All children need to believe, without ambivalence, that their lives have intrinsic worth,promise, and real meaning. And when children, step and biological, are not treated with respect, the entire stepfamily suffers. What does discipline in stepfamilies look like? Consider the following:
Decide up front if you are all going to try to co-parent your dependent kids as a team of informed, cooperative caregivers, or as independent, competing (or indifferent) adversaries.
Accept that typical stepfamilies are very different from average one-home biological families, and often need fundamentally different rules and standards than typical biological homes.
Go slowly on changing pre-remarriage child discipline rules and making new rules and/or consequences. Ideally, biological parents should do much of the discipline with their own minor kids until the kids learn to trust and respect their stepparent(s).
Expect loyalty (or values) conflicts over child discipline issues in and between your related homes. Evolve a way to deal with them that works often for your unique stepfamily.
Try viewing discipline values that clash as different, not good/bad or right/wrong.
Doing so helps avoid destructive, stressful power struggles.
Expect dependent step-kids to test and retest your home’s child discipline rules. This is (usually) far more about their learning to trust that they are safe in confusing and alien new stepfamily surroundings than it is about defiance, rebellion, or “badness.”
Help step-kids see and accept that a stepparent is not trying to replace or “become” their biological parent, but is (1.) doing parenting things like guiding, teaching, and protecting, and (2.) legitimately co-managing his or her own home.
When a stepparent is the only one available to perform child discipline—especially in a new step-home—it helps if the biological parent(s) verbally “authorize” the stepparent in front of the step-kid(s) to act in their place.
Stepparents should try not to confuse a biological parent’s natural tolerance for his or her own child’s behavior with being “too easy.”
Stepfamily adults should experiment over time with who sets the child-behavior rules, and who enforces them and how. Avoid rigid, black-and-white child discipline rules.
A stepparent who resents a stepchild talking disrespectfully to a biological parent should try something like, “I don’t like the way you’re talking to my wife (husband)” rather than “…to your mom (dad).”
If step-kids visit their other stepfamily adult(s) regularly, it helps if all stepfamily adults inform each other of key child discipline values, rules, and consequences in their respective homes, and try for a collective united front where possible.
It can be helpful if child discipline, usually considered from the stepparent’s point of view, is explored via stepchild’s perspective. Consider the following “memo” from and about your stepchild:
Set clear limits for me. I know very well I shouldn’t have all that I ask for. I’m only testing you, which is part of my job. I need a parent, not just a pal. Be firm with me. I prefer it though I won’t say so. It lets me know where I stand.
Lead me rather than force me. If you force me, I learn that power is what really counts. I’ll respond much better to being guided.
Be consistent. If you’re not, it confuses me and makes me try harder to get away with everything I can.
Make promises that you can keep, and keep the promises you make. That grows my trust in you and my willingness to cooperate.
Know that I’m just being provocative when I say and do things to upset you. If you fall for my provocations, I’ll try for more such excitement and victories.
Stay calm when I say “I hate you.” I don’t really mean it. I just want you to feel upset and sorry for what I feel you’ve done to me.
Help me feel big rather than small. When I feel little, I need to act like a “big shot” or a whiney cripple.
Let me do the things I can do for myself. Your doing them for me makes me feel like a baby, and I may keep putting you in my service.
Correct me in private. I can hear you better if you talk quietly with me alone, rather than with other people present. Talk about my behavior when our conflict has calmed down. In the heat of battle somehow my listening gets bad and my cooperation is even worse. It’s okay for you to take the actions needed, but let’s not talk about it until we all calm down.
Talk with me rather than preach at me. You’d be surprised how well I know what’s right and wrong. I need to have my feelings and ideas respected, just like you do—so please listen to them.
Tell me of your anger at my actions without name-calling. If you call me “stupid” or “jerk” or “clumsy” too often I’ll start to believe that. Help me learn how to handle anger without harming.
Help me feel that my mistakes are not sins.I need to learn from my errors, without feeling that I’m no good.
Talk firmly without nagging. If you nag over and over, I’ll protect myself by growing deaf.
Let my wrong behavior go without demanding big explanations. Often, I really don’t know why I did it.
Accept as much as you can of what I’m able to tell you. I’m easily scared into lying if my honesty is taxed too much.
When you teach me things, please keep it simple. If you use big words or get into long confusing explanations, my mind goes somewhere else.
Enjoy me! I have a lot to offer you!
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect. For more information: http://glorialintermans.com/stepfamilies.htm