STEPTEENS: ISSUES OF CONTROL
By Helen W. Coale, LCSW*
Several years ago, when my daughter was 16, she asked if she could borrow a silk flower given to me for my birthday by a friend. I told her that she could borrow it for a special event, such as a school dance, but that it was not meant for everyday occasions. She bugged me about the silk flower frequently. On one occasion, as I was clarifying for the umpteenth time the ground rules for the silk flower, she tossed her long hair and, with great pleasure and power, said, "Yeah, Mom. At a dance, some boy will SLOBBER all over it." She hurriedly left the room and, a few moments later, stuck her head around the door frame and laughingly said, "I just love to shock you, Mom."
After a brief period of recovery, I thought about her statement. With just a few words, she was letting me know that I might have control over my silk flower but that I certainly did NOT have control over who slobbered on it!
Communication with teens is not easy. At a time when we, the parents and stepparents, have slowed down developmentally in our lives, they have gone into high gear. Just when we think we understand them, they are ten steps ahead of us - for they are changing emotionally and physically at an incredibly fast pace. As a friend of mine once said, "Without adolescence, there would be no middle age."
In the midst of all this changing, they depend on us to be clear about who we are in relation to them. And being clear on who we are means knowing what we do and do not have control over. We DO, for example, have control over some rules of behavior and over what we will or will not do if our rules are violated. And if we change our rules every time the teenager protests their unfairness, then we are giving our teenager control of something that should be OUR job. We DO NOT have control over our teenager's thoughts and feelings and beliefs. All we have control over is our own responses to his/her thoughts and feelings and beliefs. And if we try to convince him or her to think or feel OUR way, we are generally guaranteeing that we will get the opposite of what we want.
We DO have control over how we manage our own thoughts and feelings and behavior. So if we find ourselves losing control of any of these things in the presence of our teenagers, it is a clue that we (not they) are losing control and that we (not they) must do something about it. We DO NOT have control over the relationship between our teenager and someone else. We only have control over ourselves and our own relationship with the teenager. It is a losing battle, for example, to try to "make" our spouse love our teenager (if we are a parent) or to "make" our spouse discipline his/her teenager in a particular way (if we are a stepparent). This just puts ourselves in the middle of that relationship in a way that creates unnecessary problems.
We DO NOT have control over the past or of others' memories of the past. So if teenagers perceive the past differently than we do (as they often do), we have to accept their reality as the correct one for them and simply try to understand it rather than change it. Accepting someone's memories helps them live more fully in the present. Arguing with them about their memories locks them in the past. As a family therapist as well as a parent and stepparent, my experience is that the biggest communication difficulties among parents, stepparents and teenagers stem from confusion over who has control over what. When power issues are confused, communication is problematic. When power issues are clear, communication generally falls more easily into place.
The same principle is true in all families, of course, but stepfamilies, especially those with adolescents, are most at risk for confusion in the power and control areas. For one thing, the two adults enter the stepfamily system with unequal relationship powers vis-a-vis the adolescents. This is not dysfunctional as long as neither adult tries to control things that he or she cannot control. Discipline, for example, occurs in the context of a relationship. So it is generally best if, during the initial stages of stepfamily integration, the parent does the discipline in a way that respects the stepparent's rights as an adult in the household. If the parent is disciplining in a way that is not respectful of the stepparent's rights, the stepparent may be at risk for trying to control the relationship between parent and teenager, convincing the parent that what he/she is doing is bad" for the teenager or, in some other way, critiquing their relationship.
The real issue, however, is that the parent's discipline is upsetting to the stepparent and it is in the marital relationship that negotiation needs to occur rather than in the parent/child relationship. If, on the other hand, the parent is abdicating disciplinary responsibilities and the stepparent attempts to fill in, his/her efforts are bound to fail if there has not been time for a caring stepparent/teenager relationship to develop. This is when the parent may be at risk for trying to control what happens, criticizing the way the stepparent is disciplining the teenager or the way the teenager is rebelling against the stepparent. The real issue is that the parent needs to take over the discipline in relation to the teenager rather than expecting the stepparent to do this.
Another reason that stepfamilies can be at risk for developing control and power problems is that there may be emotional residue from the divorce history that filters into the stepfamily's emotional life, often via attempts to control daily rules for living, religious preferences, monetary expenditures, values, etc. across household lines. When two ex-spouses are still upset with one another and cannot manage resolution of conflict, then current spouses, children, extended family members, courts or any other third party are at risk for trying to settle the conflict - often at their own expense and generally without much success since they cannot really control what happens between the ex-spouses. They lust get caught in the crossfire.
Finally, stepfamilies are at risk for control and power struggles because there are so many complex, often uncomfortable, feelings in the family - feelings of loss and sadness, anger and rejection, affection and sexuality. Everyone in the family comes together out of some loss experience as well as out of whatever affection and hope they bring for a new life together. Because of the intensity of the feelings and the lack of opportunity to understand the feelings until sufficient time and communication have occurred, family members often deny the feelings or try to change and control them to make them more acceptable. Since feelings are not controllable, this never works and the feelings then just go underground and surface in other ways. Also, if stepfamilies begin their integration journey at a time when the children are adolescents, they cannot expect a lot of close feelings to develop between stepparent and adolescent. The adolescent is developing separateness from the family as part of his/her normal growing up and cannot connect too intensely with the family's emotional life without jeopardizing his/her own budding autonomy. Often, extreme rebelliousness can be a symptom that the family is pushing too hard to "make" the adolescent close to the family.
All families are at some risk for confusion about control and power issues, but the stepfamily is especially vulnerable, particularly the stepfamily with teenagers. A clue that a power problem might be going on is when someone keeps trying to "solve" something and continuously feels helpless and defeated in their efforts. Chances are they are trying to control something they CANNOT control and may be neglecting something they CAN control.
* Helen W. Coale, LCSW, Atlanta Area Child Guidance Clinic. This article was published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Fall 1990.