Blended Family Discipline: If, When and How

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By Gara Hoke Lacy, Esq. , Featured DM Blogger - April 16, 2014

Every stepparent knows the difficulties faced when it comes to disciplining stepchildren. How do I establish boundaries in the home? Do I discipline my spouse’s children? It becomes an even more Herculean task when the stepparent also has children. Two sets of kids with different parents. Oh, if it could only go the way of the Brady Bunch! Alas, our lives aren’t designed as a 30-minute sitcom.

By it’s very nature, discipline is designed to be punitive in nature. But it’s not effective if there is no education associated with it. After all, the point of discipline is to teach morals and values. Discipline works best when clearly thought out with boundaries and consequences defined. Preparation is key. When there is no preparation, that’s when resentment and hurt feelings appear.

If, How and When to Discipline:

1. Get On the Same Page

It’s not unusual when bio-parents and stepparents disagree on discipline—if, when and how. It is one of the more difficult issues in a remarriage context. While your parenting styles may not match that of one another, your attitudes toward misbehavior and consequences should. Keep in mind that children can either be a wedge or a bond. When you don’t show a united front, you show the chinks in the armor of your marriage and invite the child to challenge the relationship. No, you won’t always agree but you must work in concert with your spouse. Agree to disagree but show unity in front of the kids.

2. Establish Rules and Boundaries for the Household

Working in conjunction with your spouse, prepare a list of household rules. Make the rules fairly consistent with the rules at play before the stepfamily was formed so that they are recognizable. Be explicit about the rule and the reason it is employed in your home. The rules for all kids in the home must be consistent so that there are no accusations of favoritism between bio-kids and stepkids. This is true even when kids aren’t in your home on a full-time basis. If needed, post the rules, especially if you have younger kids in the home. When it comes to the repercussions of offending the rules, follow through. Kids, especially those who have been through a family break-up, need to witness stability in their new home. Ensure that you are enforcing the limits that you create.

Positive reinforcement plays a central role in discipline as well. Just as we teach what is unacceptable behavior, we need to reinforce our children’s efforts to model “good behavior.” Obviously, rewards need to be consistent across the board as well.

3. Rely Upon the Bio-Parent to Enforce Discipline

Initially, it’s best if stepparents act as advisers in the home while leaving the bio-parent to dole out the punishments. After all, no one wants the lead in their own Disney sequel about the evil stepmom/stepdad. However, as the role of the stepparent evolves over time, eventually the role of enforcer will evolve too. Go slow. Make certain that relationships have matured to the point where the children trust you as their stepparent enough to hold you up as an authority figure. Be clear that the rules were predetermined by both the bio-parent and stepparent.

4. Don’t Take It Personally

You once were a child so you know very well that children are meant to test boundaries. It’s their attempt to establish their own values and morals. It happens throughout childhood but becomes more apparent during the teen years. Don’t take it personally. Children in every home test their parents. It doesn’t happen only in stepfamilies.

Stepparents often expect instant love and race to the finish line in that regard. Experts report that it can take four to seven years for a stepfamily to bond. In those intervening years, there will be high and lows, some days that are better than others. Love may not appear as early as you would like. Still, respect is expected. In your home, this needs to be the resounding lesson coming from both parents.

5. If These Approaches Don’t Work, Seek Professional Help

I like the concept of the family meeting. My parents employed it as did my husband and I. When things needed discussing, we sat down and talked until cooler heads prevailed. However, there may be times when professional help is needed. Reach out to a respected religious leader or stepfamily coach. Also, psychologists and psychiatrists exist that specialize in stepfamily issues. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help when it’s needed. Families are the building blocks of society, the place where we learn to co-exist as respectable and respectful adults. It’s worth getting involved in the messiness of family life to ensure that your kids and stepkids receive the start in life they deserve. As for you…you deserve a successful blended family. 

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