Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Dear Carolyn: I have been with my partner and her two children, 13 and 11, for three years. We recently bought a house together. The 13-year-old daughter has been at odds about my relationship with her mother since the beginning. The 11-year-old son and I have a pretty good relationship. He recently traveled with me, and my extended family enjoyed him.
I am making an effort to be patient with the daughter. She says I annoy her, and when I ask for examples, she will say I laugh too loud or I chew with my mouth open. I have worked on chewing with my mouth closed and laughing less loudly.
My partner would like me to take a more active role in parenting her daughter, however I am reluctant because setting limits or making reasonable requests is usually met with indifference or hostility. I have attended family counseling in an effort to resolve the problem. Do you have any suggestions? I am committed to making this work for all of us.
Dear Stepparent: My main suggestion is to say, welcome to the magical world of living with a 13-year-old.
Every parent of a human that age chews wrong, laughs wrong, sets the wrong limits, and makes the wrong requests at least once daily, and is intimately familiar with indifference, hostility, indifferent hostility and hostile indifference.
Being or having a stepparent adds a layer of awkwardness that will require extra delicacy, but otherwise it is the job of the 13-year-old (or thereabouts) to start to differentiate and stand apart from family, and as important and healthy as this transition is overall, it’s no bag of giggles when you’re in it.
So my suggestions are on a few fronts: (1) Talk to your partner about limits you both agree on and want to set consistently. Have a light touch. (2) Recede into the background where you can. All parents need to do this when kids hit this age anyway, to be where they can find you if needed but otherwise out of the way. Save intervention for the few areas of agreed upon limits. Otherwise, reach for humor. “OK, I’ll drink my lunch from now on.” (3) Play the long game. If you don’t demand to be loved today, there’s a better chance you’ll be appreciated tomorrow. Focus on listening. (4) Be the mature one. Make sure the kids have a safe and healthy home environment, and worry about the details later.
You sound invested, good for you. Be patient for it to pay off.
For Stepparent: I’m a stepparent of two teenagers. I didn’t agree with everything discussed, but “Parenting Teens with Love and Logic” really helped me understand that behavior I thought was aimed at me was really pretty typical for most teenagers. It helped me to avoid taking things personally, and gave me guidance for how to proceed. Also, it helped me have more empathy for the kids, who are trying to figure out the growing-up thing as well as the divorced-parent thing and the stepparent thing. It’s not easy on anyone. Good luck and hang in there.
Dear Anonymous: “Avoid taking things personally” should be the guiding light of anyone in this position. And most positions. Thanks.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.