Several years ago, I had an ecclesiastical assignment to work with a number of blended families. I was always amazed at the challenges faced by the men who became stepfathers when they married a woman with children. Many of these men struggled, some for years, to find their role in this new blended family. Others seemed to just naturally find the right way to get to the right place with the new wife and children.
As part of my assignment, I began to develop a list of what I thought helped stepfathers to succeed.
One factor which tended to make the stepfather transition even more difficult was the age of the children. Stepdads seemed to have more difficulties when the children involved were teenagers. So I took careful note of what worked and what didn't in these blended families with teens.
Challenges Faced by Stepfathers with Teens
- Resentment. Teens who have experienced a divorce or the death of a parent tend to be pretty resentful of their situation in life. Whether they lost an in-home dad by death or divorce, it is easy and natural for them to focus that resentment on someone they perceive as being a "replacement." Also, teen stepchildren will also often make the comment that "Mom married you - I didn't."
- Bruised feelings. After losing their in-home father, teens may experience not only feelings of loss but also of rejection. They will often be hard-pressed to develop or even be willing to entertain the thought of, a new relationship with a man. In addition, many teens feel that their family that included them and their mother was "just fine" before you entered their life. They may see Mom's remarriage as a failure on their part to meet her needs. In any case, stepdads face an uphill battle with these kinds of feelings.
- The father. If your new wife was divorced, the children's father will always remain a factor in your new family. He is the primary parent; you may be seen (or may feel) like an interloper in this relationship. If your wife was widowed, the memory of the children's father can also be a major challenge in developing a new relationship with the kids.
Keys to Success
- Prepare during courtship. Many of the successful stepdads I observed started developing relationships with the teens during the courtship period with their mom. While courtship prior to a first marriage is so much romance, it is more complex and varied when your sweetheart is also a mother. As the relationship starts getting serious, involve the kids. Talk to them; spend some time with them. Open up and get to know them. And most important, be genuine. It is unfair to be one thing during the courtship period and not be the same person after the honeymoon.
- Be you - not Dad. As a stepfather, you will never replace the children's dad. Your role with them is not the father's role; you are more of a mentor. Don't try to replace dad; don't ask them to call you dad - that may come naturally but it may not. You are an adult male in their lives, much like an uncle, a scout leader or a teacher, but you live under the same roof and sleep with their mother. Understand the nature of your role and don't try to be what you are not.
- Plan together with your partner. Being one family unit will require careful planning with your wife. Set rules and boundaries together, but try to disrupt the family karma as little as possible. Decisions about finances need to be made with your partner as well, and not in a vacuum.
- She disciplines, you support. One of the major roads to failure as a stepfather is to take on the role of disciplinarian. The teenagers tend to resent this new guy with new rules who comes in to disrupt their family. Successful stepdads and family relations experts suggest that mom should continue her role as the dispenser of discipline when required to maintain some consistency with the children. Your job as a stepfather is to support her role, to make sure she is treated with respect, and to show solidarity. If you disagree with something, discuss it in private and reach a common understanding with your wife so as not to undermine her role.
- Invest in your marriage. Newlyweds have a big enough challenge; it is compounded with teens in the home. Take a weekend away from time to time to reconnect. Have a night out once a week with just the two of you. Nurturing your relationship as it continues to develop may be the best gift you can give the children.
- Connect with the kids. You also need to invest in your relationship with the children. Take one on one time with them; go to their important events like recitals, athletic events, and school programs. Sincerely praise their performance. Still remembering that you aren't their father, still be an active mentor in their lives. Help with homework; take them camping or fishing. Invest quality and quantity time to let them know that you care.
- Don't take rebellion personally. The teenage years are the transition time from dependence as a child to independence as an adult. Rebellion in some form is to be expected from all teens, even in intact families. So don't get offended when the teens are rebellious; take it in stride and focus on the behavior exhibited. It is less likely to be focused on you than it is to be focused on their changing world.
- Be patient and persistent. Having come through a time in their lives when someone "rejected" them, teenagers have a tough time coming to trust again. Be patient with them and keep on keeping on as you try to show love and build a new relationship. If you are consistent, stay within your role, and show that you care about and love them and their mom, the barriers will eventually come down and a positive relationship will become the pattern. Being a stepfather is incredibly difficult, but can be incredibly rewarding as you mentor these teenaged children into adulthood.