CHICAGO — Teens reach closure pretty quickly — and when it comes to getting along with a new stepparent, they're zealots, says Lawrence Ganong, professor of nursing and human development and family studies at the University of Missouri at Columbia.
"They're either going to get along right off the bat or they're not," says Ganong, author of a new study, "Patterns of Stepchild-Stepparent Relationship Development," with colleague Marilyn Coleman, curators' professor in human development and family studies at Missouri. The work was published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
The researchers contend that it is the stepparents and biological parents — in short, the grown-ups — who need to take responsibility for making their new family work. Here are their tips, especially concerning tweens and teenagers:
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* Be nice. It may seem obvious, but some stepparents aren't always friendly from the start, say Ganong and Coleman. And know that kids expect new stepparents to make the first moves. From there, they will respond either positively or negatively to the adults' efforts.
* Find similarities. New stepparents should make clear attempts to bond.
"Find something you have in common that others don't," Ganong says. Children usually appreciate the efforts.
* Keep at it. Even when the children are initially resistant, stepparents who were persistent created favorable, often reciprocal, relationships, they found.
* Don't be the disciplinarian. Kids won't respond well to a stepparent disciplining them too early in the relationship.
"They need to get (discipline) from the parent," Coleman says.
The researchers confirmed earlier studies that found adolescents won't begin accepting discipline from a stepparent until later in the relationship, when a stronger bond is formed.
* Inform teens of their role. It doesn't occur to many teenagers to even think about what they can do to build the relationship, the researchers found.
Parents should talk to their children about the give-and-take in relationships, Ganong says. Many adolescents know how to build relationships with friends; parents can remind them that similar strategies can be applied to their stepparent.
* Be a go-between. You know your child better than the stepparent. Use that knowledge for everyone's benefit.
" (Parents) need to explain their kids to their partner, and they may need to explain their partner to their kid," Coleman says.
* Lay ground rules. Parents often tell their kids how to behave with a teacher or coach, Ganong says, and "a parent can do that for a stepparent as well."
* Tell your teen that you've asked the stepparent to enforce certain rules you expect the child to follow , they add. This way, stepparents can avoid disciplining the stepchild while maintaining a level of control and respect.