Living in a stepfamily: Advice for teensWritten by Ron L. Deal
What's inside this article
Life changes often come without warning. Whether it’s the loss of a loved one or the change in family structure, these changes cause ripple effects throughout generations. Specifically, living in a stepfamily presents challenges for our emotions and decision making. However, you’re not alone in these difficult situations.
Living in a stepfamily in the Bible
Think about it: Jesus was raised by a stepdad. Certainly the circumstances surrounding his birth were – well – extraordinary. Being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin certainly places his “stepfamily” situation in a category of its own. Yet, when you stop to think about it, the God of the universe allowed his one and only Son to be raised by someone who wasn’t his “biological” father.
My point: You are not alone.
As a matter of fact, most of the major characters of the Old Testament were raised in homes with parent and step-parent combinations. Some of these came about when a parent married following the death of his or her first mate, but most occurred when their father married more than one woman.
In today’s society a person is divorced or widowed between each marriage; back then, the father married multiple wives and had children by each. Still, while the circumstances of your parents’ marriage differs somewhat, my guess is that you and the biblical characters of old share some of the same confusing emotions and dilemmas.
Or maybe you can relate to Joseph, who eventually became a great leader and saved the Hebrew people from a terrible famine, but whose childhood was anything but idyllic. Before his brothers cast Joseph into a well and sold him into slavery, can you imagine how they looked at him at dinnertime or how he felt when they mumbled things about him behind his back? Can you imagine how he felt when all contact with his family was cut off and all he had were memories of his father and mother?
Maybe you can.
Living in a stepfamily – Life in a blender
You see, life in a blended family – it may sometimes feel like life in a blender – can be tough and confusing. But let’s not forget that it can be fantastic, rewarding and a blessing too. Talk about a roller coaster – how do you deal with that?
A lesson from living in a stepfamily
I worked as a counsellor with Rachel and her family three years after her father’s sudden death. She will never forget what seemed like an ordinary Saturday – ordinary, that is, until a sudden heart attack killed her father. Everything changed. At the age of 16, Rachel’s world came to a halt.
A few years later, Rachel came back to counselling. “I don’t know why I’m here,” she said. “My mom and brother tell me I’m irritable and a pain to live with right now, and I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t figure it out.”
It only took us about 10 minutes to get to the bottom of it. Her mother, after a period of grieving, had begun to date again. Rachel felt, among other things, two distinct things: hope and sadness – at the same time. She felt hope because she and her mother had begun to laugh again. The man her mother was dating, Larry, was a healthy Christian man who was enjoyable to be around. Rachel couldn’t deny that Larry had made her mother feel good again. It was nice to see her smile. Even more, Rachel felt happy around Larry and found herself laughing again, too. She had gone for so long without being able to enjoy life, and now there was hope again.
But that was the problem.
You see, being with Larry awakened the pain of missing her father. It felt as though moving on with Larry as a family meant burying Dad all over again – and that brought back a profound sense of sadness she didn’t know what to do with. So there she sat in my office wondering how not to be a pain to others, especially those she loved, and how to make sense of her confusing emotions.
Confusing blender emotions
Maybe you’re confused too. In fact, maybe you feel a little creamed by the blender these days. If so, let’s talk about the emotions and common dilemmas that come with life in a blender.
Emotions are neither right nor wrong; they just are. However, what we do with our emotions matters a great deal. For example, James, the half-brother of Jesus, admonishes each of us to be “slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19-20). It’s not anger itself that is sinful; it’s what we do with it that can become destructive.
Confusing emotions can lead to sinful and hurtful behaviour, in part because we aren’t sure what to make of them. Understanding what you feel and why you feel it is important to making healthy and wise choices. There are, of course, many emotions you may feel. Let’s talk about what I call “The Big Five” for teens in a blender:
Loss and sadness
If you live in a stepfamily, you’ve experienced many losses. If a parent died, you must wrestle with moving ahead through life without him or her. Also, if your parents divorced, you’ve lost a unified, connected family. Your identity has been torn in two, and frequently you may feel stuck in the middle, never quite able to fully enjoy either household. And no matter whether death or divorce has occurred, you may have lost confidence that God is watching out for you. “Otherwise,” you might ask, “why did he allow this to happen to me?”
Loss hurts. It makes you realize how fragile life can be and brings a profound sense of sadness. Expressing that sadness isn’t always easy, either. Especially when you’re trying not to remind others of their sadness or you don’t want to make a parent feel guilty for the hurts of the past. If you’re not careful, you end up stuffing your sadness deeper and deeper until, of course, it spews up and out in the form of disrespect, disobedience or a lousy attitude.
