Teenagers generally are the toughest audience for a stepparent or foster parent. Younger children are at a developmental stage where they are more likely to want a relationship with you and will accept you more readily. Teenagers, on the other hand, are more set in their ways and less likely to want a new adult in their lives. They are dealing with a lot of changes already, and adding you to the family can be just one too many things to deal with.
Most of my parenting experience has been with teens and preteens, and they have taught me a few inescapable principles.
The Aliens Will Return Their Brains
A lot of what you (and they) are going through is developmentally normal. Teenagers withdraw from even their biological parents as they go through puberty. They want to spend more time with their friends and less with adults. Most of my teens, even the ones with whom I had great relationships, became cave-dwelling mammals, leaving their rooms only to forage for food.
Don’t take any of this personally. It’s all part of their growing up. They are supposed to be learning how to be independent, and their separating emotionally from the family is part of that process. Unfortunately, that development is never a straight line. They don’t learn logically, and certainly not from anything that we tell them. They have to learn by trial and error, and we have to remember that it can be as hard for them as it is for us.
Another thing that’s happening is that their brains are still developing. According to most studies, the parts of their brains that are responsible for impulse control and long-term planning don’t fully develop until their mid-twenties. Until then, they tend to do more reacting than thinking.
So we have to be more patient and wait for them to grow up. It’s not easy, particularly since we have to keep them safe in the meantime. But there’s no way for us to speed up the process.
Give the Relationship Time
It’s easy for us to want our kids to accept us and to try to do things that make them happy. None of those fun things, however, will make them accept us any sooner. Along with waiting for them to grow up, we have to give the relationship time to mature. Children who have suffered loss and trauma tend to be suspicious of what adults say. No matter how many promises we make, they aren’t likely to believe us until they watch us for a while.
When I first married, my stepsons were pleasant and respectful, but reserved. I could tell that they weren’t sure how long I would be around, and they didn’t want to invest much in a relationship with me if I was not going to be in their lives long-term. A few years ago, I asked one of my sons when he quit worrying about our marriage breaking up. He thought for a minute and said, “You’re still here.”
Solid relationships require trust, and teenagers don’t trust adults easily. Nothing you can say will change that dynamic. The only way to build a relationship is to give it time and let your teens see you put your words into action.
Don’t Apologize for Being in Their Family
It is easy to feel slightly guilty about being in a stepchild’s or foster child’s life. They have suffered trauma to one degree or another. In most cases, if the world worked the way it should, they wouldn’t know us. But even though we aren’t supposed to be there, never apologize for being there. We are in their lives for good reasons, and we have a good job to do. Be there, be consistent, and wait for good things to happen.