The Challenges of Being a Stepparent
Most families want their children to enjoy life and be happy, healthy, well-adjusted family members. Few parents actually choose to be grouchy or grumpy caretakers of their children. Nevertheless, raising children is one of the most demanding and responsible jobs that any adult ever assumes. And the job of being a stepparent makes the responsibility even more difficult and frustrating.
Though there are no absolute standards for being a "good parent," there are some basic practical principles which, when applied, can make the task of helping to raise someone else's child a more fulfilling experience.
Separation and Loss
One of the best ways to help a teen accept your remarriage is to understand what he may be feeling. Splitting children between their parents is always traumatic. In most instances, a child views his parent as important love objects. It's important to remember that separation represents a significant loss, even to the adolescent. In fact, many of his feelings are similar to those everyone goes through when faced with the death of a loved one. The adolescent may deny or repress the importance of the person or place he has left. Sadness, anger, guilt, and ambivalence are always present to some degree. When the stepparent and biological parent help the child to acknowledge and identify these various feelings, then the teenager's acceptance of the remarriage is enhanced and the developing new family becomes strengthened.
Supporting the Old, Developing the New
Most families provide growing teenagers with memories of their past and help them keep memories alive. This helps maturing children to develop a sense of self. But it's something usually lost in cases of divorce and remarriage. In these situations, a child's past is often minimized by criticizing the "other" biological parent or by encouraging the youngster not to talk about earlier childhood experiences. Often the adolescent's future is minimized because no one is sure what will happen in the future. Perhaps no one can even tell the teen who will be taking care of him next year. By focusing only on the here and now, the adolescent's sense of self becomes distorted.
It will always be necessary for the stepparent and spouse to support the "old" family members. Doing so will enable the teen to develop a wholesome sense of self in the least traumatic way possible. Keeping pictures of "old" family events and speaking respectfully of the "other" biological parent are two of the best ways to ensure the teen's acceptance and adjustment to your remarriage and new family.
Though reactions of relatives to your remarriage will vary (sadness, blame, embarrassment, shame, avoidance, helpfulness, etc.), don't overlook the importance of including them in the teenager's life. Whether it be grandparents, a favorite uncle, a special cousin, everyone will add something worthwhile to your adolescent's emerging sense of self and identity. Since significant relationships usually override legal status anyway, refusal to allow contact with former relatives may backfire and cause more frustration than is necessary.
On Entering Your Family
The problem always comes up of what the child should call the stepparent. The very young child is almost always going to parrot whatever everyone else calls you (i.e., Mommy or Daddy). But the teenager often feels caught. On the one hand, he doesn't want to call you the same name he calls his real parent, yet he may be the only one in the family not calling you Mom or Dad. Adolescents may feel okay using first names if the stepparent is comfortable with this. Some teenagers have solved this dilemma by referring to their stepparent as Mother or Father, and then referring to their real parents with the customary Mom or Dad. Other teens have used a combination of the title and the stepparent's first name, such as Mom Susan and Dad Tom. This is a good thing to talk about, so that you agree on something that is both easy and comfortable for everyone involved.
Don't be surprised if, after entering your family, your stepchild drags out all his worst behavior and perhaps some surprising new behavior to see how much he can get away with. He may test the limits to see what the rules really are in this new family. Remember, this is normal and the natural way all children learn; so don't panic and feel that "he's worse than he was before." And if your stepchild doesn't misbehave, expect your own children to. Simply set realistic limits, state your rules, and follow through with the consequences. With no consistent boundaries, they will keep on testing everything until each knows what his new role is and what is expected of him in the new family. All of this will settle down eventually.