Any mother would say that being a parent to a teenager is challenging, but perhaps it can be even more challenging when you are a stepmother to teenagers. A natural mother has a storage of love created over the years with her child that she can fall back on when the going gets tough during adolescence. A step-mum does not have that. She lands herself right in the middle of one of the most difficult phases of a person’s development, unarmed and with no cushioning. She may not know when to discipline, when to let go and when to call for reinforcement from the partner. Feeling at a loss, she may find herself needing to control the teenager, but no teenager likes to be controlled, let alone by their step-mum. This may lead to power struggles, with the teenager rebelling by saying those words that all step-mums dread, “Don’t tell me what to do. You’re not my mother”.
What can help in such situations?
It is important to bear in mind that, in itself, the teenage years are a hard time, not only for the people living with the teenager, but also for the teenagers themselves. All parents know this, but because you are the step-mum you may be more likely to take a bad attitude from your step-teenagers personally than a natural mother would. Go slow with teenagers. Do not move into their life and start making changes. Allow time to get to know them and for them to get to know you. Take their circumstances into account and be sensitive to the fact that they need time to adjust to their new realities – they may be grieving the loss of their mother or getting used to seeing their father with a new woman. See this as another relationship which needs time and nurturing to grow. So, respect their privacy, while being available for them to talk when they are ready. Find creative ways of connecting with them, but above all else, be yourself.
Teenagers are also dealing with establishing their identity and their place. They are searching for answers to “Who am I and where do I belong?” Because of this, they may feel torn between their loyalty towards their natural mother and you. Be sensitive to this and allow them to express their loyalty freely. This will give them the space needed for growth, security, and eventually, independence.
Parenting step-teenagers requires that your partner – the natural father – is on board with you. You need to show your teenagers that you are a united front. You have the responsibility to role model a healthy step-couple relationship. Communicate openly with your partner about how you are going to parent your teenagers. While teenagers may be more willing to accept discipline if it is coming from the natural parent, you still need to act as a team, and when your step-teenager rebels against you, you need to say that while you acknowledge that you are not their parent, you are their step-mum and you love them. It is important that your partner backs up your position.
Although it may feel daunting at first to move into the life of teenagers as the step-mum, keep in mind that this is another relationship that you are willing to invest in. Teenagers need a safe space where they can figure themselves out. By being genuine, showing that you care and are interested in them, you can be a very positive presence in their life.
Stephanie Caruana is a counsellor at Willingness. She offers counselling services to adolescents and adults experiencing some form of distress. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 79291817.