In her book, Teenagers with ADD and ADHD: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Chris Zeigler Dendy discusses the challenges teens with ADHD — and their parents — face. Her insights are based on her personal experiences and those of the many parents, teens, and experts whom she has interviewed.
In this excerpt from the book, Ms. Dendy addresses the difficulties many parents of teens with ADHD encounter when they become part of a blended family after a second marriage.
What are the complexities of second marriages?
Second marriages present complex issues for all families. When a child has ADD or ADHD, the pressures on stepfamilies are compounded. You should be aware of the factors that make step-parenting difficult for all families, as well as the unique ways an attention deficit can affect stepfamilies.
First, being a member of two families can become very complicated. The teenager may have as many as four “parents,” plus extra grandparents with whom he must interact. Parents may or may not agree on child management strategies. Each family’s ability to maintain consistent family rules and consequences for misbehavior varies. This could be a nightmare for the teen with an attention deficit who needs structure, routine, and consistency. Remembering which rules apply in which family will be extremely difficult.
Second, making decisions about living arrangements may be difficult. Since most children of divorce live with their mothers, the typical stepfamily consists of the teenager, his mother, a stepfather, and sometimes other siblings or stepchildren. Frequently, the teen spends alternating weekends with the absent parent, most often, the natural father. Usually, the “weekend parent” spends less time with the teenager, has fewer conflicts, and may be tempted to just have fun with the teen. He or she doesn’t want to be the “bad guy” and may ignore the need for routine, structure, and consequences. However, if parents have joint custody, the teenager may live alternating weeks with each parent. In this situation, it is very difficult for the teen to make transitions such as moving back and forth between families.
On a more practical level, can you imagine what havoc a teenager’s attention deficit related to disorganization and forgetfulness can cause when living arrangements are divided? Now he has two homes where he can lose or leave things. If he needs the math book, homework, or computer, it is probably going to be at the wrong house.
Third, the teenager’s natural loyalty to biological parents may result in strong conflicting feelings. The teen may think subconsciously, “If I like and have fun with my stepfather (stepmother) that means I am not loyal to my real father (mother).” The teenager may fear that the stepparent is trying to replace his natural parent. Stepparents have to carve out their own special relationship with the teen and make it clear that they are not trying to take the absent parent’s place.
Fourth, the teenager and the parent with whom he lives are sometimes extremely close and develop a very special relationship. When a stepparent enters the relationship, their time must now be shared among three people, not just two. Initially, feelings of displacement are common among teens. Sometimes, the son (daughter) who has been the man (woman) of the house is resentful, jealous, or frightened that he or she is being replaced by the new spouse. These feelings increase the potential for family conflict.
Fifth, the stepparent’s role in parenting is seldom clearly defined. Teenagers are unlikely to accept parenting or discipline from a stepparent until trust and a relationship have been established. According to research, being a stepmother is the more difficult role — perhaps, in part, because of our society’s negative attitude toward “the wicked stepmother.” Often the teen feels the stepparent hasn’t earned the right to intervene or discipline until their relationship is solidified. The teenager may say, “You’re not my father (mother). You can’t tell me what to do.” As a result, the biological parent may make decisions about most of the disciplinary actions. Unfortunately, developing trust between stepparent and teen takes time, perhaps years. You can’t force or rush it. The biological parent must make a special effort to involve the new stepparent in decision making and to present a united front to the teenager. To be honest, however, sometimes parents have a spoken or unspoken agreement: you discipline your child and I’ll discipline mine. That strategy works well in some families. For the best results in these situations, discuss differences in parenting strategies privately and in a calm manner.
Sixth, stepparents may consciously or subconsciously attribute a teenager’s misbehavior to poor parenting. This spoken or unspoken criticism or blame results in the biological parent feeling hurt and defensive. The biological parent then finds herself (himself) frequently trapped between the stepparent and the child. This creates tremendous stress. Most natural parents want to build a cohesive parenting team with the new stepparent. However, this is difficult, especially if the stepparent does not fully understand attention deficits.
