Q. I was a single mother for many years and then met a new partner four years ago. I have a 13-year-old daughter who was nine when she first met my partner. My partner has always been wonderful to my daughter and they get on great as a rule. However, she does not accept discipline from him and this causes lots of conflict particularly since she became a teen. Do you have any guidance on how I should manage this?
A. Introducing a new partner to your children and creating a new family unit is a complex process at the best of times. Everyone is faced with the challenge of working out their new relationships with each other.
Your partner must deal with the challenge of forming a relationship with your daughter and working out how much of a stepfather role he should adopt. You are faced with the challenge of moving from being a single parent when there were just the two of you, to including your partner in the family and balancing your relationship with both of them.
While things can often go very well, there can be conflict, particularly if you have different expectations of each of the relationships and how people should fit in. For example, whereas you may expect that your partner would be able to adopt a stepfather role in your daughter’s life, this may not be the way she sees things. She might see your partner as simply your partner or companion and not expect him to be a father to her.
Your daughter was relatively old when your partner was introduced to her and though she might see him as supportive or even a fun person in her life, she might not expect him to adopt a parental role, particularly around discipline. In addition, though she might get on with him most of the time, she might also feel rivalry towards him – after all she had you to herself for nine years and now she has to share your attention.
Though you don’t mention any details, another factor is whether your daughter has or has had a relationship with her birth dad, and her perception of him and the circumstances in which you became a single parent.
All these issues can particularly come to a head when children hit the teenage years. At age 13, it is very normal for children to begin to separate and pull away from their parents. They begin to question their parents’ rules and start a journey towards independence and making their own decisions.
As parents you can experience this as conflict because your rules and values are challenged and it can feel a bit like a rebellion. Questions about identity and belonging are very significant during the teenage years and your daughter may be wondering about her birth father and her origins, as well as rethinking her relationship with you and questioning the role of your partner. Setting rules with teenagers can be a challenge in most families and you have the extra challenge about her identity to consider.
To resolve things, I would make a number of suggestions. Firstly, it is worth rethinking and examining your own expectations.
If your partner has not had a discipline role up until now, then it might be unrealistic for him to adopt this as she becomes a teenager. Generally in blended families it is okay for you, as the birth parent, to be in the main disciplinarian role and your partner to be in a support role.
You should insist that your daughter displays respect to him as your partner (and vice a versa), but making decisions about rules and boundaries is mainly your responsibility. You should also chat through these issues with your partner and explore what his expectations are. It may be a relief to him that he does not have to be the main disciplinarian, and that he can mainly focus on being a supportive person towards you and your daughter.
Secondly, it is worth sitting down and trying to talk to your daughter about the issues. Ask her about how she is feeling about things in the family at the moment and directly raise the issue as to how she sees your partner and his role in the family. Then you can share your hopes and expectations (for example, that you hope that they will continue to get on and that you expect her to be respectful and not rude towards him).
At an appropriate time, bring up a conversation about her birth father and check how she is feeling about this and whether she wants any more information about the past or even if she wants to make contact at some point in the future. The more you can be open and listen to her about this, the better for her in the long term.
Thirdly, as much as possible try to keep your relationship positive with her. Make sure you have one-to-one times with her during the day, when you chat and enjoy each other’s company. Though this can be harder when children become teenagers, it is just as important – the more you maintain a connection and keep your relationship positive, the easier it will be to resolve discipline issues.
Notice what interests you have in common or what things you enjoy doing together or when you have the best chats, and make sure to build on these. Equally, it is important for your partner to continue to cultivate his relationship with her, while taking into account that she is now a teenager and may be questioning his role in the family.
You may find some extra support by contacting other parents in similar situations via support organisations such as One Family, www.onefamily.ie
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, December 2010. John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.