What Is Your Role with a Child Between Twelve and Eighteen?
Your role with a child between twelve and eighteen years of age may change like the wind. Teenagers are a fickle bunch; your stepchild may decide he hates you at breakfast, and can't talk to anyone but you at lunch. Be ready to ride these ups and downs for the entire span. There will be some calms in the storm, but the next storm will always be right around the corner. With this age group, your role may feel rather unsettled. But enjoy it, really enjoy it. This may be the time you have the most opportunity to really mentor your stepchild. You have been modeling behaviors in previous years and teaching your stepchild by staying aware of your own actions. This is the time to take on your mentoring role with great gusto. It is such a great and fun time.
So what is your role now? You will continue to model appropriate behavior, and to maintain a safe and healthy home through your own consistent patterns. This is a very important time to maintain consistency. Teenagers don't feel safe in these years — the temptations of alcohol, drugs, and sex are at the forefront. The best way to help them feel safe and help them make positive choices is to maintain a high level of consistency in rules and discipline. By consistency, don't just think of consequences, but also of rewards. Teenagers have more freedom than they did before and often find themselves in unsupervised situations. These situations can feel overwhelming and frightening to them, and they may make significant mistakes.
One way to alleviate these feelings is to monitor his unsupervised time; try to keep it to a minimum. If your teenager is going to be unsupervised for long periods of time, have someone drop by or check in. Have him call at certain times to tell you what is going on. Unsupervised time in this world is inevitable. Although he will have it, and should have some for his own sanity, how he handles himself during such times will increase or decrease your trust in his decision-making abilities. When he is caught making negative choices, you need to sanction him appropriately. When he makes positive choices, you must reward him just as strongly as you would have disciplined him had he made a poor choice. As hard as it will be to keep track of him, it is critical that you and your partner do so.
You must find a balance between monitoring your teen's time and giving him privacy — privacy is of the utmost importance to most teenagers, and your stepchild deserves it. Allow him time alone, and definitely unsupervised time with other adolescents you trust. This time will be less rocky if you respect your stepchild's need for alone time.
Being Part of the Big Talks
Another important role you may take on is in the difficult-conversation arena. You are far enough removed that your teen may feel more comfortable with you instead of his parent, but close enough that he trusts you and respects you as an adult. Topics of such conversations might include dating, sex, birth control, alcohol and drugs, and genuine frustration with biological parents. Some teenagers are able to talk to their biological parents about these topics without embarrassment. The more open the parent is to having these conversations, the more likely it is that the teenager will feel a level of comfort in asking them certain questions. If the biological parents are somewhat horrified by any of these topics, their teenager will recognize this and avoid bringing up these conversations with them. This is when he may turn to you.
Every teenager needs an adult to talk to them honestly about these topics. If they do not get their information from a safe adult, they are likely to look for it in other areas, such as their peers, older teenagers, the Internet, and television. While some of these sources are fine, and may be quite informative, there is a great deal of misinformation out there that could be avoided if they had these conversations with a safe adult.
What should you do when your stepchild approaches you with one of these topics? Don't become embarrassed and say, “I can't talk to you about that!” You may scare him away from ever asking any embarrassing questions again. If you really don't feel comfortable talking with him about any of these subjects, you could explain that, “I really don't feel comfortable having that conversation with you, but I am so happy that you brought the topic up. It is a topic that you really do need to learn about and the fact that you felt comfortable enough with me to ask about it means a lot. I don't feel like I am an expert in that area, but I would like to connect you with someone who is. Perhaps it would be a good idea to talk with your doctor?”
This handles the conversation in a way that doesn't shame your stepchild, acknowledges the importance of talking about the subject, leads the way to another safe adult with whom to have the conversation, and gets you out of the hot spot. It is extremely important that you don't create a feeling of shame for your stepchild and that he feels he can come to you with sensitive topics. Other potential safe adults might be an aunt or uncle, a school counselor, a school nurse, another parent with whom you and your stepchild are comfortable, or an older cousin or sibling.
In a study done by the Kaiser Family and the Talk Now Foundation, kids whose parents talk to them about difficult issues report talking to their parents 72 percent of the time when they felt pressured to have sex. Only 57 percent of teens whose parents did not speak to them felt comfortable talking about this topic.
If you do decide you are comfortable having this conversation with your stepchild, be sure to remain open to his questions throughout the conversation. If you start to have the conversation and then determine that you are not comfortable, this could make your stepchild feel ashamed about the topic as well, and that there are certain things he shouldn't be asking. This is confusing because he will not know what is appropriate to discuss, and will likely choose not to discuss sensitive topics at all.
