Shelly just knew. When her father took her to their favorite coffee shop for what he called a "very important talk," Shelly's instincts told her that her dad was getting married again. After he broke the news to her, though, Shelly's father surprised her by asking how she felt about having a stepmother.
Shelly didn't have an immediate answer. Her father's announcement triggered a range of emotions — a little jealousy about her father's new wife, lingering sadness over her parents' divorce 3 years before, and feelings of insecurity over just where she fit into her dad's new life. Shelly realized she hadn't really thought about the day-to-day realities of having a stepmom — or being a stepdaughter, for that matter.
Lots of Shelly's ninth-grade friends have stepparents. After all, statistics show that one third of all children are likely to spend some time in a stepfamily while growing up. Like anyone with a TV, Shelly had seen her share of pop culture stereotypes, ranging from to the disinterested, self-absorbed stepmother to the overeager one who tries too hard. She wondered how it would be for her.
When a Stepparent Enters the Picture
In some families, new adults and kids seem to slip in effortlessly, as though they have been there all along. Everyone gets along well — one big happy family, just like on "The Brady Bunch."
But some families brought together through marriage can be so different that the best everyone can do is grit their teeth and work extremely hard to get through a weekend together.
Building a relationship with a stepparent can be quite different from building other new relationships. After all, when you meet a new friend or love interest, you are the one deciding if that person will have a role in your life. You get to introduce these new people into your life gradually, taking time to decide how they fit and how you really feel about them.
A stepparent is different; he or she is someone your mom or dad has invited into the family. Sometimes a stepparent can feel like a stranger who is suddenly inserted into the most personal aspects of your life. The pressure to get along can be intense.
Because everyone's situation is different, there are no easy answers to accepting a stepparent. Some people find themselves with new stepparents after a parent has died, others after parents have divorced. Some parents take years to meet and marry other people; some remarry almost immediately.
When a parent remarries, you may find yourself with an instant family of stepsiblings or, after a few years, with younger half brothers or sisters.
Although every family is different, there are some things that can help you deal with a new stepparent.
Dealing With Feelings
One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to recognize that you'll have plenty of feelings about your new situation, and some of these may conflict. For example, even when someone likes a new stepparent, it's natural to feel some pangs that this new person is "replacing" a beloved parent in some way.
Change — good or bad — is difficult. Even if you don't have negative feelings about the new person in your family, you may have very strong feelings about the changes a stepparent is creating.
At some point, you're probably going to feel confused, conflicted about your loyalties, angry, and possibly sad. Here are a couple of things to try that may help put your feelings into focus:
Keep a journal. Write down how you feel about the changes in your life. Make a list of pros and cons to see how they compare. Then check back in 6 months and do the list again. This can help you track how things may have changed. Sometimes, when time has passed, you can see a situation in a different way.
Seek support from a friend. Some of your close, trusted friends may have their own stepparent experiences that can help you feel you're not alone. Friends also can share tips on what they did in situations similar to yours — everything from sharing a room with a new stepsibling to juggling computer time. Even if your friends' situations are different (just because your best friend doesn't get along with his or her stepparents, that's not a hard and fast rule for anyone else), it always helps to have a sympathetic ear.
Talk to your parent or another trusted adult about how you're feeling. It's important to share your fears, feelings, and frustrations with an adult you trust — no matter how crazy you may think these feelings are. Don't be afraid that something you say will cause hurt feelings or make you seem like a problem. An adult who loves you will want to help.
If your parent is too wrapped up in the new relationship to help you work through your feelings (yes, parents can be selfish sometimes), then look for a group at school or in your community where you can vent. Or talk to a teacher or a guidance counselor about what's going on in your life. Mental health professionals, such as social workers or therapists, are trained to help people sort out the conflicting mix of feelings that can accompany a parent's remarriage.
Entering a stepparent situation can be particularly challenging for teens. Feeling like your family life has been disrupted can be especially difficult because of all the other changes that take place during the teenage years — everything from the emotional growth involved in becoming an adult to the hormonal changes triggered by puberty. If you find that your new situation has left you feeling sad most of the time, or you just can't shake the blues, you may want to talk to a doctor or therapist.
Facing the Realities
So what can you do to adjust to the daily realities of living with a stepparent? Instead of worrying about the "what ifs" and the inevitable changes, talk to your mom or dad about what to expect before your new stepparent joins the family. That way, you can be prepared for, rather than mortified by, what lies ahead. For example, figure out ahead of time what to call your stepparent. Ask about holiday plans and who's giving presents to whom. If your house is about to explode with new people, find out how this affects you and that spare room where you listen to music.
Don't be afraid to ask questions as they come to mind. Your parents and new stepparent may not have thought about the things you're asking either, so there's an opportunity to explore options together. And if there's something you absolutely don't want to change, try to negotiate. For example, if you and your dad always go fishing over Thanksgiving but your mom made plans for you to spend the holiday with her new husband's family, she may not realize how important the fishing trip is to you.
What about those times when you flat out disagree with a stepparent? You'll have a better chance of getting what you want if you disagree without disrespect.
Explain your feelings calmly and rationally. For example, if you have a new half-brother or -sister and you feel like you're constantly being expected to babysit at the last minute, talk it over with your stepparent before the situation gets to the stage where you feel taken advantage of. Present your side — maybe you have to study for a test or you already made plans with friends and they're relying on you. Then listen to the other person's perspective.
If you're particularly mad about something, it can feel hard not to lose control. But managing your anger and taking extra care to choose respectful language will help your stepparent see you for the mature person you are, not as a child.
Find a way to get to know the new stepparent in your life. Suggest a bike ride or go to a movie together. It may not be easy, but you can use the same relationship and communication skills you would use to make anyone feel welcome. It may help to remember that your stepparent is walking into a new situation, too. He or she could feel just as nervous and confused as you do.
Expect some rough spots. You know that establishing a good relationship takes time. Your new life won't always be smooth, so be ready to make some compromises. The good thing is, the ups and downs of adjusting to a new family situation can offer some really great life lessons. Many people look back on their experiences getting to know new family members and realize they learned some great relationship (and negotiating!) skills in the process.
Remind yourself that every situation is different. There's no real script for a new family that's being pulled together from all sorts of directions. Be open to lots of possibilities. And savor the good moments. Although change is often difficult, it can be good, too.
Three months after her dad remarried, Shelly was beginning to enjoy the time she spent with her father and stepmother. She couldn't help but see how happy her dad was — especially when the three of them did things together. And when she needed some alone time for just the two of them, she and her dad headed to the coffee shop. Despite all the changes in their lives, some things didn't change between Shelly and her dad — like the fact he thought there was way too much sugar and caffeine in the frozen mocha cappuccino and always made her pick something else.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: November 2006