Once Upon a Time.... Is Forming a Stepfamily With Teenagers a Fairy Tale?

Monday, June 06, 2011

According to research, stepfamilies that were created when the children were teenagers are more likely to dissolve. So how do some blended families beat the odds? Success is possible—once you remember the timeless story that parents are old fashioned.

by Eleanor Spackman Alden

(Photo on home page courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-D415-90333) 

Divorced women and men frequently have reported they are waiting to remarry until after their teenagers have left home. Oftentimes, the parent’s story is accompanied by a sense of relief because he or she is actually fearful of entering the dating world. Other times, parents express intense resentment at feeling restricted by their child who is making dating relationships “impossible.”

Parents need to guide a teenager’s dating and social life—not the other way around! Neither children nor parents truly feel safe and comfortable with children in charge. As their children grow, parents struggle to set appropriate limits and boundaries. They continually ask themselves:

  • How much freedom of choice is safe and appropriate?
  • How much freedom is too restrictive and will harm my child’s development?
  • What freedoms put a child who is not yet ready to be fully responsible for his or her life in danger?

The answers to these questions vary by child and his or her stage of development. And teenagers are wired to test it all.

Many of the problems that stepparents experience with teenage stepchildren are no different than those experienced by biological parents. What is different is that many stepparents may not have a long history with their stepchildren—that is, they may not have fond memories in place of when their preteen wasn’t so rebellious.

Without that history, the current rebellious stage can be much more difficult for the stepparent to tolerate. The following story describes this particular stage of life:

The Tooth Fairy’s Revenge

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful little baby girl born to adoring parents. Her whole world was focused on being cute and lovable. Her parents even considered dirty diapers a subject of prideful inspection and accomplishment. When Mom and Dad made cooing noises, the baby girl knew that all she needed to do was mimic them in exquisite detail. Within many days, baby and Mom had a wonderful duet worked out. Mom and baby were very happy with this wondrous communication, and so were others, who clapped and laughed at this marvelous interaction.

Life went on, and suddenly diapers weren’t cute anymore. The baby girl had difficulty understanding why, and her longing to make these giants she lived with happy surpassed her desire to complain about the change in rules. So the baby girl learned to “go potty.” And again everyone was clapping and happy. Then another rule was added without including the girl in the decision making. No longer was going potty something that everyone looked at and applauded. Instead, the parents demanded that she go potty in secret. It became a shameful thing, no one was interested any longer, and no one was clapping. This change in rules was upsetting, but the girl was forgiving. She decided that throwing toys was a good way to call attention to this unilateral change in rules, and she sought other ways to achieve something she longed for: praise from her parents.

The parents were endlessly proud of their adaptable little girl, who now walked, talked, sang, and responded so readily to their smiles and praise. She clung to them when they threatened to leave and cried when they went out the door. They helped her through this suffering; she began to understand that by playing peek-a-boo and then hide and seek, her parents did indeed return to her. When they left her at nursery school the first day, though, she was very distressed. She sobbed with her arms outstretched as they left, and then ran to them joyously when they appeared hours later. She realized they loved hearing about the games she played at school and what she had learned. She looked forward to sharing her stories and friends with them.

Then the Tooth Fairy noticed that small teeth were coming out and being left under the pillow. The Tooth Fairy was very pleased; her greed for baby teeth was great. The next few years were happy ones for everyone. The child learned that not only did Santa reward good behavior, but the Tooth Fairy rewarded physically growing up, something that required less conscious effort on the child’s part than being good with the ever-changing rules!

Once all the adult teeth were in place, the Tooth Fairy was, at first, perplexed. Where were her treasures? Why didn’t the child and parents cooperate more readily? Tooth Fairies, like some children and adults, have a very short memory.

She was patient for a few years as the child grew, hoping for a knocked-out tooth from a swing accident. But her waiting was in vain. She truly got angry. She waved her magic wand and decided that because she had been abandoned and ignored, she would teach the parents a lesson about just how that felt.

First, the Tooth Fairy waved her magic wand and hormones began to surge through the young girl; pimples and blackheads appeared, along with variable moods. Boys her age began making strange croaking sounds. All of these were signs of Tooth Fairy rage. She then waved her wand and the brain began to shrink—brain matter that carries the message that Mom and Dad are the best parents in the whole world vanished in a twinkle of an eye. Something else also disappeared: the brain neurons with the message that Mom and Dad are indispensable and it is scary when they leave. Also, anything wired in the brain that had to do with life and death connections to her parents were eliminated, one by one. The small girl who had screamed and clung to her parents when they were leaving was now bigger and could hardly wait for them to go. At times she even darted the other way at school or at the mall when she saw her parents approaching.

The Tooth Fairy was pleased and thought the parents would find some kind of teeth to leave her. But they had forgotten her altogether. The parents had bigger concerns than a Tooth Fairy! Where had the child who had adored them gone? The now forgotten and invisible Tooth Fairy was furious. She knew the girl who had accepted all the rule changes—from toilet training forward—without any veto power would adapt and that the brain would continue growing for years. But she made sure that those adorable sounds of mutual adoration between baby and mother would never resonate again!

