Your job, and you must accept it, is to hold the house rules and make sure he does not lose face in front of his friends. This is a difficult task. And, as you are increasingly successful in your efforts, you will have a much stronger relationship with your stepson. The following are the general steps to take in these kinds of scenarios:
- Observe and experience the acting up behavior. As much as possible, try to refuse his invitation to be the overbearing parent or the spineless parent. (This has already happened here.)
- Later that day, or perhaps the next day, have a short conversation with your stepson. If this is not possible write him a brief note, such as:
"Yesterday when you did X with your friends you caught me off guard. I did not know whether to come down on you or to look the other way. Neither feels very useful to me nor for you. I think we can come up with some creative alternatives that allow you to stay cool with your friends and me to feel like a good step-dad. So, next time something like this occurs--and it is likely to happen again because it is part of growing up--what should I do? "
He will probably not have any suggestions at this point, so give him a day to think about it.
- Get back to him the next day and see if he has any ideas. Add your ideas to his, discuss them, and come up with a tentative plan should a next time arise. Surprise him with your creative problem-solving abilities and your sensitivity to his situation. For instance: "Maybe when I see you starting to break a house rule I can give you some secret signal--tugging at my ear, saying How about those Bulls!, clearing my throat, or scuffing my feet. You know, so that your friends will not understand, but you and I will. This way you can check yourself before you get in trouble. Of course if you ignore my signals I will take that as an invitation to say something in front of your friends, but I would much rather you not invite me to take that kind of action. Do not worry, once I see that you have gotten my signal I will get out of the way as soon as possible. "
In this way you and your stepson get on the same team against the problem, rather than on opposite teams against one another.
This question centers around one crucial idea in the enforcement of limits for teenagers-- declining your teen s invitations into the stereotypical, adversarial teenager-parent relationship. Teenagers do not want this relationship any more than you do, but they do not know any alternatives. Parents need to jump start their creative juices for alternatives. You can be on their side and responsible parents at the same time, but you cannot dictate the conditions of these alternative relationships, they must be sincerely negotiated with your children.
When teenagers experience this sincere intent on your part (especially your sensitivity to their extreme vulnerability to humiliation) they can have their cake and eat it too-- authority over their lives and a supportive relationship with their parents. Clearly this does not happen overnight, it is something you slowly and persistently cultivate. Your teen will give you ample opportunities to practice these ideas, all you have to do is get a little bit better each time.