This article is going to be a bit different. I’ve gone back and forth about whether to write this because it’s not my usual subject matter, but step-parenting to older kids is something I know many people struggle with, and since I happen to have been privileged to personally observe one of the most elegant, gentle and wise transitions into that difficult role over the last few years it seems a little selfish not to share what I have observed.
Being a step-parent to small children comes with its own set of challenges, but you’re coming in at a time when they haven’t yet formed strong ideas about family and social dynamics and where their place is in it, so it’s possible to step into a kind of parental role at that stage. Older kids, and especially teenagers, have very solid lines around their ideas of how things work, and if you step across one of those lines they’ll push you right back.
Basically teenagers are almost fully cooked humans but with huge, almost-crippling egos and next-to-no inhibitions. Everything is dramatic, everything is all about them. They want to be fully independent and they want to be coddled, and they can hold these contradictory notions inside themselves at the exact same time. They are confident and naive, confident in their naivety, and often really really loud. They are almost always full of insecurities, they rocket from one emotional extreme to the next, and they are one of the most breathtakingly gorgeous expressions of beingness on the planet. I am a big fan.
Needless to say though, stepping into that histrionic fun house as a step-parent is massively intimidating and confusing. Even if you have your own kids, even if you’ve had your own teenagers, the dynamic of teenager to step-parent is a whole different thing. And it’s treacherous territory indeed. There are hidden trapdoors and swinging axes lurking around every corner. You are always one footfall away from “You’re not my real Dad!”
To the kids, you’re a big fully-grown stranger suddenly living in their house, the only home they’ve known that has a thousand different customs and traditions and unspoken rules that they’ve never had to learn because they grew up in it. You are “other” and that’s just a fact; no amount of jovial kidding around or lavishing with presents is going to get around that. Sure it might help a bit, but becoming enmeshed in the tapestry of daily life is going to take a bit more than a new Playstation.
Plus there’s just plain stranger danger playing out, particularly for young women in relation to new step dads. A new body in the house heightens their natural and healthy alert systems. No matter how nice you are to them your physical presence is having an impact on their nervous systems. It’s going to take them a while to fully relax around you, which means that it’s going to take a while for them to be fully relaxed in their home. And if you love them and you love their bio parent, you’re going to want them to get back to relaxation as soon as possible.
That’s where my husband’s genius “Jane Goodall approach” comes in, which he came to by way of trial and error and lots of careful thought.
The renowned primatologist Jane Goodall is considered the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees, and remains to this day the only human ever to be accepted into a wild chimpanzee society. In 1960 she traveled to Tanzania to research the animals in an era when a woman doing such a thing was considered almost unthinkable.
In order to observe chimpanzees in their natural habitat like no other scientist had ever done, Goodall employed the innovative technique of slowly moving her encampment closer and closer to a chimp community over a period of many months, gradually getting the animals accustomed to her presence so they wouldn’t fear her and flee. As Goodall explained to National Geographic in an interview back in April on the occasion of her 85th birthday:
To be accepted thus by a group of wild chimpanzees is the result of months of patience. In England, before I commenced my field study, I met one or two people who had seen chimpanzees in the wild.
“You’ll never get close to chimps—not unless you’re very well hidden,” they told me.
At first it seemed they were right, but gradually I was able to move nearer the chimpanzees, until at last I sat among them, enjoying a degree of acceptance that I had hardly dreamed possible.
“At last I sat among them, enjoying a degree of acceptance that I had hardly dreamed possible.” That’s the dream for every step-parent, isn’t it?
Sometimes someone might get dealt an especially lucky hand and get accepted into a family with older kids quickly and easily, but for the most part the only way to have anything like a smooth acceptance is with the Jane Goodall approach. I don’t mean to compare kids to chimps (they are two very different beautiful and majestic animals), just that the patient, non-intrusive approach of gradual integration is the easiest and most comfortable way to bring a new adult into a family unit.
It is possible to force things and make the kids change around the new family dynamic, lay down a new set of rules and make demands of the older kids to accept and include the new step-parent, but that typically leads to lots of resentment, pushback and conflict as years of ingrained behavior patterns are shoved against in a ham-fisted way. Things go far more smoothly and harmoniously if you instead allow the kids to grow accustomed to the new step-parent at their own pace and according to the natural flow of the household over the years.
So here’s how you practice the Jane Goodall approach to step-parenthood, in five easy steps:
1. Don’t push in; let them come to you.
It’s impossible to truly love a mother without also loving her kids. A mother’s being is so intertwined with that of her children that there’s no way you’re fully embracing all of her as a person if you don’t also notice yourself experiencing a deep paternal affection for her kids. This may sound sweet, but it can actually be really painful for a step dad who adores his step kids yet can’t express his affection without making them uncomfortable because he’s not their father; as far as they’re concerned he’s some guy their mother brought into their lives out of nowhere. If he’s not careful, he’ll show up on their radar as an intrusive imposition.
