During Peter Gerlach's first meal with his new stepfamily, his teenage stepdaughter began chewing with her mouth open. So Mr. Gerlach decided to take advantage of his new authority as a stepdad and told her to close her mouth while she was eating.
The teenager turned to her mom. "Do I have to?" she asked.
With that simple question, the girl - and her stepdad - set off a classic dispute in blended families with teenagers: She behaved in a manner that clashed with her stepfather's values and then asked her mom to back her up. When her mom told her they'd discuss the matter later, Gerlach felt resentful.
"Without a doubt, the adolescent years are the hardest time to form a stepfamily or to be at peace," says Susan Wisdom, coauthor of "Stepcoupling" and a counselor in Portland, Ore., who specializes in stepfamilies.
Discord isn't inevitable in blended families that include teens, but parents do need to be aware of potential problems, experts say. These may be spurred not only by a clash of values, but also by strong loyalties that can pit different family members against one another.
Disputes also arise when teens begin trying to exert their independence, says Margorie Engel, president of the Stepfamily Association of America.
It's critical for parents and stepparents to try to empathize with teens in stepfamilies, she adds. They didn't want their parents to split up, they may not really want to live with a parent's new spouse, and they're trying to strike out on their own, rather than embrace new family members.
"In our society, teen years are the time to begin separating from family so that teens are prepared for independence after high school," says Ms. Engel. "When parents with teenagers marry and create a stepfamily, they inadvertently stall this developmental process ... by forcing combined activities, meals, and bedrooms to the detriment of privacy, one-on-one time with children, and time with peers and their appropriate activities outside the home."
Kristi Holden of Portland, Ore., experienced such problems when she was 15 years old and her father remarried after her mother died. Because her father's house was small, Ms. Holden, now an adult, had to share a room with a 15-year-old stepsister who had radically different tastes. In addition, she had acquired a stepbrother.
"It was so hard," she says. "Here was this house I grew up in, and at times, I felt as if there wasn't room for me in it."
Life would have been easier, Holden says, if her father and stepmother had provided a private bedroom for her and if she had felt more respected and appreciated by her new stepfamily members. Instead, she felt as if this new family was forced on her against her will.
Often this happens when adults in a stepfamily focus on forgetting the past and starting over, says Engel. She calls this "a misguided effort to re-create a first family or a blended family image - and try to ignore the reality that teens also have loyalties and close relationships with a parent."
Teenagers may show their feelings in ways that leave the stepparent feeling hurt and unappreciated, notes Kevin Ricker, a marriage counselor in Sylvania, Ohio, who raised four stepchildren. After he taught his stepson how to drive, he relates, "as we were coming back after he passed his driver's test, he said, 'Can I borrow your car and show my dad I can drive?' He couldn't wait to show his dad he could drive, even though his stepdad [had] taught him."
At that moment, Mr. Ricker needed to remind himself of his stepson's natural alliance with his father, he says.
Stepparents also need to understand that when there's a conflict, the parent may reflexively favor his or her child's point of view, notes Ricker. That can create family disagreements, especially if the teen's values clash with the stepparent's.
For example, a teen's mother may allow him to play video games in her house. His stepmom doesn't like video games, and doesn't want him to expose her younger children to them. The teen may solicit support from his dad, saying, "But I can do this at Mom's house."
In this case, the stepmom and father need to work out a compromise, notes Patricia Papernow, a psychologist in Hudson, Mass., and author of "Becoming a Stepfamily." They might decide to allow the teen to play his video games in a room where the stepmom's children aren't exposed to them, for instance.
"The stepmother should tell the teen, 'We have two cultures here. Because you grew up in a different culture, you need to use the video games in a way that's respectful to my kids,' " suggests Dr. Papernow.
Debbie and Jay Dettmer of Ellicott City, Md., found that respect was the key to struggling with values differences between their children's households.
"We were the 'rule' family, more strict than my husband's ex, wanting to keep an eye on the girls and keep them out of trouble," says Mrs. Dettmer, who has an 18-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old stepdaughter.
The Dettmers often worried about Mr. Dettmer's daughter when she was visiting her mother. They hoped she wouldn't watch inappropriate movies or stay out too late. But they knew they couldn't control what happened at his ex-wife's house.
"Instead, we tried to be clear about what our expectations were here," says Mrs. Dettmer. For example, when the girls learned to drive, she and her husband asked both girls to sign contracts that required them to call home whenever they drove somewhere.
As parents in stepfamilies work together to solve such problems, they should use language that allows adults and teens to talk comfortably about differences in values, says Mr. Gerlach, now a therapist in Oak Park, Ill., who specializes in blended families. "They need to create a culture in which no one is bad or wrong."
It's good for families to create a culture that avoids angry confrontations, says Robert Klopfer, a clinical social worker in Ridgewood, N.J. "What's most important is learning to talk to each other. Kids don't feel [good] when people are angry at them."
However, stepparents of teens don't always find it easy to avoid anger or resentment. "When you are the stepparent and you are living with a kid who doesn't look at you and makes faces at you behind the parent's back, it really hurts. Teens are good at this," says Papernow.
When stepparents find themselves feeling hurt and rejected by teenage stepchildren, they should be clear about their limits, says Karolyn Meador of Portland, Ore.
Her second husband had five teenagers when Mrs. Meador married him. It was tempting to try to buy the teens' love, she says.
Every Christmas for many years, Meador and her husband took their family to a ski resort, where Meador bought and wrapped presents for her five stepchildren and her own two children. She prepared meals for the seven kids plus five of her stepchildren's friends.
Mrs. Meador now realizes that because she wanted so much for her stepchildren to like her, she worked too hard at Christmas to make that happen.
Now that her children and stepchildren are adults, she sees that it was more important to simply earn their respect. "In order to get them to like me, I tried to act like a regular mom," she says. "That shouldn't have been my role."
She suggests that stepparents define their roles in the family. "They shouldn't assume they have to do certain things to get the kids to like them more."
Meador is proud of the fact that even though she's no longer married to her second husband, she has a good relationship with all her stepchildren. And her children and stepchildren have remained friends. But those good relationships are based more on respect than on her overzealous efforts to make the stepchildren like her.
Another stumbling block for some stepparents is insisting on family time with teenagers. Often, teens are busy playing sports, taking dance classes, or visiting with friends. That can make finding family time difficult, especially if the teens split their time between Mom's house and Dad's house.
Lisa Daniel of Bethesda, Md., says that when her stepdaughter, Mara, was a teenager, she generally spent six weeks each summer with Mrs. Daniel and her husband, Timothy.
When she was 15, Mara was offered the opportunity to dance with American Ballet Theater's summer program in New York, which would cut her visit to two weeks. Mr. and Mrs. Daniel decided the teen should pursue it, even though they would miss her.
"It's a very tough balance to try to ensure enough family time to allow some kind of cohesion with a teen whom you don't see much and to be responsive to the fact that they increasingly have lives of their own," Daniel says.
With infrequent family time, values clashes, loyalty conflicts, and teens pushing for independence, life in some stepfamilies with teenagers can be emotionally charged and difficult. Mr. Ricker says the experience becomes easier if parents can accept the fact that stepfamilies are inherently different from nuclear families.
"Mother, father and stepchildren is a circle that is never closed," he explains. "Kids are coming and going. You feel the influence of value systems from outside. You just don't get the closure and control of the family that a nuclear family does."