But there’s more, as you already know. The loss of the past is not all there is. Your parent’s new marriage brings loss, too. No doubt, the new marriage brings a significant amount of loss. And loss makes you sad. Again.
Anytime we experience loss, it makes us fearful of more loss. John, age 17, knows what this feels like. Two years into his mom’s remarriage he could still say, “I’m afraid of getting close to anyone. I’m not very trusting. With all I’ve had to live through, I keep waiting for it to happen all over again; the constant blaming and getting stuck in the middle. And I won’t let it happen again.”
And then there was 14-year-old Randy, their younger brother: “I try to get closer sometimes, but then the fear happens, and I hide out from doing things with Frank [his stepdad] and keep farther apart from him than I should. . . . I want to get close, but not too close, for fear of something that might happen in the future.”
The bottom line: Fear can prevent you from trusting again or allowing someone new, like a step-parent, into your heart. The only thing that seems to make sense when fear gets hold of you is to shut people out and withhold yourself from them. John did that by developing a tough exterior; his brother Randy pulled back and didn’t let himself get close to his stepdad.
“But I didn’t cause the divorce (or death). What do I have to feel guilty about?” Good question. Yet many teens I talk with say the very opposite. They do feel guilt – and lots of it.
For some it has to do with the past. The magical thinking of younger children sometimes leads them to make hasty conclusions about why something tragic has happened. Tracy believed she caused her parents’ divorce because she has ADHD. As an eight-year-old, she overheard them arguing just days before her father walked out about whether to medicate her, so she assumed that she caused the divorce. Of course, that wasn’t the case. Her parents’ inability to resolve conflict was part of the problem leading to their divorce.
Now, at the age of 14, Tracy still struggles with a lingering sense of guilt about her parents’ divorce. Her father has since remarried, and Tracy has worked hard at not accepting her stepmother. Why? Because she hopes she can make up for causing the divorce by splitting up her dad and stepmom so that her biological parents can remarry. Pretty far-fetched, huh? Not to Tracy.
The bottom line: What Tracy needs to remember is that she really doesn’t have the power to fix her parents or their marriage. Tracy didn’t cause the divorce, and she doesn’t need to take responsibility to reconcile her parents now. That’s their job – to be responsible for themselves.
Give yourself permission to value, even love, the members of both households and release the burden of taking care of the adults in your life. Just be the person God has asked you to be, and you’ll find you can release unnecessary guilt.
Have you ever felt happy and sad about your stepfamily, all at the same time? Perhaps you feel hopeful about a new family future and the good things that your stepfamily brings to your life, but you also regret that you couldn’t share it with both your parents (and siblings) as a unified family. If so, you’re not alone.
Michael was a precocious five-year-old. Blurting out the following to his stepmother wasn’t out of character, but the truthfulness of his confusion did catch her off guard: “Can I love you when I’m here at Dad’s house . . . and hate you when I’m at my mom’s house?” No, he wasn’t being manipulative. He was expressing his confusion. At the ripe old age of five, he had figured out that in order to take care of his mom, he needed to “hate” his stepmother. However, he really enjoyed her and wanted a loving relationship. He just couldn’t figure out how to love her and hate her all at the same time.
The bottom line: There are good things about your new family and bad things that, if it were up to you, you would change in a heartbeat. The first trick to working through confusing emotions is to give yourself permission to feel all of them at the same time. Being drawn toward a step-parent is real, but so is the fear that you’ll hurt your biological parent if he sees you hugging your step-parent. You can’t escape either emotion. Acknowledge these feelings and then make the choice to live with the situation and make the best of it. Accepting the reality of your situation doesn’t mean you approve of it or like it. You’re just finding a way to cope with it. And with God’s help, you can.
Coping with the big five
There are, of course, many other emotions that you might experience in your stepfamily, but those are some of the biggies. So what do you do about them? Whatever you do, don’t bury them. As I said earlier, these emotions will seep out one way or another; if you bury them they tend to find a way out through negative behaviour.
Instead, find a trusted friend, youth minister or counsellor to process them with. You might talk with a parent about them, but that can be weird, especially when you’re talking about feeling stuck between your parents. Everyone just ends up feeling helpless, and you might feel more guilty that you made your parent feel bad for you. See how complicated this gets? Find someone neutral, preferably an adult who can just listen and help you make sense of this stuff.
Finally, ask God for the wisdom to handle your emotions better. If you are a child of God, then no matter how chaotic things are around you, God promises to offer wisdom as you mature through trials (see James 1:2-5). Attempt to respond to your situation with the Fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). You’ll find yourself feeling better about what you contribute to your home.
Common blender dilemmas
Now that we’ve addressed how you feel, let’s talk about what you do when you find yourself in a dilemma. Teens living in stepfamilies often experience a number of them. Let’s briefly address a few so you feel empowered to cope.