She had also decided on a final curse. She installed a tiny invisible device in the brain of the young girl, right behind the eyes. This device is only activated around parents, or, occasionally, around another authority figure. It rolls the eyes, and when truly engaged, it causes the vocal chords to make a loud sigh. As if this was not enough, the Tooth Fairy added exclamations of “whatever!” which, when accompanied by eye rolling, really annoyed the parents. And if that wasn’t enough for her parents, or their reactions were not what the girl now wanted, she active previously installed sentences along with the eye-rolling device:

  • “That’s not fair!”
  • “Everyone else’s parents allow _____. [Fill in the blank]“
  • “You are ruining my life!”

And for the finale:

  • “You are the worst parents in the world!”

Some part of the girl realized she was burning bridges, and she began to search for parental body language signs indicating (1) when to vanish to her bedroom, or (2) when to join her friends who were the only ones she believed understood her. The girl became sullen at times, and suspiciously watched her parents for any sign that they might restrict her from doing things her friends thought were cool. Being unpopular with her friends became increasingly important to the girl.

Then, suddenly, she and her friends saw that the Tooth Fairy had not just implanted an eye rolling, vocalizing device in their heads. The Fairy had put an expiration date on each parent’s forehead that only the parent’s own teenager could see!

That was the problem: Parents have expiration dates, and the girl saw that hers had expired! No wonder they didn’t understand anything! They were old fashioned! For heaven’s sake, they grew up in a time when they had to walk 5 miles to school, in the snow, and uphill both ways! This insight was always accompanied by frantic eye rolling and loud sighs.

Eventually the Tooth Fairy gave up and moved on to other children with more readily available baby teeth to give her. The young girl was able to grow her brain back to its preteen weight—and even beyond that. She developed new insights into her relationship with her parents: She loved them with an adult mind and heart, and some part of her brain was only slumbering. It did remember the cooing duet and waited for another baby to awaken it from its long sleep.

And they all lived happily ever after; until the next time a young child in the home made the Tooth Fairy angry.

‘The Biological Parent and Stepparent Must Not Undermine Each Other’

In therapy, I tell this story to lighten the fear every stepparent seems to share: My stepchild hates me and his or her life would be happier without me. Add to that fear that some biological parents don’t remember their own teen years. Parents who feel guilty about a divorce—and who also do not remember how normal it is for teenagers to find parents old fashioned and unfair—oftentimes find themselves impaired, unable to guide their stepchildren through this rocky time in the children’s development.

Exasperated stepparents need to know that their stories about disrespectful, eye-rolling teenagers are similar to those told by biological parents. Unfortunately, many times stepparents do not have the benefit of the perspective held by a biological parent, that this is a temporary state of shrinking brain with a side of excessive hormones (enough to scare anyone silly). They also do not have the memory of the adorable child who clung to them and told them they were the best mom or dad in the whole world.

It can be hard for an adult to regulate hurt feelings when that adult does not have a sense of self and security. And, if that adult does not have the active, loving support of a spouse who understands the normal healthy patterns enough to see this stage through, then the risk of another divorce is high.

Patience and determination to survive the Tooth Fairy’s tantrums are critical. But even more important is this: The biological parent and the stepparent must not undermine each other; rather, they need to communicate how they will support each other’s efforts in guiding their teenager through this tumultuous time—when the teen is discovering how to be accepted and successful in the world at large.

Keep in mind that being accepted by parents in general and bonding with a new stepparent is not the teenager’s main developmental task. Instead, the teen is focusing on whether he or she can succeed in the world outside the home. Whatever anxiety and fear this focus elicits, there is no excuse for poor behavior inside the home. It is not acceptable for teenagers to act in a way that would elicit social rejection outside the home. Parents and stepparents alike must remember that teenagers are still with parents because they are learning the incredibly complex and complicated social skills needed to succeed in life. They need a safe place in which to practice these skills, and fail, at times. That place is called home.

Biological parents who passively accept horrible behavior because they fear rejection and anger from the child, or they view the child as “damaged” because of a divorce, harm everyone. When they blame the stepparent for the child’s behavior, they infantilize the child and are not succeeding at their task of raising people to be confident, successful, happy, and relational adults. When stepparents can’t tolerate the normal range of emotional turmoil and take a child’s flashes of rejection and anger as a personal assault, they harm not only the child, but the marriage and the family.

Stay Focused

Avoiding dating until the teenager is out of the house is not a good role model for teens. Rather, it flip-flops the parent–teen relationship, putting the teenager in the role of controlling and restricting the social life of family members, and may leave children whose only memory of marriage was the hostility and disruption of the pre-divorce family. No wonder so many children from this kind of pattern don’t want to marry at all.

Discipline involves discipleship; children learn about relationships from example—not avoidance.

Parents: Proceed with caution and love, and strengthen your ability to self sooth, to communicate with your spouse, and to keep focused on the goal of raising a child to be a mature, confident adult. In the process, you may find you have also grown into a new level of calm maturity, and your relationship may become deeper and stronger as a result.

Eleanor Spackman Alden, LCSW, BSD, is psychotherapist who, for more than 40 years, has helped stepfamilies and those going through divorce navigate painful or difficult transitions. Author of StepWisdom: Knowledge From the Ages for Successful Stepfamilies (Wheatmark), one of her main interests is changing the paradigm about how our culture views stepfamilies. You can read more about Eleanor, who resides southwest of Denver, Colorado, at

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