Co-Parenting Teenagers

I am a stepparent and co-parent.  Since becoming a parent, I have read hundreds of parenting articles and books.  I have also spent thousands of hours reading research articles in psychology and marriage and family therapy for my graduate school programs.  As the mother of biological and stepchildren, three of them teens, I am often astounded to see how a majority of parenting articles and information continues to focus on intact families, when nontraditional families are becoming the norm.  The reality is that there are no one-size-fits-all articles on parenting. There can’t be when they are only targeted to the traditional family. Modern families may have a multitude of parenting figures in the mix. This means different personalities and more than one parenting style in more than one house.  If you are a single parent, you are dealing with the additional stress of having to parent alone.  Worn down, it is hard to parent effectively when it’s all you can do to make it until bedtime.

There’s often good advice to be found about parenting teenagers in parenting articles in magazines and on the Internet.  However, if you are a co-parent, a step-parent, or a single parent, these articles often “miss the mark.”  With over 50% of marriages ending in divorce and millions of children now living in nontraditional households, there should be more parenting articles focusing on the nontraditional families as well—families that are quickly overtaking the numbers of traditional family homes.

I recently read a great article on dealing with teens, except the parenting advice was targeted toward intact families.  The article left many questions unanswered:

  • How should a stepparent handle their teenage stepchildren?
  • What if an ex disagrees with what a stepparent does?
  • What if an ex parents differently than you do?
  • What do you do when you are butting heads with your teen, a normal developmental process, but your ex exploits the opportunity?  They allow the child to badmouth the other parent or choose to live with them to avoid the process of working through arguments, discipline, repercussions, and the like.  Then, how do you parent?
  • What do you do when an ex exploits the situation to get back at their ex-partner or has nothing else going on in their lives so they take advantage of the “rough spots” that are so normal during the teenage years?

Teenagers present many challenges for parents because they are learning to assert their independence.  They still need guidance–a lot of guidance.   They need clear rules and consequences if they break those rules, and they need love and forgiveness.

Fighting, having arguments, or heated discussions with parents are common behaviors during adolescence.  Teenagers are still developing their prefrontal cortex, a key area for rational thinking.  They are also inundated with hormonal activity, which throws them into moods this way and that.  Often, teens are not governed by reason, but by biology.  Learning how to have disagreements is a fundamental process of growing up and maturity.  As a teenager “butts heads” with their parents, they learn how to work things out.  In intact homes, the teen has to work it out with both parents there. Usually, the parents will work as a team supporting one another with raising the children. When they live in separate homes, this becomes more complicated.

co-parenting a teenWhen an adolescent has an argument with one parent, they may learn they can get what they want by going to the other parent in the other home. The teen learns to criticize, fabricate stories, and other unhealthy methods to get their needs met. This works if the other parent is willing to listen to and support their teen, and not the other parent. An ex may see their behavior as “rescuing” their child from the other parent.  This is a great way to become a hero in a teenager’s eyes after a divorce.  What the parent is really doing is allowing their children to miss out on key developmental processes.  Conflict is a natural part of life.  Kids need to know how to deal with it now so that they can in turn, learn how to deal with conflict in the future with their friends, co-workers, spouses, and even their own kids some day.  What parents teach their children will be their model for later in life.  If a parent teaches the teen there is an out—that a parent will rescue them from their feelings of frustration and anger–they are setting them up for a disastrous road ahead of them.

Children and teenagers get their best lessons at home.  Home is a safer environment to learn both mistakes and successes. If a teen does not learn how to deal with intense emotions and conflict, they learn ineffective coping behaviors, which include running away behavior (the teen goes to live with the other parent), or learned helplessness until they get the lesson.  Some may never get it.

