Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stepfamilies, Stepchildren, Step Wisely

I met a woman recently with a big beautiful pregnant belly. We started talking about the birth of her baby, and in the course of conversation she shared that though this was her first baby, she was the stepmother to a 15 year old girl. She described her relationship with this girl as "in the deep freeze". This woman seemed so nice, and sweet and warm, definitely not the "wicked stepmother" type, and yet, there the two of them were, sharing a father and a husband, feeling little connection. I have worked with many families in transition over the years, divorcing, remarrying, blending families, and building new families with new babies. Add Adolescence to this mix, and all hell breaks loose.

 Changing families mid-adolescence is not easy. As teens step away from the parental unit to forge their own path, they like to know that though they don't want much to do with their parents, they do like to feel that that is the stable part of their life, as everything around their own life is in constant upheaval. Changing bodies, changing friends, changing passions, interests, and activities, and the looming future always hanging over their heads is quite enough, thank you very much.  Please just keep my family the same, they think. But unfortunately, families change too.

If you are more of an every other weekend, one night a week parent, it is easy to lose touch and connection with your teen. You become an extra obligation that takes away time from the most important part of their lives...their friends.  Feelings can get hurt, defenses go up, and distance is created. If you have also found a new partner with children, and may perhaps be having children together, the going gets tougher. Perhaps those kids really appreciate you, and the excitement over a new baby becomes intoxicating, a chance to "do-over'. Your teen may feel your excitement for your new life, feeling threatened might start fights and argue about anything as they go into self-protection mode.

Add to the mix that they have to get to know a new person, maybe new "step siblings", maybe share their home, their bedroom, their parents with kids and stepparents not of their choosing. The Brady Bunch it isn't. Your job is to make your teen your priority. Though you might want everyone to be one big happy family, you first have to make your kids feel safe and secure. This can only be done, one on one. There is no shortcut here. I once had a dad call me wondering why his teen daughter was being such a pain. It seemed whenever his daughter came over to stay with his "new family," he wanted the family to all hang together.  What she really wanted was her dad all to herself. Just because you may have some new kids in your life, doesn't mean your kids have to buy the farm.  So here are some tips I hope will help get you through these sometimes awkward and difficult times.

1. Call or text your kids every single day. Do not ever miss one day. This is the way your teens feel your commitment to them and your presence. Even if its only to say I LOVE YOU. Even if they don't text you or call you back, you are making a very important statement. There is no one more important in my life than you!

2. Use this I Get It moment with great regularity. " I get this whole divorce, remarrying thing is unbelievably hard. Is there anything I could be doing differently to make it easier for you. I really want to know. I know I am probably making mistakes along the way, but I love you, and it matters to me what would make a difficult situation better."

3. Be respectful and understanding about the adjustment your teen may have to make to share a room with a stranger, or be in a strange new house. Invite them to create a space for themselves that feels like home. You do not want them to feel like a visitor in your home.

4. When you do have time with them, give them your undivided attention. Perhaps they might want to have a friend come along if there has been awkwardness between the two of you. It might help break the ice.

5. Never ever ever bad mouth your ex no matter how much you want to. Even if that person is evil incarnate. If your teen bad mouths another parent, do not agree or disagree, just listen. Believe me on this one. No good can ever come of alienating a child from a parent. Your teen will have to make that decision for him or herself as they move into adulthood. Don't do if for them now!

6. Know that as long as you stay consistent with your love and attention, in the end it will all be fine. Getting through the teen years might feel long, but the rest of their life is even longer.

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