen in wedding plans

The thought of remarriage sometimes triggers a fear in your teen that he or she will lose you. In fact, children of divorce are often very sensitive to issues of loss. Including him or her in such matters as picking dresses, making a guest list and planning a menu will make your teen feel important and also alleviate concerns that your new marriage will mean that he or she is going to lose you to a new partner.  It can also be very meaningful to your children to include them in the actual wedding ceremony as well.  For example, many stepparents give a “ring” or other symbolic item to a stepchild to indicate that they are committed to the child as well as his or her parent. It is also important to take cues from your teen; some prefer to be less involved and some more. Don’t force your child to participate more than he or she indicates or feels is comfortable.

Hold regular family meetings

The most difficult period is the first year after the wedding. Many teens test their parents and stepparents to see whether they will continue to be patient, understanding and welcoming. By setting up a regular (weekly) family meeting for all children and adults in the family, you will provide your teen with an opportunity to voice concerns, gripes and frustrations. By listening, questioning and making changes you will send your teen the message that you do respect them and that you acknowledge that this is a difficult transition for them. Teens who feel respected are always more likely to treat their parents with reciprocal respect. These meetings also provide an opportunity for different parenting styles to be worked through, especially if there are children on both sides. You and your partner may find that having regular parenting meetings (without the children) is also helpful to successfully blending two families together.

By following these steps you will provide your teenager and your new blended family with the best possible opportunity for success. While teenagers are, without doubt, tough, they are also very responsive to being treated respectfully and honestly. A thoughtful sensitive approach to helping your teen adjust will go a very long way to maintaining or creating successful relationships for you, your teen and your new family.