Seventh, most biological parents are naturally protective of their teenager, particularly with their new spouse or people they are dating. Feeling guilty about the divorce and their child’s “loss” of a parent contributes to this protectiveness. Plus, parents are even more protective when a child has a disability. Because the potential exists for so many negative interactions, a wise natural parent often works very hard to increase positive interactions with her teen. So at times mothers may avoid conflict by ignoring less important issues. Although these parents do set limits, they may ignore more misbehavior than the average parent. Other adults may not understand this.
Eighth, natural parents are often extremely embarrassed by their teenager’s misbehavior. Even though they know better, they may sometimes feel as if their teen’s misbehavior is a negative reflection on their parenting skills. They may reluctantly withhold information from the stepparent simply to avoid conflict.
“Although I know I shouldn’t withhold things from my husband about my son, I have done it before. It is so embarrassing to tell him some things that my son has done. Occasionally, when I don’t tell my husband something, I feel very guilty. But if I told him everything, a huge fight would erupt between us. Sometimes, I deal with the problem myself and impose a consequence when necessary.”
Finally, many of the typical problems associated with stepparenting are magnified because of the teenager’s symptoms of ADD or ADHD. The “invisible” nature of attention deficit disorders makes it difficult for most stepparents to understand its profound impact on the teen’s day-to-day behavior. Some stepparents perceive the teenager as lazy and his misbehavior as malicious and intentional, further adding to family conflict.
Stepparents may be unprepared
New stepparents usually feel overwhelmed when they inherit a son or daughter with ADD or ADHD. Some stepfathers or stepmothers who are disciplinarians believe incorrectly that their strong influence and discipline will solve the teenager’s problems. This attitude is more likely if the new parent has other children who don’t have an attention deficit and are easier to raise, or if they have no children at all. Yet, unless the teen is receiving proper treatment and the stepparent is educated about attention deficits, problems are likely to become worse, not better.
“As a young treatment professional I gave other parents ‘great advice.’ I had all the right answers until I had a child with ADD inattentive. Then when I became a stepmother, I also had to learn how to deal with the unique characteristics of a stepson with ADHD.”
Occasionally, both parents bring children with attention deficits to a marriage. These parents may be more understanding of the behavior associated with ADD and ADHD. However, parenting a second child — a stepchild with an attention deficit — is still very difficult.
“I know I was more tolerant of my own child’s ADD inattentive behaviors than I was of my stepson’s ADHD. I made a special effort to treat them equally, but it was terribly difficult. I feel guilty about it, but unfortunately, I think it’s a pretty common parental reaction. The age difference was also a factor. His son was older and I felt he should have been more responsible. Later, when my son reached the same age and did the same things, I realized I should have been more understanding of my stepson.”
Marital bliss? Maybe not!
Conflicts over the teenager’s behavior may put a serious strain on the marriage. Ideally, the couple should not wait until the relationship deteriorates, but seek counseling early from a treatment professional who specializes in working with families with attention deficit disorder.
Just looking at data about all remarriages is scary. About 50 percent of remarriages end in divorce. The primary reason these marriages fail is due to conflict over children. Stepfamilies coping with ADD or ADHD are clearly in double jeopardy, since conflict over these children is inevitable. The remarriages that have the greatest risk of failing are those in which the father has children and marries someone who does not have children. However, the family unit is strengthened and more closely bonded when the new parents have another child. The arrival of a baby strengthens the relationship between the siblings.
The simple passage of time plays a major role in cementing relationships in stepfamilies. Some research has shown that “blended families,” as second marriages involving children are sometimes called, take approximately five years to bond and feel like true family members.
“We have been married eight years now. The early years in our marriage were very difficult. Our teenage sons, both of whom have ADHD, are now young adults. My husband and I have fewer conflicts with them and are closer not only to our own sons but stepsons too.”