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The Changing Landscape of Stepparenting Through the Teen Years

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The way I “stepmom” has definitely changed in the past nine years.

Some of those changes are purely from becoming more comfortable in my role, or found my stride in some things. Others have certainly come about as the needs of my stepkids changed as they entered their teenage years.

I’ve amassed a few pointers of what has worked for me, but before I jump to those I think a quick understanding of our family dynamic and my involvement is critical.


When I first met my stepkids nine years ago, they were eight, seven, seven, and five years old. I arrived a year or so after their parents divorced, and they already had a stepdad in the picture.

Their dad and I took the beginning of our relationship slowly, and after two years I moved in with them all.

Their mom and dad are both involved and dependable in their lives, and while that has been a benefit for the kids, it has sometimes made finding my role a bit trickier.

For example, I do (or, did) attend Back to School nights, and happily wrote letters back to my stepkids at their tiny elementary school desks with their dad.  But I do not attend parent-teacher conferences, because it feels like having two parents there, who cooperate and communicate well is enough.

When there have been issues or concerns, I have always talked things through with my husband first, to make sure we are on the same page.  And, then I trust him to represent our view as best he can with his ex-wife or the teachers

The Early Years of My Stepmom Role

With the kids, I began as kind of a full on parent. 

I disciplined when they were younger. Their dad and I would present the rules of the house together, usually along with the beginning of the school year or after Christmas break we’d revisit what we thought the expectations should be. And, I would correct them when they’d done something wrong or out of line.

In those early days, when the kids were young, I can remember times when my patience (and skin) were thin, and I probably could have done several things differently. I learned quickly how to take a break, and then apologize for my mistakes.

While I jumped in early to help enforce and set rules in our own house, I still wonder if that was the “right” thing to do. It felt important that I become an adult who was seen with the same “authority” as their parents. 

I still do agree with that. But as the kids have grown, and as I have established my place in our family, the arenas of my “authority” have changed as well. 

Here are a few ways I’m navigating that.

Changing Into Teenagers

Do you remember what it’s like to be a teen? Honestly, I have trouble sometimes!

I can remember my situations and experiences. I have trouble getting myself fully into the mindset, though.

I know that there were a lot of thoughts going on in my head, and I was not always forthcoming with them.

I know that I was struggling to balance living up to what I thought my parents wanted me to be, trying to live up to a person that was “cool” enough to make and keep friends, and also to try to figure out what my own goals were and how to achieve them.

It’s a confusing time. Not to mention, our bodies and hormones are going crazy!

I remember it being a time when my friends kind of took precedence over my parents. I prioritized time spent with friends, and family obligations felt like a drag. 

I think this is a healthy transition in a teenager’s life, away from the bounds of parents and toward a more independent life of finding peers who add benefit and support to your life. 

It has been important to keep this in mind, especially for me as a stepmom. The act of my stepchildren stepping away from me, secluding themselves more, likely has very little to do with me.

Just like how not every single mood of my own revolves around them, not every single mood of theirs revolves around me.  In fact, more likely than not, their moods are not at all driven by me as I have become lower on their totem pole of importance.

Four Parents

How many parents did you want as a teen? I bet your answer is not anything higher than two. It might even be zero. 

I had two loving parents, and I love them both the same*. I can remember all throughout my teenage years I basically only told my Mom things, and I assumed she told my Dad. I wasn’t trying to keep things from my Dad, but it felt like the worst thing in the world to have to repeat myself for an extra parent. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to do it three or four times! 

I think most kids probably have a parent that they feel “closer” to, which also has nothing to do with how much they love you.  I love my Dad very much, just as much as my Mom, but my Mom is a girl and I think that’s why she got more of my gossip.

The reality for my stepkids is that they have four parents, which is a lot.  They have two houses. And, while we cooperate well, as they’ve gotten older the kids have realized that our communication between houses has changed (more on this later). They are already repeating some of their things to multiple parents. 

Are they really going to go out of their way to tell FOUR parents all the inner workings of their mind? Nope – not my kids at least!

Your house may be different, and your kids may be different, but out of my four stepkids, I am almost no one’s parent that they tell their things to. By “things,” I don’t mean their logistical needs, or that they ignore me completely. We still talk and have fun and have good close relationships. 

I’m just not my stepkids’ go-to when they are ready to unload the thoughts they have in their head. And, that’s fine! 

It has been important to me to remember that because of this, I may not always know the full story anymore.  At 16, they are no longer the open books that they were at eight years old.

It sounds straightforward, but it happens slowly and it takes some getting used to that “what you see” is no longer “what you get”.

