Note: These are my friends' kids (and they have wonderful parents).

Note: These are my friends’ kids (and they have wonderful parents).

Dear Michael:

We are two formerly happy and carefree lesbians.  Last month, my partner’s ex-husband essentially gave us custody of their three kids. They’ve visited us off-and-on for the past six years we’ve been together, but the kids have lived most of their lives with their dad, his new wife and her kids. But now their Dad can’t handle them, so guess who’s stuck with them now? 

Help! We are miserable and need some suggestions on how to relocate our sanity.

P.S.  The kids are 11, 13 and 16 (two boys and a girl, in that order).

Pathetic New Parents in North Park

Dear Pathetic:

What an alliterative sign-off you have.  Well done!  You will need this same creativity with these three kids.  Kids?  You’ve got teenagers!  I was (in another life) a middle school counselor before I went into private practice as a psychotherapist, so let me share some suggestions for your consideration:

Many parents (and stepparents, yes, that’s you!) mistakenly believe that by the time their kids are teenagers, that it’s too late to have much affect on them.  Wrong!  Despite rap music, ultra-baggy clothes, piercings, tattoos and other accoutrements of the young, survey-after-survey shows that teenagers look up to and respect their parents MORE than rappers, movie stars, and even that self-appointed “Mother Monster”: Lady Gaga. So don’t give up on these kids; you and your partner are their most powerful role models, even if you can barely get two words out of them (which is typical, by the way).

I know it’s corny, but you can’t be too loving with teenagers.  Surprised?  Many adults are.  Oh sure, the kids will say “oh yuck” and “oh grow up” if you hug them in public, but, in private, they need lots of hugs, encouragement and even a bedside chat now and then.  They may not ask for it, but they need it.

It may be helpful to remember your own teenaged years, e.g., how nerve-wracking they were and how insecure you felt.  (You didn’t?  Llar!)  Well, the REST of us found these teenaged years to be awkward, uncomfortable and just plain AWFUL.  Therefore, any parental (or step-parental) love and encouragement is powerful indeed.  Just don’t expect to be thanked for it…’cause you won’t be.

You and your partner are likely to be challenged by these three:  teenagers typically ask “why can’t I do that? and “how come other kids get to do this?”  Their ability to reason may be quite impressive, and they are likely to challenge you if you ask them to do something that doesn’t make sense.  As the step-mom, avoid a major discipline role.  Eventually, however, you’ll get dragged into it despite your best intentions, so be prepared to talk about why you and your honey have house rules (you do, don’t you?) and chores for them to do (right?) and a reward system to encourage them to act wisely and skillfully (don’t just punish them!).

Be willing to set reasonable limits, and have these limits (and all other rules) clearly known by all.  Teenagers will bitch for hours about your rules, but the dirty secret is:  they love structure and security and predictability, so they’ll count on you to provide it and to withstand their whining and moaning about it.  All teenagers need fair and firm rules and limits.  You can always relax the rules little-by-little as you and your partner and the kids all get used to each other, but it is harder than hell to TIGHTEN up rules when you started off too loose.  Err on the side of too much structure, then when you ease up, you’re the heroines (not the evil queens).

As mom and stepmom, encourage the kids’ independence:  rebelling against your parents and pushing hard for your autonomy is NORMAL for teenagers.  They are not out to get you (repeat this over-and-over, like a mantra!) Give these kids some psychological space, help them be self-reliant, let them learn from their own mistakes (without embarrassing or belittling them) and keep remembering how YOU were at that age.

Pick your battles.  Trite but true:  like a good marriage or partnership, you gotta give them some slack.  Decide what matters (e.g., grades) and what doesn’t (e.g., hairstyles).

Be mature enough to apologize when you’re wrong, explain things when you’re asked and give comfort when it’s needed.  We’ve the grownups, they’re the kids.  We can do this, and we can get help in doing it.  Call the nearest LGBT Center near you for excellent referrals to GLBT parenting groups and GLBT family-oriented events and organizations. There are a wealth of resources on the Internet and in most urban areas. Get support. Don’t do it alone.

Because these teenagers have come to live with you, they’re probably disoriented:  they may be away from their close friends, their old school(s) and their old neighborhood.  They need your and your partner’s involvement with their lives.  It is particularly helpful to get to know their friends.  Observe these friends, don’t judge them prematurely.  Verbally criticize their friends and they probably won’t talk about them to you again (bad move).  Try to STAY NEUTRAL and you’ll get a LOT more useful information.  As the “step-mom”, you have an advantage of distance and perspective.  Once the kids realize you’re not the “wicked step-mom” type (or are you?) they may talk more to you than to their mom.  You may be a safe oasis in their new life.

Be available but not intrusive.  Step-moms (and dads) have thankless roles, they usually do best when they let the step-kids come to THEM, not vice-versa.  Stay as neutral as possible, keep your judgements and criticisms to yourself, and see who these young people really are.  They might just surprise you and with their wit, intelligence and compassion.

Make sure that you and your partner take time away from the kids to nurture YOUR relationship.  It is likely to be pushed, prodded and tested by these kids on a daily basis.  That’s all the more reason to take really good care of yourself and each other.