The ‘big issues’ facing today’s teenagers may not immediately be obvious. Drugs, alcohol, sex, and relationships have traditionally been the things parents worry about, but also high on the list of today’s problems facing teenagers are gaming addiction, online bullying and mental health.
The basis for helping your step teenager to deal with these issues has to be a strong relationship between you both, so we’ll start with some general advice that we hope will help establish you as a loving and supportive step parent.
Talk to your step teen, even if they don’t say much back. Let them know you love them and you’re there if they need you. Do this by text or email if you think this will have more impact.
Show them how to build their self-confidence (see previous article). This will help them to recognise their individuality and to become independent thinkers who don’t need to follow the crowd or give in to peer pressure. It will also help them understand that they don’t have to be the best at everything all the time.
Teach your step teen that they don’t need to do things to get attention.
Always bear in mind that your priorities are to keep your step teen safe and well, and to teach them right from wrong. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to punish bad behaviour.
Find ways to stop them getting bored. Help them find a worthwhile activity that will eliminate their need to take risks. Teach them that life can be exciting enough without behaving unacceptably.
Don’t let your step teen get away with everything for fear of being hated. Stand your ground. Otherwise, your step teenager will learn that you will always give into them.
The next step
Try to stand back from the situation and assess what’s going on. What do you think your step teenager is feeling and why are they acting this way?
Listen. Ask your step teenager how they’re feeling and what they think could be done to help.
Monitor the situation. In some cases, give it time. Sometimes difficult behaviour can be short-lived. It may be worth seeing how the situation progresses before acting on it.
In some instances, however, it may be clear that there is definitely a problem that needs attention. Below we offer advice about how to deal with specific issues.
Your step teenager – like all young people – will be curious about alcohol. They may see it as a way of fitting in with their peers.
There are differing opinions about whether parents should allow their step teens to drink at home, for example by offering them beer or wine at the dinner table. Some people think that taking away the mystery –and therefore allure – of alcohol helps teach teenagers to drink sensibly, whereas others feel that allowing the odd sip of alcohol now and again shows your step teenager that you ‘approve’ of their drinking.
The key is to talk to your step teen about it and to let them know what you think is acceptable. Your key role is to keep your step teen safe and healthy, so teach them the importance of drinking sensibly.
As with alcohol, your step teen may start experimenting with drugs through curiosity or a desire to fit in with their peer group. Talk to them about other options for fitting in – rather than taking drugs, for example, they could join a sports group.
But they may be turning to drugs because of a deeper issue. The first step for you is to recognise if this is the case. Some children, for instance, turn to drugs because it makes them feel better when they are depressed or anxious.
A study last year, reported in the Journal of Adolescent Health, showed a sharp rise in the number of girls at risk of emotional problems.
This could be because girls are being put under even more pressure to conform to particular images of what is healthy and beautiful. They are subject to a constant stream of messages and pictures – heightened through social media – which place unrealistic expectations on them regarding their bodies, their attractiveness, and their behaviour.
Help your step teenager deal with this by building their self-confidence, showing them love, giving praise, listening, and teaching them the value of their true friends.
Bullying can be defined as a number of things, from nasty comments either face-to-face or on social media, to exclusion from groups, vicious rumours, name calling, harassment, physical assaults, or humiliating pictures or videos.
Bullies can focus on a teenager’s appearance, weight, interests, educational achievement, race, and sexuality. Victims can be emotionally and physically affected. So how can you help?
Be aware of the possible signs of bullying. This may be difficult to spot because victims tend to hide the truth. Warning signs can include your step teen being withdrawn, upset, and reluctant to go to school. They may start behaving unusually or losing confidence, and there may be physical signs of bullying as well.
Reiterate that bullying is never OK. Let your step teen know that you are always there to talk to and provide support.
Today’s teenagers have grown up with the Internet but it can become an issue if what should be a recreational activity becomes an addiction. Too much time spent online or gaming can have an effect on a teenager’s development emotionally, physically, intellectually and spiritually.
Signs to look out for if you think your step teen is addicted to the Internet are a strong dependence which when removed can lead to anger, irritability, violence, and unhappiness; lying about being online or the length of time spent online; sacrificing mealtimes and sleep to go online instead; and a loss of interest in other things, including friends.
If you’re worried, there are things you can do. Establish whether it’s really an addiction or more a way for your step teen to distract themselves from a deeper issue, such as stress or anxiety.
Implement set playing times and be firm about enforcing them. Use screen time as a reward for your step teen completing other offline tasks. Suggest other activities. And be patient and supportive as they adjust to their new routine.
Angela Whitlock is a stepparent to four children and an experienced teenage and stepfamily coach. She is also author of The Accidental Parent series of advice books for stepfamilies. For more advice on building your step teenager’s confidence download her ebook 21 Ways to Build Your Step Teenager’s Confidence.