Having just married someone with young teenagers, I feel like we need some structure or agreement on how I should interact with the kids, as a step-parent.

I think that is very wise to talk as a couple, and then share with the kids, what the goals of mutual respect in a blended family might look like. As a family, make a list of all the ways we show respect to another human being, and decide that you will honor each other by creating a household that shows love and respect to everyone. Some families like to schedule weekly or monthly meetings to talk through challenges, or celebrate
victories. Some create “contracts” that outline emotional, community, and household expectations. Kids actually really enjoy being a part of a process that clearly lets them weigh in on what is important to them. Come up with rituals, holidays, and outings that connect and give opportunities to bond as a new unit.

I also suggest a shift from “rule and punishment” model of parenting to a “value driven” model of parenting. This is hardest when there is conflict, obviously. But here are some guidelines:

  1. In a disagreement, listen respectfully and acknowledge that you are understanding the other person’s point of view, even if you don’t agree. “So what I hear you saying is…..” Try to get to what the other person is feeling or what they or needing— The goal is understanding or empathy first. Reflect it back to them, so they feel heard. Even if you don’t agree, acknowledge that you hear and understand what they are saying. Only
    then can you talk about your point of view. Then use “I” statements— own your feelings, opinions, and needs. “In this situation I was feeling… I was needing…” Avoid shaming, blaming, or making assumptions about others’ intentions. Model this and ask your kids to do the same. Slow it down and listen. If needed, remind kids that you are a safe person to talk through things with, and you will be there for them no matter what. However, it is never okay to be upset and disrespect anyone in the family. If that happens, the conversation must end until everyone is calm enough to talk with out blaming, yelling, or being cruel. Always require everyone to come back to the conversation when they are calm, however. It is a wonderful skill to learn early— how to calm down and re-engage when everyone can listen and communicate respectfully.
  2. Avoid comparisons to a co-parent’s household or handling of conflict. Shift to your values and how it works in your home. “Well, it may be different at Mom’s house, but we have reasons for the way things work here.” “We all need to pull our weight, or be respectful, or be honest, or fulfill our obligations, etc, etc… because these are the ways we show our love and trust for each other.” It is less about Rules and more about
    Respect— “this is the way we speak to other and treat each other, to feel safe and have a peaceful home.” It is a shift from rules and punishment to values and connection.
  3. Practice compassion. Assume the best in each other. Usually people are doing the best they can. If they are hurting people, they are usually scared or sad themselves. How someone is feeling is never wrong, it just is. Many times, kids are just wanting someone to understand and listen, not fix, dismiss, or explain it away. Ask more questions when kids make a bad choice or act out. (When you are calm enough) ask what they were thinking or feeling before an incident or argument. “Help me understand
    what you did/said/ or how you felt.” Try to affirm the feelings first and express understanding, even when you have to disagree with the behavior and give consequences. If your kid really loses it emotionally, try to imagine the need to calm the primitive brain (amygdala) at that point. Speak quietly and say things like “You are safe with me. Breathe and walk with me. I am here for you. I understand how you are feeling.” Of course, that’s hard, if they are being hateful or loud. But there is no reasoning (our upstairs brain) or conversation to be had, until the amygdala (our
    downstairs brain) is quiet. When the kids are calm, then we can talk about why they got so upset, what they can do differently, or even explain the consequences.
  4. No yelling/ Use “Time-out” moments. If you have a surge of emotion, walk away until you can speak calmly. Model this for your kids, and encourage them to use timeout tactics to calm down as well. If another person asks for a “time-out” to calm down or collect their thoughts, honor that. Decide as a family, how long is reasonable for a “timeout” tactic. All involved need to agree to come back to the conversation. Kids need praise as well, when they can successfully do this.
  5. If yelling happens, or people lose their temper and storm out, slam doors, etc— this needs Repair: When things calm down, the person who lost their cool needs to apologize for their actions and acknowledge the hurt they may have caused. This is super important for kids that may feel like, if they don’t perform as expected, they won’t be loved or accepted (very real feeling with a narcissistic co-parent) Model it and teach “Everyone screws up, or says and does things they regret. The key is to think it through and then make repairs.”
  6. Outline expectations, responsibilities, and consequences for kids, together, and stick to it. No giving in to exceptions or giving out harsh consequences in the moment; Ideally, if a kid has shown disrespect, pull away and talk as parents as far as what to do about it. Kids need to see the parents are aligned, and that consequences will be upheld by both parents. However, step-parents should not communicate the consequence/ punishment. That should come from the bio-parent, and hopefully be
    used as an opportunity to Repair feelings, Connect to a better choice next time, and Express unconditional love. Step-parents support the bio-parent, but avoid being the parent giving the consequence. Step-parents want to build trust and rapport in relationships with teens; they are aligned with the bio-parent, and certainly an equal but being the actual disciplinarian often causes resentment and erodes the relationship.
    Kids really want the connection with bio-parent when feeling vulnerable or trying to sort through their lowest moments.

I hope this helps, and that we can talk through your specific challenges as they arise. You will be a wonderful blessing to these kids— enjoy them!
You’ve got this!