In nontraditional homes, it is becoming common for children who disagree with one parent, for the other parent to swoop in and rescue them because of their own guilt or inadequacies.  Some parents cannot take that their child is experiencing discomfort (and by discomfort, I mean the child does not like that the other parent has rules, repercussions, or chores or that the parent confronts the teen over issues that are occurring instead of sweeping them under the rug).  A child who does not learn how to resolve conflict, learns to flee from it. They also take on a victim role wanting others to rescue them.  If a parent is a rescuer they are doing their teen a huge disservice.   Some parents will say “But my child doesn’t want to go over to his/her dad’s/mom’s.”  So you make them go to school, to the doctor’s, to their activities, and church, why not the other parent’s home?  Children need both parents in their lives.  To imply to a child that the other parent is bad, dangerous, or any other negative connotation is not in your child’s best interests and may lead to Parental Alienation.  If you do this, stop this immediately.  (Please note:  If the other parent has been proven to be abusive or neglectful, then this is different).

parental alienationMany Parental Alienation cases begin to develop in the middle school years. This is the time when children naturally begin to assert their independence.  As the teen experiences some conflict with one parent, an ex may take advantage of this and exploit the situation for his or her own gain.  They may say: “I’ll be right around the corner if you need me” or “You don’t have to go to Dad’s/Mom’s.”  The parent sees an opportunity to be a “good guy” or to exact revenge toward the ex, not caring about the child’s well-being or it could be they are having a hard time accepting that their child is feeling discomfort. The teen’s avoidance of dealing with the other parent, when supported by a favored parent, could eventually lead to less visits, more hostility toward the other parent, or outright rejection of that parent. If the other parent undermines you, does not support your parenting, badmouths you to your teen, or any other behaviors that lead to your child rejecting you, this is Parental Alienation. If you are an alienating parent or engage in alienating behaviors, remember that you are your child’s first role model. You don’t teach children that they have to choose sides or parents.  We don’t choose them and we should not allow children to choose between parents. This is harmful to their emotional well-being.

Often, there is a difference in parenting styles:  One parent is authoritative, while the other is permissive.  Which style do you think teens will say they want?  Some teens are living their dream lives:  no chores, no supervision, no conflict, and perhaps a lot of material things, but this does not help the teen.  They are rewarded for their negative behaviors, and learn to avoid conflict instead of dealing with it.  They learn they have more power than their parent as they begin to dictate the visitation schedule.  The teenager learns that when they complain, they can be rescued–the precursor to learned helplessness.  No parent wants their child to be a victim when they grow up, but that is what they are teaching them.

If children spend their time in more than one home, allow your ex to parent in their own way.  Pick your battles.  If you feel your ex is in some way harming the child whether physically, emotionally, or psychologically, and their safety is an issue then bring it up to your ex first.  If you are amicable with your ex, you can work together.  If your relationship with your ex is not so great, respect goes a long way.  Respect their way of parenting and ask that they respect yours.

What if an ex disagrees with the way a stepparent parents?  I am a big proponent of allowing and respecting another’s way of doing things.   A disclaimer though, has to be inserted.  If there is a question of safety, then by all means bring it up.  Otherwise, if you have an issue with your ex’s new spouse, check in with yourself to see if they aren’t bringing something up for you besides their way of parenting.  Are you angry or jealous that your spouse remarried, that they are happy, or that someone else is raising your child for part of the time?  Reflect on whether your feelings about them as a parent are confused with some of your own unresolved feelings.  If you are amicable with your ex, then you may be able to come to a consensus so that your parenting is congruent with theirs and vice versa so your children have an easier time transitioning from one home to another.

If there is a stepparent involved, don’t make them end up being the bad guy, especially in the beginning, by having them participate in most of the conflicts.  If a stepparent encounters negative behavior, bring it up to your partner and have them address it.  Children naturally listen to their biological parents more than they will to a stepparent, at least in the beginning.  As time goes on and the family has more time to bond, then it will be more appropriate and effective for a stepparent to participate.  If a stepparent is feeling frustrated with the way their partner parents, discuss it with your spouse.  Come to an agreement of what the rules and repercussions will be in the household.  With approximately two-thirds of second marriages ending in divorce, and many of them because of arguments over children, it is imperative that there is a consensus about parenting between the partners so the arguments do not turn into the demise of your marriage.