*I love my parents “the same,” but each in their own ways. Just like each child brings a different personality to your relationship, I think it’s a misnomer to think you love your parents “the same” because they are different. However, loving them differently doesn’t necessarily have to mean you love one more than the other (or more importantly, that you love one less). Love is different between different people, but it doesn’t mean it’s less important. As stepmoms we spend so much time defending that it’s okay that we love our stepkids differently than biological kids, but it is not LESS. It’s a hard mental transition to think of it coming in the other direction. They love me differently than their Mom and Dad, but it doesn’t have to mean LESS.

Getting All The Pieces

While I used to be front and center in the parenting department when the kids were younger, as they have become teenagers and retreated more inside themselves, and more towards their friends, I have also tried to retreat a little from the limelight of rules and discipline. 

That does not mean I let them run amok, or don’t care or supervise at all. I do!  I think my stepmom spidey-sense is turned up a little too high sometimes, as I can get hyper-observant. 

But, I try to hold that in until I can chat alone with my husband. Sometimes he knows pieces of information that I don’t, making what I saw not a big deal.

For example, I still work from home some days, and my older stepkids are allowed to come home from school for lunch. One day, one of them didn’t leave to go back to school after lunch. My first instinct was to run downstairs and yell at him that he had to get to school.

Instead, thankfully, I texted my husband and said, “Stepson didn’t head back after lunch, do you know what might be up?” And, my husband informed me that he had already talked to him and his afternoon class had a substitute and they had an online assignment and he was going to stay home to do it. 

Phew, glad I checked and that I didn’t go in their guns blazing (as was my gut reaction)!

My gut reactions are not always the best in this phase of teenager-dom.  I think some of that stems a little from my fear of doing the wrong thing for someone else’s child. I very much care about these kids and I want them to grow up to be healthy, smart, independent, happy, successful adults.

I hold a lot of fear that I might overlook something and miss some signs that they need more help than they are getting. 

I think this is made worse knowing that coming and going between two houses likely means that none of us really has a complete picture of what is going on. So, I’m always watching, and always wanting them to make good choices that will serve them well. 

As such, my gut reaction is often to go in guns blazing, and lay down the law for the teens who are trying to walk all over their parents. 

I have had to work hard to suppress this gut reaction, and come up with a secondary action that doesn’t always feel natural to me.

Learning To Wait

This is why I wait. 

I wait to parent until I’ve talked to their Dad. Or, if I need more information at the moment, I remind myself that I might not know the whole story, and ask them for it. 

In the scenario above with my stepson who didn’t go back to class, he was down in his bedroom and I did not come face to face with him. Had I run into him on his way up to the kitchen or couldn’t get ahold of his dad, I wouldn’t have ignored him or the situation.

While I may have wanted to say, “YOU ARE LATE! GET TO SCHOOL!” I would have actually taken a deep breath, tried to put on a smile and ask, “Hey, are you okay? Do you not have class this afternoon?” I’m told by teenagers that this is a much more approachable way to interact. 

In this case, I didn’t assume and jump to a bad conclusion, I just asked for more information. To play this out further, there’s probably almost nothing he could have said that would have resulted in me “forcing” him to go back to school.  He likely would have told me that he had a sub and an online assignment and was going to do it from home. 

But, even if he had said, “I’m fine, just don’t feel like going to school” I would have likely responded with, “Hm, I think you should go, but we can talk to Dad about it later”.  And, then I would have let my husband know what happened, and asked him how we should handle it.  

I try to always be equipped with an appropriate reaction when needed.

I don’t want to run in guns blazing and make a bad situation worse. I want to diffuse the situation, and this built-in break until we can all discuss helps to do just that.

Communication Changes With My Husband

In this role where I step back to wait for parenting until I’ve talked to their dad, I also find myself “parenting” him more than them. 

When I see something wrong, I let him know what happened, but I also let it be known what I think we should do about it, what I think the expectations should be, and what the consequences are. We have that discussion together. 

But, at the end of the discussion, if we are still not in agreement then I do let the discussion rest on him

It’s partly because they are “his” kids, but also because if this is not an important ideal to him, I don’t think it needs to become more work or effort for me to “enforce” something that he doesn’t see as a problem

Sticking with the example from before, if he doesn’t see it as a problem that his kids decide not to go back to school on some days, then I usually let it play out.

In this case, I would still keep my eye on it; is this happening everyday, rarely, only on days with a sub? Is it causing grades to slip, other responsibilities to be treated lightly?

