Daughter Catches Stepfather Out: Adolescent Brains Wired Differently

Posted at 14:33pm on 25th July 2009

Dear Mel,

I got married again, about six months ago, to a lovely man who’s very good to me, and is keen to know everything about becoming a stepfather. The trouble is, he has no children and he doesn’t seem to know how to cope with my teenage daughter, who lives with us. He complains that she doesn’t say “good morning” to him at breakfast (actually she doesn’t say much at all) and she feels got at by her stepfather because he seems to expect her to do her homework the minute she gets in.

Her dad and I were divorced five or six years ago because of his continuing adultery and drinking, and he now lives in a stepfamily though that marriage now looks dodgy. It all had a terrible effect on my two girls – one went completely off the rails – and they don’t get on with their new step-mum, so don’t see much of their dad.

Which is why I’m so desperate to make a good home for them here. But as I say, my husband and daughter seem to rub each other up the wrong way. Which is surprising considering he’s a teacher and she’s only thirteen, nearly fourteen and she’s quite young for her age.

I can’t bear it if this marriage goes wrong. I’m hoping my other daughter, who ran away then went to live with her dad but hates it there, will want to come and live with me again. Anything you suggest will be gratefully received.


Mel's Comment:

Dear Tania,

Congratulations on your second marriage which, by the sound of it, is very different to the first. It looks as if you took your time, too, before committing to another relationship. Sadly, many people rush into something new without thinking it through, and then wonder why that fails as well.


You seem to believe that the root of the problem between your daughter and her stepfather is that he has no children of his own. Whilst I agree that this might have some bearing on the matter, I don’t believe it is entirely responsible. On the contrary, there are distinct advantages in having only one set of children in a stepfamily.

You’ve already said that your divorce had a disastrous effect on your girls and that they don’t get on with their stepmother. Think how much worse it might have been if they had had to contend with your husband’s children as well: sharing bedrooms and living space; TV time; parent time. These things are not insurmountable, as many happily blended families can testify; but two sets of children reeling from the aftermath of a family break up does add to the complexities of all the new relationships.


You then go on to say that you’re surprised that, as a teacher, your second husband doesn’t cope better. And here, I think, you have identified the root cause.

Think about it! Your new husband’s only contact with young people, to date, has been in the classroom where he is supposed to be a figure of authority. You don’t say whether he teaches in primary school or secondary school. However, given that there are few male teachers in primary schools (and that young children often have few male role models as a consequence) my guess is that it’s the latter.

Teachers, these days, have a hard time of maintaining order in the classroom. The permissive Sixties generation and laissez faire Seventies created a society where, although we all talk about Rights and Respect, we tend to do so only in terms of demanding them for ourselves. Teachers, rightly, feel that parents should have more influence in inspiring their children with a greater sense of deference for adults. Yet all too often they are a lone voice in the wilderness.

Consequently, your daughter’s stepfather is probably trying to be a good parent in the only way he knows: as a good Teacher. He “educates” his pupils at school in the social skills of how to greet an adult, formally; and he expects students’ homework to be properly completed and handed in on time. So that’s how he operates at home. Because that’s how his brain is wired.


What is needed, here, is for him to be quietly and unobtrusively “re-educated”. Don’t put him down, show him up in front of others, or make him feel inadequate because you have been a parent for many years and he has not. Reassure him, gently, that you are now, jointly, the mother and stepfather of your daughter and that you will make decisions together - but that it will take time.

Remind him, too, that adolescence is a phase; that teenage gracelessness is not intended to be disrespectful; and that they do grow out of it. Point out to him that the children he sees in school have almost certainly started their day in the way that all teenagers do: with a grunt! And that if he asked their parents how they are greeted in the morning, they would tell him just that.


One Head Teacher who looked into the situation of whether teenagers need more sleep than adults is Dr Paul Kelley, of Monkseaton High School in North Tyneside. A BBC Report examining his findings concluded that a teenager’s brain is wired two hours behind an adult’s. The research shows that “continuous early starts created ‘teenage zombies’ in the classroom” and that “allowing teenagers to begin lessons at 11am had a ‘profound impact’ on learning.” It would appear, therefore, that there is little point in adults expecting an adult response from teenagers until coffee-time at the earliest.


Your husband is quite right in believing that adolescents need parental guidance, especially when it comes to your daughter’s education. But it’s unrealistic to expect her to fall in, instantly, with her stepfather’s ideas. It just wouldn’t be fair; and it would certainly be counterproductive to insist.

I would suggest, in this case, that you talk first to your husband, and then have a family pow-wow. It might help if you all took a look at this article, on research done by the National Institute of Mental Health, which shows that the structures and connections necessary for a healthy adulthood depend upon the experiences of adolescence. "If the teens are doing music and sports and academics, that's how brains will be hard-wired. If they are doing video games and MTV and lying on the couch, that would be how they are hard-wired," says neuroscientist Jay Giedd.

He and Paul Thompson, an American neurologist, have produced studies suggesting that rebelliousness and other stereotypical teenage behaviours may not be entire due to raging hormones as previously thought. The assumption, which is part of a growing body of scientific evidence, is that it may be caused by bursts of rapid change in the developing teenage brain.

If that is so, then there is good reason for you to be glad of your second husband’s support: to encourage it. Your daughter’s role model, to date, has been that of her father: a drunkard and an adulterer. And whilst it would certainly not be helpful to point that out to her, the unspoken example - of kindness, goodness, self-discipline and a good work ethic - given by her stepfather will, I am sure, do more for her in the long run than any amount of lecturing and falling out. In other words, give it time.

Why not take a **FREE** psychometric personality test online, to ascertain not only your own identity and way of communicating, but also that of your family members? It will improve your interpersonal skills no end, and enhance the relationship between each one of you.

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