Dear Your Teen:
My girlfriend’s teenage children hate me. They call me the “home wrecker,” a word they learned from their father. Tragically, their father died about 14 months ago of cancer. I have not visited my girlfriend’s house in those months out of respect for their loss and because her son threw an enormous fit the last time I visited.
The kids have been through a lot, but my girlfriend and I want to move on with our lives. She is afraid that if she re-introduces me to her teenagers, they will be hurt and scarred. It gives her tremendous stress. What’s your advice?
EXPERT | Matthew Rouse, PhD
This sounds like a difficult situation for all involved.
Your relationship with your girlfriend is in limbo, she is worried about traumatizing her children, and the teens have been through some of the most difficult experiences possible for any human to go through, especially at such a young age. Although everyone is in distress, the teens’ pain is at the forefront of this situation. Their message to the adults is clear: we’ve been through enough change and uncertainty, and we can’t tolerate any more!
But here’s the thing about teens: they are not great at seeing the big picture. Their myopic focus on the immediate situation obscures their ability to see the potential benefits of letting you into their lives, the primary one being their mother’s well-being. If their mother is happier, she will likely be better able to support them in their development; we know that self-care makes for better parents.
Plus, although you can never take the place they hold in their hearts for their father, the teens may be able to build positive relationships with you and possibly even learn something from you.
Although you may be met with resistance, it is up to the adults to think long-term and make the big-picture decisions on behalf of the kids.
There are some strategies you can use that can help increase the buy-in from the teens and help them gradually acclimate to changes.
3 steps to getting teens on board with your significant other:
1. Get on the same page with your significant other.
The key to this situation progressing is your girlfriend. She’s the one with the closest relationships to all involved. Therefore, she is the one with the greatest leverage to make something happen. You two should have a heart-to-heart, or several, about long-term goals for both your relationship and your family.
The discussion about your relationship could reveal sources of the “stuckness.” For example, she may be ambivalent about the relationship, and her worries about her teenagers are a way of preventing the relationship from moving forward. Or maybe she doesn’t know the extent to which you want to commit to her and her children long-term, which makes her feel worried about moving forward. These conversations are an essential first step to resolving any ambivalence you both may have about taking things to the next level. If things move forward but their mother is still uncertain, the kids will pick up on her anxiety and reject the changes even more vehemently.
The two of you should also start to put together a blueprint for what a deepening of your relationship might look like. Does it involve your starting to sleep over a few nights a week? Eventually moving in? How much do you want to co-parent versus leaving all of the parenting decisions to the mother? Getting all these details nailed down will help present a united front to the kids. You should also be on the look-out for opportunities for you to spend one-on-one time with each of the teens — pick-ups from soccer, study help in biology, etc.
2. Present the decisions to the teens.
The two of you should plan a time to let the kids know about your decision to move forward in your relationship. It can be part of a fun outing in a neutral location, like a cookout in the park or a meal at the teens’ favorite restaurant so it’s not so serious and business-y. When you tell the kids, their mother should lead the conversation. You should validate any feelings and concerns the teens may express, while also standing firm that this is the decision. Next, you should solicit the teens’ input for how to make this work. They know themselves better than anyone and likely have great ideas for ways that can make this transition easier for them. You should try to incorporate their suggestions, while also not giving them too much decision-making power.
3. Stay positive but set limits if necessary.
As the teens get on board with the plan, the teens’ mother can look for opportunities to praise them. Although the instinct may be to not rock the boat as things start to improve, it’s important to call a lot of positive attention to their efforts.
She should also make it clear that certain behavior will be met with a consequence, like another one of the “fits” you described, continued name-calling and rudeness, or physical aggression. It is important that the mother establish that that kind of behavior is not going to change your plans and will only make things worse for them.