The Sex Talk
The sex talk can take on many forms, from, “What is the deal with sex?” to “My best friend had it and I think I should, too.” When their friends start having and talking about sex, they will begin to ask about it and wonder if it is something they should be engaging in. Having adults who talk openly about sex can deter them from having sex too early, and also equip them with correct information about birth control should they decide to have sex. One of the biggest myths about the sex talk is that if you talk to them about it they will have it. This is simply not true. In talking to them about it, you are able to talk to them about the consequences of having sex early, the potential to get pregnant, having a negative reputation, having their heart broken, and never being able to take it back. It can be an eye-opening conversation for teenagers, and a mind-changing one. If they were on the fence, they may think twice and decide to wait. It is such an important conversation to have with them.
A report by Advocates for Youth cites the statistic that 23 percent of thirteen year olds and 30 percent of fourteen year olds have had sexual intercourse. The Kaiser Foundation reports that almost 4 million teenagers a year contract a sexually transmitted disease.
If your stepchild's friends are sexually active, it is more likely that your stepchild will face more peer pressure about the subject, and may have already decided to have sex. This can be a tricky area for you. When you have conversations about this topic, try to avoid saying negative things about his friends who have had sex. If he knows you don't approve of them, he may not want to confide in you about his own concerns.
Another huge issue: Should you tell your partner that his son is thinking about sex? Or do you keep it a secret? Too much secrecy can create a feeling of shame, but not respecting your stepchild's confidentiality can have very negative affects on his ability to open up to you or trust you. So, what do you do? If your partner is horrified by the thought of your stepson having sex and will show it by becoming angry or disappointed in your stepson, you need to frame the conversation a little differently. Any parent may be a bit uncomfortable with the thought of it, so framing your conversation with your stepson as positively as possible is the best way to proceed.
For example, you could say something like, “Sean's friends are getting to the age where sex is coming up in conversations, in the shows they watch, and the movies they see. He asked me a couple of really great questions about sex, and I think it a great sign that he is talking about it instead of just doing it like so many kids his age. I wanted you to know that he is getting to that age where we have to think about that, but also hope that you can put your emotions aside a bit. Instead of getting angry or disappointed in him, be proud that he feels comfortable talking about it. I hope to continue having this kind of conversation with him; it is much safer for teenagers who have someone they feel comfortable talking to. I wouldn't want to ruin that by having him think I am running to you and telling you everything. But I did think it was important that you knew it was on his mind.”
A conversation like this will hopefully help your partner see that this is a good thing, and not something to cause upset. It is understandable that he will have an emotional reaction to it, but hopefully, he will think before he reacts and appreciate the relationship you have built with his son.
Drugs and Alcohol
These are going to be available to your stepchild now more than ever before. It is important to have conversations with your stepchild about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, even if she doesn't approach you with them. You may feel as though you are annoying by reminding your stepdaughter how bad smoking is for her every time she goes out on the weekends, but she will have to hear you if you keep saying it. Soon she may repeat it back to you, which is exactly what you want. You may even say to her, “No smoking, no alcohol, and no drugs. I love you and want you home in one sober piece.” You can say that every single time she goes out if you want. Will it annoy her? Maybe. Will it hurt her? Not at all.
Another important way to prevent drug and alcohol abuse is to watch your own behavior and the behaviors of the other adults around your stepchild. By abstaining or drinking in moderation, you are modeling appropriate behaviors for your stepchild. Coming home drunk, commenting that you need a drink after a tough day, or using illicit drugs are all actions that are not appropriate around a stepchild of any age. If you do take prescription drugs for any reason, be sure you are using them as prescribed and keeping them locked in a safe place. Misusing prescription medications is a form of drug abuse and can set a poor example for your stepchild. If you notice other adults in your stepchild's life setting poor examples, ask them to refrain from these behaviors while around your stepchild.
Boys and girls are both at risk for any drug. There are so many stereotypes, but when it comes to drugs, they don't discriminate. Your stepdaughter may become an alcoholic. Your stepson may become addicted to pills. Just because it doesn't fit the stereotype you are used to, does not mean it doesn't exist.
If you suspect that your stepchild has a problem with drugs or alcohol, you must bring it up to your partner; you need to have a conversation with your stepchild as soon as possible. She may be mad or hate you, but it is her life that you are trying to save. The other biological parent and any other stepparent need to be involved as well. Never keep drug or alcohol use a secret. It is not okay for your stepchild to be using and you to keep it a secret. If she never drinks and happens to come home a little tipsy one night, you absolutely must tell your partner. As soon as you keep a secret like this, you are no longer a safe adult in her life.
Teenagers need to know that you will do everything you can to keep them safe, even if it risks the relationship between the two of you. Your job is to keep this child safe above everything else. If your stepchild comes to you and tells you she is smoking marijuana, you need to take it very seriously, but don't be judgmental about it. When talking to her biological parents about the situation, try to be the person who keeps everyone's judgments to a minimum. You may be very disappointed, and you can tell her that, but don't let her believe you love her any less for her actions or that she can't redeem herself.