Blended family teen pandemic hell

There are so many intertwining pieces of this that it's hard to describe it all. Mainly I guess I am seeking commiseration with others whose teens are not getting along with their stepparents during this pandemic. Things have gotten challenging enough that it is threatening my marriage. My spouse has been in my daughter's life for about a decade. My daughter is now 16. She spends 1/2 her time at her other parent's house. In general my spouse has, for those ten years, been more of the disciplinarian. For about the past year she and my daughter have had a lot of conflicts. I think it is natural that the person who is more of the disciplinarian will become more of the target. Now my daughter has decided that she doesn't want my spouse to be considered a parent at all anymore. She is "triangulating." What makes it more difficult is that I have looked to my spouse for support in laying down the law. Left to my own devices I would be a looser parent. So, my spouse and I also have conflicts in our parenting style. And, the pandemic makes it all SO much worse. My daughter told me last night that she has been absolutely miserable for 3 months. She says she is the only one of her friends who is this alone - because all of her other friends either get along with their parents or have siblings or both. She also said it was better at her other parent's house. Basically she said it is the pits with me and my spouse.

My spouse and I are in therapy, thankfully. Our next session can't come soon enough! I am also thinking of getting my daughter into therapy. I guess bottom line I'm seeking advice from folks who faced a situation where the stepparent was more of the disciplinarian, and then the kid made the stepparent the target and started arguing "she's not my real parent." Also advice from people who have different parenting styles from their spouse.

I am thinking the best thing to do is to tell my spouse to lay off parenting *completely* and to work on accepting my parenting style. Easier said than done. I just know that this method is not working. Thanks for any thoughts.

Parent Replies

Parents, want to reply to this question? Sign in to post.

I share your misery and am so sorry you are experiencing this strife.

My situation is similar, but different. I have always been the disciplinarian of my two children. My spouse traveled a lot (sometimes up to 50% time) pre-COVID, and is highly conflict avoidant. To him, discipline equals conflict. Over the years we polarized deeply as one of my children (now a young adult) became expert at triangulating. Our complication is that this child also has mental health and substance use issues. My spouse and my inability to co-parent exacerbated the situation. We have spent years in individual, family, and marriage therapy.

We all became miserable and our home life became intolerable (not to mention unsafe) to the point that we split into two households. I am working toward home as a sane and safe sanctuary. The 17-year old is now acting out against me, pushing hard against my boundaries, particularly as her father has virtually no boundaries around her brother's behavior. (I'm not a hard***, and she has noted that I have fewer house rules than her friend's parents.) Through individual therapy and a lot of reading and attending support groups, I'm learning to take care of myself first, and be loving, clear, firm, and calm in my interactions with my family members. My spouse is learning to respect to run my household as is best for me, and I greatly appreciate that.

If I had it all to do over again, I would have gotten myself and my marriage in a healthier, more co-operative, more stable place first, rather than focusing on the problems with our child. Building my skills around boundary setting, positive communication, and conflict resolution are making a world of difference.

I'd like to share two resources:

"The Parent 20-Minute Guide" by the Center for Motivation and Change: While it's geared toward addressing substance use, the underlaying lessons apply to any situation requiring change. I've found it to be incredibly helpful. https://the20minuteguide.com

"The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work" by John Gottman: While this is helpful for marriage in general, specific chapters on addressing conflict, both solvable and unsolvable, would apply to your situation.

Take care of yourself. Be strong and calm. Your daughter, and marriage, will be better for it.

Sounds like a very challenging situation. And, as you say, everything is magnified during these pandemic times. I have a few thoughts which may or may not be helpful, based on my own experiences and what my kids tell me. 

My teens go back and forth between my house and their dad's house. He has remarried and over time has allowed his wife to become more of the disciplinarian. I think this is so he can remain the 'good guy' and increase the chance that they enjoy being at his house, as historically they have complained about it. Also, it's easier for him. This puts a burden on his wife who has to enforce rules about chores, etc, and also tilts the bulk of the kids' interactions with their stepmother in a negative direction. Thus they don't have much affection for her. I think her view of the kids is also skewed-- not having grown up with them nor having kids of her own, she sees their behavior as unreasonable and personally directed at her, rather than just normal teenage thoughtlessness and/or self absorption. And there is not much of an underlying bond of shared experience and affection to help navigate those difficult moments. 

It kind of sounds to me like your child wants more of YOU in their life. Like they are missing that connection. I think your idea of having your spouse back off a bit is a good one, while you get some support around being the best parent you can be. As imperfect as you may feel as a parent sometimes (as we all do.. it's a really hard job!), I think it matters a lot to our kids that they see we are in the game, doing our best, trying to do better.  And, in my experience, just showing up consistently with love goes a long way. 

I read the book "hold on to your kids" several years ago and found that very helpful (there's a whole chapter on discipline).

I know for my kids, having each other at their side as they go back and forth between households has been a really wonderful thing. Sometimes they can say things to each other which they can't express to any of their parents for fear of hurting them or being misunderstood. Since that's not possible for your child, I think getting her a therapist is a good idea. A place for her to freely and safely express herself and of course, hopefully get some sound adult guidance as well. 

Good luck. You sound like a very caring parent. 

Hi, I’m a therapist who works all the time with parenting situations like yours. I have a couple of suggestions to share with you. 

1.  If you’re not already, focus your couples therapy sessions on parenting. It sounds like this needs to come first for a while. 

