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Stepparent or Pal?

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Q: I married an older man who has a 13-year-old daughter and we're great friends. I never wanted to be her mom; she has a wonderful one already. But somehow I've created a situation in which it's more fun to be with me than with Mom and Dad. I'm the "cool" one. In reality, I'm just not the one disciplining her. How do I keep the close bond without making her parents feel bad?

A: You're in a wonderful position to positively impact your stepdaughter who is in a very important developmental stage. It is not uncommon for teens to detach from one or both parents and attach to another important adult -- sometimes a coach, a teacher, an aunt, or a friend's parent. This is usually an opportunity to have more of a friendship with an adult, while still receiving some guidance (although, they would never admit this part!). For parents of adolescents, I often recommend being on the lookout for responsible adults that their teens may attach to and recommend that they be supportive of that relationship. It's not a replacement of a parent but an additional connection and source of support that the teens may perceive to be a little less judgmental than a parent.

In her case it sounds like she's chosen you! This is quite lucky, because it's generally recommended for stepfamilies that form when children are teens that stepparents not assume a "parental role." They should support the biological parent and try to establish a mutually respectful relationship with the teen. She's offering you even more than that. You'll fill this role of special adult friend best if you remember that she needs you to be a friend and a guide. It shouldn't be a completely equal friendship or your spouse may feel you're not supportive of him and her mother in their parenting role. Think of a babysitter role in the sense that you can be "cool" and fun, but you still are a guide and may need to enforce the rules of the house (this is different than establishing the rules).

You're also in a position to be supportive and help nurture her relationship with her mother and father. She may be more willing to hear from you why her mother restricted something or why her father reacted a certain way. Share this information with your spouse and he can share it with her mother. This is not a problem - this is a lovely opportunity for a very healthy stepfamily.

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