Staying in Step with a New Parent

Help for having a happy home when your mom or dad remarries.

“Who does he think he is?”

That question seared through my mind like a hot coal and overshadowed everything else. I had just knelt down by my bed to say my nightly prayers when my new stepfather passed by my bedroom door and saw me kneeling there. He must have been deeply touched by the sight, because he felt impelled to come into my room, kneel down beside me, put his arm around me, and join me in prayer.

I wanted to rip his arm from my shoulders and shove him out the door. I didn’t consider the fact that he was just trying to be nice—making an effort to grow closer to me. At the time I felt like he was intruding on something very private. I’d thought before that he was trying to nose into my real dad’s rightful spot, and that he was coming between my Mom and me. Now it seemed he wanted to horn his way into my relationship with Heavenly Father. “Get out of here!” my mind silently shouted. I knelt there, seething in silence, unable to finish my prayer.

My feelings, although not charitable, were natural and typical of a teenager trying to adjust to a new parent. You would probably be surprised at the number of teenagers who have to make that adjustment. More than a third of the kids in the Church will likely grow up without both their natural parents in the home. They will either live in single-parent families, or will have a stepparent. And when that stepparent moves in, there are major adjustments to be made.

The New Era talked with teenagers in various parts of the United States to find out what helped them adapt to a new parent, and we’re passing that information along to you. Stepbrothers and stepsisters enter in, but for now, we’re focusing on the parent. Chances are that if you’re not currently dealing with this kind of situation, one of your friends is, and maybe this will help you help them.

“You’ve got to have a positive attitude about stepparents and not have this preconceived notion that they’re going to be mean,” says Nathan Black, 16, of Salt Lake City. “The story of Cinderella really didn’t do much for the stepparent image.”

Nancy Taylor, 15, of Richardson, Texas, agrees. “Trust in your natural parent’s judgment. If they thought their new husband or wife would be a bad influence in your home, they wouldn’t have married them. They love you. They don’t want to hurt you.”

As you can probably figure out from Nathan and Nancy’s statements, the first, and probably hardest thing to deal with when a stepparent moves in is the initial adjustment. They’re new to your family. They come from different backgrounds. They have different values, different personal styles, and they even eat different things from what you’re used to. “You don’t have a common past,” says Karis Wold, 17, of Gaithersburg, Maryland. “You don’t have the same experiences to laugh about.”

Then there’s the intrusion factor, and a little jealousy thrown in as well. Almost everyone who has a new parent move into their home feels these things to some degree. “A stepparent takes the place of the real parent in the home, and sometimes you feel resentful of that,” says Teri Black, 17, of Salt Lake City. “When one parent leaves, you become more dependent and closer to the one you’re living with. Then someone else comes along and gets most of their attention, and you feel like your stepparent is taking your real parent away from you.”

Karis and Teri both agree that patience is one of the most important factors in dealing with these initial problems. “You’ve just got to realize that everything is not going to be perfect from the very beginning,” says Karis. “Sometimes you have to put what you want aside and just wait. Perspective is important. You may have troubles now, but you have to realize that they won’t necessarily last forever. Sometimes you have to go with the flow and humor them.”

“You’ve also got to remember,” says Molly Parker, 12, of Beaverton, Oregon, “that your first impression of them is going to be different from your impression once you get to know them. You’re both trying to adjust at first. You’ve got to try to understand them, and then they’ll probably try to understand you.”

“And it’s important to watch the way you treat them,” adds Amy Rooney, 17, of Mesa, Arizona. “There’s a good chance that they’ll treat you the way you treat them. For example, one thing that a lot of stepkids say is, ‘I don’t have to do what you say—you’re not my real father!’ How would you feel if they said to you, ‘I don’t have to help you—you’re not my real kid’?”

That brings us to discipline, which is also a major cause of contention between stepparent and stepchild. You’re used to receiving a certain punishment for disobedience, and the stepparent dishes out another. You feel resentment because “that’s not the way my real dad did it.”

“Don’t compare your stepparents to your real parents, because, out of a sense of loyalty to your natural parents, the stepparent will always come up short,” says Chris Smith, 13, of Pasadena, California. He also offers this advice: “Just try to look at things from your new parent’s point of view. When they tell you to take out the trash, it’s not because they’re riding you. They just want the house to be clean.”