If I see it causing more problems, rather than bring that up to our kids, I would bring that up to my husband. I let him know what I think is going on, and why, and then we discuss that and see if any changes should be made. 

A lot of times, he’s right and giving them a little leeway is better. But, sometimes, I am right and the leeway is being taken advantage of, or causing other unpredicted consequences. These are discussions we have between us, without the kids, until we decide how to handle it with the kids. 

No Nag Zone

There is nothing that teenagers hate more than a nag. So, I refuse to nag them.  I remind them, “Don’t forget to turn in this form that you need.”  And then I tell my husband, “Stepdaughter needs to turn in her permission slip. I gave it to her, can you please make sure it has been done?” 

Now I’ve given him the responsibility to check in with her about it, because he’s the parent she likes to tell things to. I will most certainly follow up with him, and remind him to remind her, and make sure it gets done. 

I try and stay away from nagging the kids. It doesn’t do our relationship any favors.

I can already hear some of the stepmoms who think this sounds awful. That my stepkids should be respectful and responsive to me if I were to tell them something, and that they shouldn’t have to go through their partners to parent. And, I agree, mostly. 

I am not doing this because I have to, or because they won’t listen to me, or because I have no control. I am choosing to give them one less parent to be parented by.  I am choosing to build in some space between actions and reactions.

I am choosing the things that are beneficial to my relationship with my teenage stepchildren over the things that may hurt it.

Communication Changes Between Houses

We were never a house that cared which clothes went to which house, or which toys stayed where. But, this type of control or concern is basically nullified once the kids are teenagers.  All of their stuff is just theirs and they can take it wherever they want. 

That said, they also then have the responsibility to deal with the consequences of not having it. 

Left your lunch box at <om’s? Here’s a paper bag for lunch. 

Forgot your coat yesterday because it was warm when you left Dad’s house? Find a sweatshirt! 

But other times, I need to offer a reminder. Maybe we are getting ready for a trip and need to pack bathing suits. I’ll remind them to grab their favorite suit if it’s at Mom’s house. 

So much of this type of coordination now is handled through the kids. It’s freeing, really!

A lot of other planning happens more between the kids and the adults.  Now that most of our stepkids can drive, they get themselves back and forth between houses.  Which, for us, is fantastic because we live 40 minutes apart. 

It does also mean that they come and go a little more on their own. We are sometimes coordinating less with their mom about the schedule, and more with them about their plans. 

We of course still coordinate with their mom broadly about the custody schedule, but we have some flexibility in there for the kids’ needs and their activities. 

We know when their mom will be out of town and she needs them to stay with us, or vice versa, but sometimes the day-to-day is more left up to who has a sports practice near our house, or who has a tutor coming to Mom’s.

In our family, the things that we need to communicate more of, are the issues we are seeing and how we can support our kids in both places. 

When my stepdaughter was struggling with homework, we touched base with her mom to make sure we could all be on the same page with how to handle it. If there were larger issues, with substance abuse or things that require both houses to be “on the lookout” for signs of a problem, we’d definitely communicate about those.

I know everyone’s relationship with the other house is different, and often strained, but thinking of it as just a means to share all the tidbits of information (and not a judgment on who is parenting better or worse) has been helpful.

It Goes Fast

If all of this sounds like a drag, trust me, it’s not! I’ve had the most fun with my teenage stepkids, watching them take the lead on things that we used to have to direct for them. 

Laughing with them at things that are more funny and meaningful than they were when they were little.  Going new places, where we no longer have to corral kids and be constant entertainers. 

I still often try and make them laugh with a little eye-roll at how cringe I can be! I make fart jokes that they refuse to laugh at, and then remind them that it’s their fault for forcing me to laugh at them when they thought farts were funny for so many years!

My stepkids are fun, lovely, often self-involved, normal teenagers! 

It’s a trip, and somedays a balancing act.  But, the life milestones come fast and furious, and then….they’re gone.

My oldest stepson, who was eight when I met him, will graduate high school this year.  He’s already enrolled in college for the fall, and we’ll be moving him into the dorm this summer. 

The twins, who were in second grade when I first knew them, have learned to drive and are two-sport athletes in their high school. 

My stepdaughter, who was a 5-year old spitfire when I met her, is a drama-filled angsty 14 year old now, who will be starting high school next year, with only two of her older brothers still living at home. 

Over the years, as we turn over responsibilities to our kids, we get some space to have a bit more fun with them, too! 

It’s a wild ride, but I am so glad they’re taking me along for it!

P.S. Want some extra guidance on bonding with your stepkids? Check out these tips!

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