Discipline in Stepfamilies
Discipline in Stepfamilies
This topic is challenging. If a stepparent gets off to a bad start with the stepchildren, he or she may never be able to recover.
Sadly, this happened when I remarried. My husband and I each had two children in the third grade to tenth grade age range. My husband knew that I had had chronic fatigue syndrome for years and had not had enough energy to discipline my kids well. He thought he could help by insisting that the kids do chores, follow rules, etc. My kids did not think that he had any right to boss them around. They concluded that he was strict, punitive, and not at all likable. More than ten years later, they were still not willing to consider new evidence or change how they felt about him, even though his behavior had changed a lot. As young adults, they do now see and appreciate that he brings love and joy into my life. Even so, they disliked him so much so soon after we married, they may never feel close to him.
Moral of that story: Do not try to discipline your stepchildren before they have formed an emotional bond with you. They may hate you forever.
There is one exception. If you are clearly acting as the biological parent’s agent during his or her absence, then it might be OK for you to insist that the children comply with rules the biological parent has put in place. This works only if the biological parent convinces the children that the stepparent is simply doing on her behalf what she would do if she were present. Even then it’s better if most of the discipline comes directly from the biological parent.
Discipline is not synonymous with punishment. Discipline is acting in accordance with a set of rules, a code of conduct, or a training program. It takes discipline to learn to play a piano. It takes discipline to resist the impulse to punch a rude stranger on the street. It takes discipline to keep the kitchen clean. Most kids learn self-discipline, such as good study habits, primarily as a result of their parents teaching them discipline — insisting that they do required chores and follow family rules, and following through with relevant consequences when a child skips a chore or breaks a rule.
Because it is so difficult for a stepparent to discipline a child, it is very important for the biological parent to do it. Somebody has to do it, and no one else can.
If no one disciplines a child, the consequences for the child are likely to be very bad. She may not learn that it is in many circumstances not OK to yell at people, demand what she wants, ignore tasks or goals when someone else wants her to do something, boss friends around, defy authority figures, and so on. She may not learn to regulate her emotions and behavior. She may have a hard time finding friends as an adult. She may have a hard time getting along with people at work. She may have a hard time setting goals for herself and working to achieve them.
My advice? In a stepfamily, the parents need to confer and agree on rules and consequences. The biological parent must, at least until the child forms a strong emotional bond with the stepparent, be the primary disciplinarian. The stepparent can act as the primary parent’s assistant and proxy, but expecting the stepparent to be the primary disciplinarian is asking for trouble.
The author is a Professional Family Mediator certified by the Virginia Supreme Court. She is not an attorney or a therapist. This article is for informational purposes only.