I'm a step-father to three kids (two sons, ages 8 and 13, and a daughter, age 11). (My wife and I had been married a year and a half. They live with us and visit their father and step-mother every other weekend.) I thought once the newness of our marriage wore off that the kids would warm up to me, but it's been rough. The little one likes to play, but my older step-kids are often cold and resent any attempts I offer in discipline. I love my wife and I love these kids, but I'm about to burn out. What am I doing wrong?
You may not be doing anything wrong. It makes sense that the younger one seems to be warming up more quickly than the older ones. Parenting adolescents is one of the most difficult, challenging and confusing seasons of parenting. They are in the process of becoming adults, deciding who they are, what they think and trying to make sense of what they feel. This isn’t an easy time. We know many adults who are still working on those issues.
The transition from adolescence to young adult is made even more difficult when your parents have divorced and you are not only adjusting to the trauma of that reality but also being forced to relate to a “new” step dad and step mom who want you to welcome them and trust them. Many adolescents struggle with trusting and opening up to their biological parents let alone a stranger who has invaded their world essentially taking the place of one of their natural parents.
Where do you start? That’s simple. The best start is to renew your commitment to love and reflect the Lord in all that you do. Be a man of prayer who prays for his wife and kids several times a day. Be a man of the word and a man who has some other men he can meet with, pray with and bounce things off of especially when you are confused and frustrated. Be aware of your own emotions and don’t let your frustration and disappointment turn into an unhealthy anger that will send the immediate message that you aren’t a “safe” person and thus not a trustworthy person.
Love their mother well and faithfully. Be a daily example of I Corinthians 13 to them. Loving them will not be about discipline, it will be about gaining their trust. Don’t demand or expect, but rather take time to discover who they are. What are their individual passions and interests? What brings them joy? What makes them laugh? Watch them, study them, and connect with them. Be on the lookout for times when they are at their softest since these often are the times of greatest opportunity.
One-on-one activities is one of the best ways to connect with them. Are there any hobbies or special interest activities you can share with them? Write them notes, tell them you don’t know what they are going through but that you know it isn’t easy for them and you are interested in getting to know who they are. Let them know that someday you hope they can trust you—at least as a friend.
Take the time to learn about adolescents. One of our favorite books is The DNA of Parent-Teen Relationships by Greg and Gary Smalley. This little book is a gold mine of biblically-based practical information that you will find helpful and encouraging. Know that they won’t change overnight but they are much more likely to change as they see consistency and kindness in you.