2. Do not tell your partner to stop being the parent. It’s too late for that. She’s been the parent since your daughter was six. 

3. Is it possible that your partner has been left with more of the childcare work in your house and so she/he had no choice but to be more of a disciplinarian? This would be especially true if in general you have always been more conflict-avoidant with your daughter. 

3. It’s very important that you and your partner get on the same page as parents. You don’t have to have the same exact parenting styles but you do need to really listen to each other’s points of view and back each other up in front of your daughter. Have your disagreements about parenting out of earshot of her. Otherwise you will be dealing with endless splitting and triangulating. 

4. Your daughter is the usual age for kids to start protesting about their parents. This can be much harder to go through as a step-parent and much much harder right now when you’re trapped in the house together for months. Remembering this doesn’t make living with it better but it might help you to be kind and patient with your partner. She/he is in a very difficult spot. 

First of all, you're not alone - parenting this demographic all too often feels like an ordeal by fire.  So, hang in there and try to take some of the heat off of your partner, while empathizing with your girl, and reminding her that you're all family (ie,have each others' backs) and need to be treated respectfully.  Then, if possible, send your daughter to her other parent.  

So sorry to hear of your difficulties. It sounds like hell and very worrisome for you as a parent, as I'm sure the issues requiring discipline need boundaries set!
I've just read parenting with love and logic on the advice of a friend. I wish I'd read it sooner.
I don't agree with the authors on many things, they are way more right wing than me, but the core idea seems important and useful.and their examples helped me think how to apply the idea.

Basically the idea is that we often set expectations for our kids in order to deal with things that are not due to us. We want them to do homework but not because we like homework but because it will teach them skills that they will need in the real world. Etc. We aren't asking them to do things arbitrarily, because we made them up today. They have consequences. What happened with us is out son identified us with things about reality that he did not like. So we have been learning to push back and say this isnt how I want the world to be, necessarily, this is how it is and the way to work through it.

The other hard step is to say, when they ignore you, I'm really sorry this bad thing resulted from your action. Sympathy and sorrow, not rescuing.
Of course your teen has to be wise enough to understand the consequences are due to their choices.
But you don't want them not driving drunk because you'll get mad, you want them not drink because they can kill themselves and others.

I don't have it down pat but am trying to learn.

It is complicated. I will provide my thoughts. First, about being alone.  Is there one friend that you would allow your daughter to see? A person that she is friends with and you think is safe enough? I really think the isolation is hard on humans and she needs at least one person that is not her parents. About the discipline. Are your wife and your ex on the same page? is your wife a control freak, or is she reasonable? As your daughter has gotten older, has she been allowed more freedoms and more choices? Is your wife good at complimenting her as well as disciplining her? Do you compliment her?

I am concerned that you say so little about your relationship with your daughter. I get the impression that you are just waiting for her to move out and go to college. What are you doing to help her through this pandemic, which is hard on everybody? You are worried about your relationship with your wife and complaining about your daughter. Maybe you should be worried about your relationship with your daughter and complaining about your wife. Some would say that you should put your relationship with your wife first. But she is an adult. The teenager is learning about life, and we are all in the middle of time of unusual rules and regulations. I think you need to put more of a priority on your daughter's health and happiness. 

You may want to consider family meetings, in which people say what is going well and what the problems are. See if you can all agree on fixes. Then you don't have to wait for the therapist. 

If you want a good relationship with your daughter in the future you need to deal with the problem you've helped to create right now. My dad was always stricter than my friends' parents. It was annoying sometimes but I always knew that he truly wanted to do the best job possible as a parent. Then he hooked up with wife #3, a woman without kids who thought that she knew everything about parenting. Of course she just knew that her kids would have turned out perfectly because she knew everything about parenting. She tried to impose restrictions on us that made no sense and my dad was constantly keeping things from her because her opinions were so wacko. For example, he lent me money for a down payment and I paid it back on time with interest in accordance with the note we executed. This had to be a secret because she thought that he shouldn't provide us with any type of financial assistance for any reason. Of course she had no education and only owned property due to divorcing well. So the woman who never would have been able to buy property on her own tried to stop my dad from helping us.

Her weird controlling behavior giot worse. She tried to prevent my dad from doing things like riding his bike because she thought it was too dangerous. He just laughed and did what he wanted until he got sick. Once he couldn't stand up to her anymore, she made her move and wrecked most of his relationships with other people. He died without getting to know his grandson because he married an insecure woman who was jealous of a baby. His life was not what he wanted but the hole he dug himself was so deep that he couldn't get out of it.

You think that this is about your teenage daughter behaving badly during a pandemic but I bet it's just as likely that your wife is really hard for your kids to deal with. They can't escape her by going to school and activities like they're used to. You're forcing your kids to deal full time with an overly strict person who they did not choose. Im sure that they try their best to get along with her for your benefit. Have you ever stopped to consider what it's like for them to have a stranger you picked telling them what to do while you hide?

If you dont start dealing with the problems you have allowed to happen now, you are not going to have the relationship with your kids that you want. You are probably overly focused on your daughter and missing the fact that your other kids hate their stepmom just as much. Your daughter is going to go away to college and never spend another night at your house. She'll come home to visit and stay at her mom's house, you'll see her for a meal. If that's the future you want then keep doing what you're doing. But if you want to be a happy grandpa surrounded by happy kids and grandkids, you'll deal with your spouse's weird displinary style right now and make her stop. You're the parent and it's time to start acting like it.