When it comes to co-parenting with an ex, parenting a teen can be more complex if you are not on good terms with your ex.  Many parents worry about the consequences of their own actions after they give their children repercussions because they are concerned about how the ex is going to respond; that the ex will exploit this to their own advantage.  Many parents in this situation are scared to provide structure, boundaries, and consequences to their children because they fear their ex will exploit the situation and allow their teen to live with them when the teen complains about the rules or the other parent.  Some parents view parenting as a popularity contest with the child, and deliberately do not set limits because they don’t want to be the “bad guy.” That doesn’t serve anyone’s needs except for the teen who learns that the world revolves around them.  Then, when they get out into the real world–smack!  Reality hits them right in the face! You mean my boss will fire me if I walk out on them?  Now who is going to pay for all the vacations, clothing, and toys I’ve gotten?  Be a parent your child needs. You cannot worry about what your ex does, all you can do is control your own behaviors.  Teenagers need a sense of structure and consequences to their negative behaviors.  You don’t want to look back on this time of their life and regret that you did not have rules in place or enforce them because you were afraid your ex would exploit it.

The teenage years can be challenging, especially with the added complexity of an ex as a co-parent, but they don’t have to be.  Set aside some time with your teen to talk about the rules of your home and your expectations.  Your ex may have different rules, but in your home, set your own rules.  If you and your ex are on amicable terms, try to have the same rules in both houses.  Let your teen know what is appropriate behavior and what is not.  For example, no cursing, name-calling, sarcasm, raising your voice, getting physically violent, or eye-rolling.  Teach them it’s okay to be angry or frustrated but it is not okay to act inappropriately on those feelings (that goes for you, too).  Teach them to tell you when they need to take a time out–time where they can diffuse some of the intense emotions they might be feeling.  You can come back to the argument after they have time to cool off.  You, the parent, can also ask for a time out.  Tell your child you’re feeling angry and need a few minutes to get grounded.

As a parent, you are your child’s first role model.  If a disagreement starts to get out of hand, you have a choice:  You can escalate it by becoming more activated which elevates the conflict, or you can remain neutral, grounded, and in control.  If you always seem to fight about the same issue, try to break the pattern by saying something out of the ordinary when they try to bait you.  ”You know you really have beautiful eyes” will catch them off-guard.  Don’t get hooked into the argument, change it by changing your responses.

Set up repercussions and consequences ahead of time.  If your teen does not obey curfew, they will know beforehand what will happen.  Arguments can be avoided because they will be aware of the consequences.  ”You know the rules, Junior, curfew is at 12 and it is 1.  No going out tomorrow night.” Be consistent and back it up.  Teenagers want more freedom so it is important to recognize this as a parent.  Listen to their opinions and reflect on whether you can compromise in the future.  Allow them opportunities to prove they are trustworthy.  Show them that they have the ability to come up with solutions to their own issues.  Empower them by allowing them numerous opportunities to succeed.  To raise a teenager allows you the parent to learn how to forgive and forget quickly.  As a teen, you made a lot of mistakes; you can expect that from your teenager as well. Teach them how to manage these mistakes as learning opportunities.

Create a vision of having a positive, happy, and healthy environment for your family.  If you feel you are battling a lot with your teen, take some time to assess what you would like from them.  Is it respect, a positive attitude, or more effort?  Do they want more freedom?  Listen to their needs and let them know yours.

Having disagreements with teenagers is normal.  Conflict allows children to experience some really strong emotions while simultaneously learning how to manage them and remain respectful.  In intact homes, most children learn to work it out with both parents.  They have to; there is nowhere else to go.  They learn to work through their anger, disappointment, and frustration instead of bailing out with the help of a parent who rescues them. When the argument is over, teach them how to recover, and how to forgive and forget.  Tell them you love them and apologize if you lost control.  Learning how to argue fairly is a wonderful skill to pass on to your children. Additionally, providing your teen a safe space to make mistakes and still know they are loved and accepted is invaluable.

Co-parenting a teenager can be a stressful time not just because of your child but because of an ex, too.  It is rewarding if you set up a structure, are consistent, fair-minded, respectful, neutral and non-reactive, and follow through on repercussions.  Forgive and forget quickly. Your job as a parent is to raise a happy and healthy child and to be a part of a happy and healthy family.  Your job is also to teach them the skills they need in order to be competent and responsible adults.  Learning how to disagree is a skill just like learning respectful manners is or how putting in good effort leads to self-esteem.  These skills enable a person to live a good life.  Disagreements need to be worked out in a respectful manner, not by running away from them or by avoiding them.  It does not have to be confrontational or scary, it is a learning opportunity for both the parents where they can learn more about their teen and for the teen as they learn how to handle emotions, and communicate in a respectful and intelligent manner.