Dear Mr. Dad: I'm marrying a woman who has two teenagers from her previous marriage. This is my first marriage, and although I like her kids, I'm a little worried about how I'll do as a stepfather of teens. Any suggestions?
A: About half of all marriages are remarriages for at least one of the partners, many of whom, like your fiancee, have children from a previous relationship. I get your worries about starting your fatherhood experience off with teens (instead of the usual way, with an infant). The most valuable advice I can give you is to keep your expectations reasonable and be patient.
There's not a lot of social support out there, and your role in the new family isn't always clear. Fortunately, you're not alone. In fact, there are more than 2.5 million families (including more than 6.5 million kids) made up of a biological mother and a bonus father (many prefer that term to the harsher-sounding "stepfather").
Try to be sympathetic to the magnitude of the changes the children may experience: new routines, a new house, new customs, new bedrooms — they may even have to share a room — and, in families where both parents have children, even a new birth order. A child who was once the oldest and had all the privileges that went along with that might resent being outranked by an older child. The opposite might happen to a child who gets displaced as baby of the family.
Expect some natural competitiveness between you and the kids' biological father, especially if your ex tells you he's not a particularly nice guy. But you absolutely must support their relationship with their father.
In most cases, it's not easy for adolescents to accept a new bonus parent. A lot of teens, just like younger kids, fantasize that their parents will get back together, and your marriage to their mother dashes that hope. In addition, your new bonus teens probably had a lot of additional responsibilities around the house and felt very mature. Some may feel relieved to have you there to take over some of the burden. But others may resent having to go back to being kids again. They also may resent having to deal with yet another adult who, in their minds, wants to push them around, just when they're seeking autonomy. Expect to hear a lot of "you're not my father, so I don't have to listen to you."
One of the most important factors in children's adjustment to a bonus parent is trying to maintain the one-on-one relationships they had with their natural parents. Kids often feel that they're losing their biological parent to the new bonus parent. And in some ways, they're right. Before, it was just them and Mom, but now they have to share her with some interloper. This brings up all sorts of loyalty issues for many bonus kids. They may feel that if they love (or even like) you, they're somehow being disloyal or betraying their biological father. As a result, they may lash out at you for what seems like no reason at all. Stranger still, these explosions often happen just when you think your relationship with your bonus children is going great.
It's critical that you and your partner devote some time to keeping your relationship healthy and that you discuss the role she expects you to take in her children's lives. Don't be naive and think that everything will work itself out — it won't. More than half of remarried women and about two-thirds of remarried men get divorced again. Overall, remarriages that involve kids are far more likely to fail than those without. Major problems include conflicts over child rearing, the children's behavior and the relationship between the stepparent and the stepchildren. Don't be afraid to get some couples therapy if you need it.
Finally, don't make the mistake of expecting that everyone's going to live in one big, happy family. It's going to take plenty of time for all of you to get used to one another and to your new roles. Expect a bumpy ride.
Follow Armin Brott on Twitter, @mrdad, or send email to email@example.com.