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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.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 ParentingTodaysTeens.org 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.


Teens and Self-Control

Parenting teens is not just about caring for their physical and educational needs. It’s also about training your teen to handle what life will later dish out, with body and soul intact.  It’s about teaching self-control.

After all, your child will spend 80% of his lifetime away from you.  So, you need to ask yourself this question: “Am I willing to relinquish control to my teenager before he leaves home in order to help him learn how to act and become the one God desires him to be?”

Teens gradually need to get their feet wet in decision-making, since one day soon they will be fully in control of their own life and self-control will be paramount.  Your main goal, then, should be about preparation for making good life decisions. It’s more than teaching how to handle the finances, or how to pick the best classes, or driving responsibly. It’s about training them to be godly men or women and developing their character.

“But,” you say, “My teenager is too immature and irresponsible. He’s not capable of handling much right now.” You might be thinking that it would be better to wait until your teen begins to show some slightest signs of responsibility before you begin to trust him with more. But if you wait to see your child behaving responsibly, you may never hand over control.  They may fail at first, and that’s OK. They need to know that failure is a part of life.  This begins the important process of teaching responsibility and maturity.

Independence, But With Limits!

There is one big mistake some parents make when they turn over control to their teen, and that’s where problems can arise.  Some parents go too far, too fast.  They totally back off and don’t set proper limits for their teenager.  I see this happen most often in the life of a child whose parents divorce, who feel guilty for what they put their child through. Other parents just want to be friends with their children and they throw out their parental role.  Children raised by such parents often become selfish, demanding, independent, and aggressively controlling as adults.  Kids need their parents to be parents, not their “peerants.”

It’s been my experience that a teen wants limits, even though they may balk at them. We all live with limits, don’t we?  Clearly defined limits give a teenager security and direction, like being limited to driving on the right side of the road to avoid a crash.  If you don’t provide limits in which to frame their decisions, they will feel unprepared for their new freedom and become confused and frustrated.  Limits you set should line up with the law, your closely held beliefs and your teen’s maturity.

Once your teen demonstrates that he can handle the first baby steps of freedom, expand that freedom to a new level. Determine if the limits also need to be adjusted or kept the same. Teenagers will become impatient with the step-by-step process, and there may be a need to back up to a previous level of freedom if the limits are not adhered to, but this is a necessary process to move them on to maturity.

Teaching Self-Control

Your child needs to go through a process of learning self-control, which means to not be controlled by hormones, other things, or his peers. Here are some ways to begin the process of teaching your child self-control:

  1. A good place to start is with asking lots of questions. Ask your teen questions about moral issues, and wait for their answer without giving your opinion. “How do you think that person felt about being treated that way? What do you think would be the best thing to do in this situation? What would you do if you were asked to have sex, steal or take drugs? Tell me what you think about…? Allow your teen to come up with his own answer without injecting yours. Don’t use it as an opportunity to lecture or teach.  Let them realize the fullness of their answer by hearing their own words.  Their answer will often be immature or even irresponsible, but that answer will echo in their mind and begin them thinking about the issue and how they would really act if that situation were to arise.
  1. Put limits around their decisions to cause them to be more responsible. Once you’ve given them more freedom, allow them to make their own decisions within that area of freedom, good or bad. For example, if you allow them use of the car and give them gas money, and if they instead spend the money on concert tickets, then they will have to figure out another way to get around. Don’t just give them more gas money. Let them walk, if necessary, to show the foolishness and reality of spending money unwisely. Once they have to walk, they’ll never make that foolish decision again. Or, if they use the car outside of designated hours, they lose that privilege for a time.
  1. Set your boundaries, make them clear, and enforce them if they are broken. For example, if you see your teen watching an inappropriate movie, something that is out of bounds in your home, ask him – “Is this an appropriate movie for you to be watching?” Allow him the opportunity to respond as he should, by turning the movie off.  Let him come to the right decision on his own. If his immaturity causes him to not respond as he should, then move in and make the decision to change the channel or turn the TV off yourself. Then reinforce the rule with consequences the next time the rule is broken, such as loss of the freedom to watch television for a time. If the rule is consistently broken, then remove the TV from the home altogether. It will be an inconvenience for you, but it shows your teen how passionately you feel about the issue of watching inappropriate material on television.
  1. Encourage your child in their good decisions, and point your comments toward their successes, not their failures. Don’t say, “I told you so,” or, “I should have made that decision instead of you,” when they make a mistake. Instead, patiently allow them the opportunity to make the right choice and look for progress. Whenever you see your child respond with maturity and responsibility, congratulate them and explain that because they made a good choice you are now moving them up to a new level of freedom.  Keep in mind that instant feedback is always best.
  1. Randomly offer examples of good decisions in your own life.  While teens will respond to your own stories as examples out of the dark ages, revealing your own good decisions at key moments in your life will come back to them when they have the opportunity to make similar decisions.  They will give the teen fuel and courage to make a similar decision in a similar situation.  And they will also offer something to think about if the teen makes a different decision. Developing a portfolio of good decisions (both by you and others that the teen may admire) and injecting them in conversations randomly (not to make a point when the teen does something wrong) is a good way to teach your teen self-control by example.

My advice today for parents of teenagers is to begin to shift control to your child before you think they will need it. Give them the opportunity to show what they can handle asking them to do so, and don’t bail them out or condemn them if they fail. Give them the chance to figure it out, learn from consequences, and find a better way for the next time they are faced with the same decision. Giving teenagers increasing levels of independence, coupled with proper limits and parental guidance, will begin to teach them the most important type of control, self-control.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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 ParentingTodaysTeens.org 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.