It’s of utmost importance, then, to respect the fact that this is the experience of the kids instead of trying to push your way into acceptance. Like Jane Goodall, you only come in as far as you are welcome, and in the beginning that won’t be very far at all. Don’t try to force your way into conversations or games, don’t express affection unless it’s been offered to you first, and never corner them when they’re alone or without their biological parent. Always leave an exit route available to them, physically and conversationally.
Be warm and receptive when approached, and be equally open to them backing away. You’re like an open hand with bird seed in it; you don’t chase the bird, and you don’t close your hand around it when it comes in for a bite. You let it eat whatever it wants, and you watch it go. Your hand never moves.
2. Be very, very patient.
Any attempt to hurry your integration into the family unit along will likely be perceived as an intrusion. It’s got to happen at the kids’ pace, not yours. Be humble enough to respect that, and patient enough to let things unfold at their own pace. If you actually care about your step kids and your spouse, you’ll let the importance of doing this outweigh your eagerness to be accepted.
If you are patient and non-intrusive when they’re keeping you at arm’s length, and warm and receptive when approached, eventually you will see your relationship with your step kids improve. But the more you try to hurry that along, the longer it will take.
3. Learn to quit while you’re ahead.
My husband says “Ninety percent of this step-dadding gig is just learning to quit while you’re ahead.”
In the moment that you achieve a new level of connection or positive interaction with one of your step kids, it can be very exciting. Resist the temptation to get over-enthusiastic and stretch that moment out or carry it any further. If you make them laugh with a joke, take the laugh and quit while you’re ahead, don’t go in for another one. If you have a meaningful conversation, be warm and welcoming but don’t try to prolong it. If you get a “Thank you” for doing something for them, give a friendly “You’re welcome” and move on.
Play it cool, man.
4. Let the parent do the parenting.
Just as you cannot force your way into acceptance, you cannot force your way into a parental role. Older kids aren’t going to feel good about some new grownup showing up in their home and giving them orders on how to live their lives, so let their actual parent do it. If you think you might have a suggestion on how your spouse might handle a given situation more skillfully, hold your tongue and share it with them in private later on. Be mindful, though, that the parent knows their child better than you and has been doing this for longer than you, so trust that they will listen to your advice but ultimately know what’s best, and support whatever direction they choose to take.
Discipline is the sole jurisdiction of the parent. If your step kid is interceding on your own personal sovereign boundaries, it’s okay to stick up for yourself, but do so in the same way you would with a coworker or housemate, not as a parent to a child. You have authority over yourself; you don’t have authority over them.
Don’t expect or demand “respect”, as a parent might. Again, as far as your step kid is concerned, you’re just some rando that their parent brought into their lives; there’s nothing inherent about you which is entitled to any kind of respect beyond what they’d give to an acquaintance at school. Don’t impose your old-fashioned ideas about respect for one’s elders on them unless you want resentment and alienation. If you want respect, be respectful and respectable.
When fights happen, stay as uninvolved as possible. If your spouse really needs some support in that moment, do it in the background with the acute awareness that any hurtful words you might say to your step kid in the heat of the moment will likely linger and set back your relationship a long way.
Offer praise when given the opportunity, and offer suggestions when you are confident they’ll be welcome, but don’t give orders or instructions unless explicitly invited to do so.
5. The fastest way to your step kids’ hearts is through their parent.
The one thing you’ve got going for you as a step-parent is that you all have a tremendous amount of love for the same person. If they see you consistently supporting, honoring and uplifting their parent day in and day out over the years, that will make it very difficult to harbor any negative feelings toward you, because they’re a bit of a fan, too.
The only exception to this would of course be if you monopolize your spouse’s attention away from them, which would cause jealousy and resentment. Love your spouse and your step kids enough to encourage their relationships with each other and take joy in the ways those relationships thrive.
Put your spouse first in your life and everything else will follow. When your step kids see that your spouse is thriving more and more since getting with you, they’ll see your value. NEVER undercut your spouse or side against them in a fight in order to score points with your step kid; that will only lower everyone’s opinion of you.
Your spouse will of course want their children to thrive, and if you love them you’ll want that too, and you’ll help make it happen. After a while your step kids will notice that their lives have been getting steadily better since you showed up, and, while it would be grossly overstepping to expect gratitude, their own thriving since your arrival can only help their opinion of you.
Keep at this approach with patience and care, and eventually you’ll look around and there you’ll be, sitting around, sharing a joke and being a part of the family, “enjoying a degree of acceptance that you had hardly dreamed possible.”
It’s worth it.
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