“At first I resented my stepdad when he disciplined my little sister,” says Nancy Taylor. “I felt he had no right to do that. But then my mom explained to me that Lindsey needs to learn what’s right and wrong—he wasn’t doing it to be mean, but to help her. That kind of applies to me, too. I had to accept the fact that he is the man of the house now, and what he says goes.”

Some of the people we talked to said their new parent was stricter than the parent they’d been living with, and others said the new parent was more lenient. But surprisingly enough, the general consensus was that kids were grateful to have set rules and set punishments for breaking them. Many times, when one parent is absent from the home, discipline breaks down, maybe because a single parent doesn’t have the support of a partner in administering it, or because single parents feel a need to ingratiate themselves with their children. Or perhaps, with a mom working again, she just doesn’t have the time. And then there’s the urge, with so many adjustments to be made, to just avoid any sort of conflict altogether. Whatever the case, most of the kids interviewed said they appreciated the discipline, and, although it took some time to get used to, it was better than having total freedom with no guidance.

Now, once the ground rules are set, there are all sorts of ways to become closer to your new parent. They’re not necessarily trying to take the place of your natural parent, but most will try to be your friend. How do you get closer to a friend? You do things together. You share things.

Joey Rossi, 16, of Dallas, Texas, shares his hobbies, like working on a computer, with his stepdad. Nathan Black likes to go to football and basketball games with his stepdad, who also goes to movies with Nathan’s sister Teri. Amy Rooney says her relationship with her stepfather grows when he helps her with softball or powderpuff football. Nathaniel Smith, 12, of Pasadena, California, got closer to his stepmother by letting her help him with his piano lessons and by listening to her etiquette tips, while his stepbrother Allen Doezie, 17, became better friends with his stepfather by going on Scouting trips with him.

In fact, the Church offers a lot of programs that can bring you closer to your stepparent. Aimee Crowther, 13, of Richardson, Texas, got a lot closer to her stepdad by going to a Daddy-Daughter party with him. Karis Wold says she really became close to her stepmother when they shared the experience of getting her patriarchal blessing.

And you know, asking a stepparent for help doesn’t hurt either. “At first it was hard for me to ask him to do things for me, like take me to the store and things like that,” says Nancy Taylor. “I didn’t want to impose on him, or make him think I was too dependent or anything. But the more I reached out to him, the better it got. The little things built up. Now I feel like I can share my problems with him, and he helps me.”

Another help that almost every person interviewed mentioned for bringing a new family close is showing physical affection. You’re not being disloyal to a natural parent by giving a stepparent a hug. You hug your friends, don’t you? “I remember one thing that really made me feel closer to my stepmom,” says Chris Smith. “I’d just gotten home from a trip, and she gave me a big hug—that made me realize she was really happy to see me. That was good.”

Being open with your stepparent, and rationally talking out your problems with them, will also held to break down barriers. Some people find it helpful to go to the natural parent, discuss the problem with them, and have them explain why your stepparent is acting the way he or she is. Many times your natural parent can help you understand.

Probably the biggest help for your family situation will come from your Heavenly Father. “I prayed a lot about it, and Heavenly Father really helped me understand what I had to do,” says Molly Parker. “He really helped me get close.”

Family problems are best kept within the walls your house, but there may come a time when it’s necessary to get outside help. In rare cases, sins like sexual or physical abuse may occur. While such matters may seem too grave for anyone to want to admit to, you don’t have to be subjected to that. In fact, it is your right not to suffer in that way. Seek help from your other parent, your bishop, your school counselor, or another family member outside of your home. You don’t have to shoulder that burden alone. You need help, and so does the person afflicting you.

In most cases, however, there are great advantages to having two parents in the home, even if one is a stepparent. “It’s great to have a Melchizedek Priesthood holder in your house,” says Allen Doezie. “Dad’s happier when he’s married,” adds Karis Wold.

And a lot can be learned from the adjustment process. Most people agree that getting used to a new person in the home helps you get used to new people outside the home better. It can also be a great aid in helping you get along with new missionary companions or a spouse, who will also have come from a different background.

Karis sums up most stepparent experiences with the following advice. “Just try to remember that they want everything to work just as much as you do. They don’t have all the answers either, but you can both try.”

[photos] Photography by Lavoy Mann