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Step-Family Teen Troubles

Step-parents often experience rejection and anger from the step-child in the teenage years.  After giving so much loving care over the years, it can be more than a parent can bear when the child seemingly turns against them in the teen years.

In our Heartlight residential program, I daily help step-families in the midst of such turmoil.  Our work begins following a plea for help, similar to the note I received today…

“My husband and I have been married since my daughter was two years old.  Her biological father has had very little to do with her.  My daughter constantly argues with her step-father and will not stop.  He sometimes responds by becoming angry.  I simply cannot handle this any longer. “

Step-parents can take it very personally when a step-child seemingly rejects them.  It’s hard for them to understand how a child they helped raise could so suddenly become hateful, mean, and angry.

So, let me try to briefly explain how this can happen with step-children and even with adopted children.

The most simplistic way to explain this complicated issue is through my own love of a certain kind of candy, Peanut M&M’s.  Whenever and wherever I travel or speak, I always like to have Peanut M&M’s nearby. Sometimes I’ve run into a situation, however, when a similar candy, Skittles, are the only thing available. They are similar in appearance, but they aren’t the same.  In fact, they actually only serve to remind me of what I could be enjoying with Peanut M&M’s.

You may ask, what do Peanut M&M’s have to do with anything?  Well, let’s apply this silly analogy to your step-daughter.  Let’s say she also loves Peanut M&M’s. In fact, they are her favorite candy.  She gotten accustomed to having them nearby.  She loves them and shares them with others, and likes knowing they are always available.  Then, suddenly, her Peanut M&M’s are taken away and replaced with Skittles, another similar candy.

In this analogy, step-parents are like Skittles.  The step-parent is a replacement for something your daughter longs for and loves (her biological parent).  Now, there is nothing wrong with Skittles.  In fact, Skittles are a wonderful candy, just like you are surely a wonderful parent to her.  They are not, however, what she longs for, maybe without even knowing it.

The point is this — it doesn’t matter that you have been a loving parent to her for many years.  She still longs for her missing parent, or her perception of the way things used to be.  She longs for her family to look like other families, or to have both parents together.  She may even incorrectly believe that her life would be happy and free of problems if things hadn’t changed.  And here’s the kicker, every time she sees you, she is reminded of what she no longer has and truly wants down deep — her birth parent.

Key Point . . . Every time she sees you, she is reminded of what she no longer has and truly wants down deep — her birth parent.

You are a breathing, daily reminder of something your teen has lost, and still longs for.  It doesn’t matter that there is nothing wrong with you, or that you might even be a better person and parent than her real parent.  What matters at this stage in her life is what she perceives she’s lost.  In my experience, loss is one of the most potent causes of emotional strife and behavioral problems in the adolescent years.

Mistakes Step-Parents Make

In trying to “fix” the attitudes and behavior of a wayward step-child, I often see parents try to bribe the child into better behavior or mood by giving them things, by letting them do whatever they want, or by looking the other way when they step out of line. However, for the parent, such behavior is out of line and will ultimately lead to deeper issues for the child and the parent.

The goal for any parent, step-parent or not, is simply this: to lead a child to embrace their Maker, to develop civil behavior and to teach the child to survive and thrive in the world. Those standards are not always supported by a parent whose primary goal is to keep their children happy all the time.

The best approach to take is to maintain your proper parental role, recognizing what you can and cannot change for your teenager. For instance, you can’t change her feelings of loss, or the past decisions that affect her today. You can’t change the facts of her current circumstances. You can’t change what may have happened outside of the realm of your control.

It makes no sense to demand a step-child to stop feeling the way she does, or to constantly emphasize all you have done for her. Instead, if things are becoming difficult, find a good counselor to help her work through her loss. Eventually that will change the way she thinks and behaves. I’m not saying it will be easy but taking this approach allows you continue to deal with behavioral issues by enforcing rules and applying consequences, while a counselor deals with the emotional issues.

Even though your teen may be going through some internal issues, she should not be allowed to step over boundaries of respect and break your household rules. Boundaries in step-families can actually encourage openness, but in a respectful and self-controlled way.

Step-parents should acknowledge the fact that their teen is dealing with a sense of loss or abandonment, but that shouldn’t be a reason for backing off their parental role or becoming a whipping post. Letting the step-child know that she doesn’t have the freedom to just dump on you whenever she feels like it, and that you don’t have to answer every criticism she throws your way, defines your parental authority. And, letting her know you understand why she may be feeling angry will go a long way toward building respect between the two of you.

Take Heart

If you are in the midst of such a turmoil, take heart. Your step-child’s feelings of loss will not go on forever. The adolescent usually outgrows the inner turmoil in a few years, and can get past it even quicker if it is dealt with more directly with the help of a good counselor. But also remember this… parents who stick to their parental role and continue to demand mutual respect in the home usually come out with a stronger relationship with the child on the other side than do parents who give in and try to appease the child. And the child is more stable and more mature for it.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Author: Mark Gregston

Mark Gregston began working with teens more than 40 years ago as a youth minister and Young Life director. He has authored nearly two dozen books, has written hundreds of articles, and is host of the nationally-acclaimed Parenting Today’s Teens podcast and radio broadcast.