1. Accepting your step-parent
Most of the time when someone asks me, “Why should I accept my step-parent?” what she’s really asking is, “How can I love my step-parent when I don’t want to? I’ve already got two parents.” Well, here’s the secret: You don’t have to have loving feelings toward your step-parent, but you do have to love him. Just find a way to get along.
No one is asking you to replace your dad with your stepdad; just look at him as another adult who is worthy of the same respect any adult is worthy to receive. That’s where you start. Some teens will grow beyond that to have a deep regard for their step-parent. If that’s you, great. But don’t feel pressured to.
“But, Ron, accepting my step-parent means my parents will never get back together again.” That’s your sadness talking. Remember, you don’t have the power to reconcile their marriage (as if hating your step-parent could make everything okay). Find your way to acceptance and you’ll find that you don’t feel as much confusion, sadness or anger. Doesn’t that sound nice?
2. Accepting authority from your step-parent
Derrick made life difficult for his stepmother. It was his way of letting her know that his loyalties lay with his mom. The only problem was that Derrick had to be a pain in the neck all the time, and he got tired of being everyone’s enemy. Rejecting a step-parent certainly has its downside.
“But my step-parent isn’t my parent.” You’re right. Your step-parent is not your parent. But neither is your track coach, your algebra teacher or your youth leader’s wife, yet you respect them enough to grant them some authority in your life. Apply this same standard to your step-parent and you’ll find it doesn’t have to be a competition of loyalty. Think of your step-parent as just another authority in your life; don’t make it any harder than that. When you respect his or her position as an “adult leader,” everyone will get along a little easier.
3. Finding truth when parental values conflict
Every home has different rules for bedtime and chores. But when one home believes strongly in a Christian world view and the other doesn’t, life can get very complicated. So you have to find your own convictions even when they aren’t popular with one parent. Susan’s mom attended church occasionally and could tell you the right answers to most religious questions.
But when she suggested that Susan lie to her teacher in order to escape punishment for a late assignment, Susan politely disagreed. “Mom, I just don’t think that’s the right thing to do. I appreciate your input, but I’m going to tell the truth, even if it means getting in trouble.” Wow! What courage that took. Susan’s mother called her a “Goody Two-shoes” and sent her to school. Susan’s Christ-centred convictions came at a price; yours might, too. Just remember that the God who sees in private will reward you (Matthew 6:4).
4. Understanding your parent’s commitment to his or her new spouse
“How can my mom love him more than us? Shouldn’t we come first?” Natasha’s question revealed her sadness on many levels. Her father had died six years before her mom’s remarriage. She, her two brothers and her mom survived that great loss together, but now Mom was deeply in love with Randy, and it felt again like Natasha was losing a parent. That familiar feeling of loss often makes children and teens battle for their parent’s loyalty. But you don’t have to. Marriage does mean having to share your parent, but it doesn’t mean losing him or her altogether.
God’s wisdom for families is that husbands and wives put a priority on their relationship so they can lead the family from a position of unity. After you were the focus of attention in a single-parent home for a few years, having your parent move his or her new spouse into a place of priority undoubtedly feels like another loss – and, in a sense, it is. But let me invite you to trust in God’s design.
When your parent and step-parent bond, your family will experience stability. The result is a positive, loving environment for you and your siblings that actually allows you to have more of your parent, not less. In the beginning, their marriage may make you uneasy; trust that with time it will make you feel stability and love.
Loving out of choice while living in a stepfamily
After being sold into slavery, falsely accused of sexual misconduct, thrown into jail and forgotten, Joseph was eventually elevated to the second highest leader in Egypt. And when his brothers – the very ones who had rejected him out of jealousy and sabotaged his life – came to Egypt for help, Joseph showed them mercy and love. He could have made a list of his losses and taken revenge for each one of them, but instead he chose love (see Genesis 45:3-7).
Interacting with people living in stepfamilies has taught me many things through the years. One of the most powerful is that we can choose love even when we didn’t ask for our circumstances. Joseph found a way, and you can too.
- Look for ways to respect your step-parent.
- Find ways to be considerate to those living in your house.
- Strive to forgive others who themselves may be struggling to accept the family.
- Find a measure of love to give to everyone. It might be loving respectfully as a “friend,” nurturing like an older “sister,” deeply like a “son” or at a distance like a “stepchild-in-law.” Whatever the case, love somehow. You won’t regret it.
Ron L. Deal is president of Successful Stepfamilies, director of FamilyLife Blended and author of The Smart Stepfamily.
© 2007 Ron Deal. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Published at FocusOnTheFamily.com.
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