Most U. S. marriages break up when kids are either very young or when they are teenagers, and most remarriages happen within a few years of the breakup. Thus, about 35 percent of U. S. teenagers are now part of a stepfamily.


Most U. S. marriages break up when kids are either very young or when they are teenagers, and most remarriages happen within a few years of the breakup. Thus, about 35 percent of U. S. teenagers are now part of a stepfamily.

Because teenagers are at a stage in life where they are trying to assert their independence, it is not easy for them to integrate into a new step-family bent on togetherness. The key is to go slowly and to be aware teenage stepchildren can be moody and appear to be indifferent, but down deep they need to feel they belong to their new family.

Tania K. Cowling gives this advice to help teens make this adjustment.

Communication is key

Stepfamilies grow and develop through shared experiences and good verbal communication, but this, too, takes time. How stepparents communicate is as important as what they communicate. Teenagers want to be taken seriously. Show respect for their ideas, opinions, temperament, desire for privacy and the physical changes they are going through. The bonus for showing respect is winning respect.

What’s different

about teens?

Teenage stepchildren need positive and caring discipline, but it is hard for them to accept yet another authority figure in their lives. So, typically, it is the new stepparent who bears the brunt of a teenager’s anger and rebellion. The teenager is afraid of losing a biological parent; so lashing out at a stepparent becomes a way of coping. Teens also are old enough to sense any insecurities a stepparent may have and are likely to take advantage of it. If you are the biological parent, reassure your teen you are not abandoning him or her and no one will come between you. Put your words into action by continuing to do the things you enjoy doing together.

Decide on rules

When a stepfamily is formed, the new partners need to agree on some basic rules that cover areas such as chores, homework, participation in family activities, food and mealtime behavior, pet-care responsibilities, religious practices, money, privacy, dating, and any limits on the TV, phone, computer, VCR/DVD and car.

Family rules should apply to visiting step-children also, but be willing to do some negotiating. For example, if a teenager has another curfew at the other house, decide on one rule and make sure all the kids follow it.

Here are some ideas for ways to create smooth relationships with teenage stepchildren:

1. Learn more about teen development. When teenagers push you away, they are not really trying to hurt your feelings. Also be aware most teenagers will not ask you directly about yourself, but they are listening, and watching everything you do.

2. Be a nice person. Don’t waste your time lecturing, scolding and voicing your disapproval. You’ll most likely be “tuned out” anyway. Try to become a trusted adviser and ally.

3. Communicate with humor and affection. Pass along information in many forms: handwritten notes tacked on the fridge, e-mail and voice mail messages. Make reminders about chores brief.

4. Balance family togetherness with a teen’s need to be with friends. Encourage teens to bring their friends home. That way you know where they are and you get to know their friends.

You can learn a lot when you see kids interacting with their peers.

5. Watch out for flirtatious behavior. Sexual energy between teenagers and their stepparents is common, but dangerous. If your child or stepchild starts parading around scantily clothed, for example, discuss this behavior with your partner. Keep the lines of communication open. And be aware of being fully dressed yourself in the presence of teenagers.

6. Don’t try to buy a teen’s love and acceptance. It won’t work in the long run. Resist the temptation to overindulge and over schedule, especially with visiting stepchildren.

Susan M. Jackson is the Harvey County Extension agent, family and consumer sciences and community development.