One of the trickiest areas for a new stepfamily to navigate can be discipline. Who makes the rules? Who enforces the rules? And who is really in charge? "Stepparents easily get pulled into authoritarian parenting -- a harsh, 'you will not do that' kind of parenting," says psychologist Patricia Papernow, Ed. D., a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center's expert council and author of Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn't. And it's easy to see why: Stepkids are testing the boundaries of the new family dynamic and are likely to push some buttons. But, says Dr. Papernow, "that kind of firm but not loving parenting is almost always very toxic in a stepparent and child relationship." Instead, the mind-set of the stepparent should be "connection before correction," Dr. Papernow suggests. Let the biological parent handle the majority of the discipline enforcement while you focus on building your relationship with the stepchild. Whether you're just starting a stepfamily or are looking to strengthen the one you're already in, our experts weigh in on the do's and don'ts of stepparent discipline.
DO keep talking with your spouse. "Make time to talk with your spouse about what's working and what's not," Dr. Papernow says. "Remember, you are from two different family cultures and you have very different positions in your family. Your job is not to agree with each other right away. It is to stay caring and open to each other despite your differences." Staying connected takes time and talking, says Papernow, and lots of it. Check in often and comfort each other when things are hard.
DON'T start with too many changes. Divorce, remarriage, new siblings, new house, and now, new rules? "Be sensitive that the child is already going through lots of changes," Dr. Papernow says. Don't come into the stepfamily with your list of ways to "fix" things. "If you do, the kids might see you as trying to erase all evidence of their life before you entered it," says Jenna Korf, a certified stepfamily foundation coach at Stepmomhelp.com and co-author of Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict. "Instead, give your family time to settle in and get used to the new living arrangement. Then try to tackle one change at a time while remembering that all members will need to compromise." That means you, too. "Research shows that it can take four to seven years for a stepfamily to function like a family, so give everyone time," Korf says.
DO set up a base level of respect. You can't force children to like or love a stepparent, but you can require a standard level of respect. "The biological parent should convey to the children that 'when you disrespect my husband or wife, you disrespect me,'" Korf says. Dr. Papernow suggests that the biological parent clearly explain the difference between love and respect, and the expectation for how the child needs to treat the new stepparent. "The parents can say, 'You don't have to love her, but you need to be decent to her,' and explain what that looks like." And a stepparent needs to demonstrate basic respect to the stepchild.
DON'T be the disciplinarian. The experts all agree that the stepparent should not act as the chief disciplinarian. Despite what you might think the stepkids need or what your natural style of parenting is, harsh, authoritarian behavior from a stepparent is sure to backfire. "Unfortunately, this sets the stepparent up for having an adversarial relationship with the kids," Korf says. "Until you and the kids are well bonded, they likely won't see you as an authority figure and will resist any disciplining you attempt. This can make life for a stepparent very difficult." Instead, see your role as similar to that of a babysitter, Dr. Papernow suggests. You can remind the kids of the rules and report misbehavior to the biological parent, but not administer the consequences.
DO get to know your stepchild. "Find time to spend one-to-one time with your stepchild to do what I call 'shoulder-to-shoulder' low-key activities," Dr. Papernow says. Think: a run around the lake, shooting hoops, watching a favorite show, or shopping. Many stepkids, especially if they're teenagers, do not want to be forced into a sit-down, face-to-face, "let's get to know each other" conversation. Instead, you want to build the relationship through shared experiences that will naturally give you opportunities to learn about each other. If possible, choose an activity that neither biological parent does with the child to limit any sense of competition. "If the John loves basketball, but [his] dad likes football and mom isn't interested, then this could be a great way for a new stepparent to connect with him," Dr. Papernow says.
DON'T be a pushover. Although it may be best for you to play a backseat role in regard to discipline, this doesn't mean that you have to be a non-participant. "The biological parent has the final say, but the stepparent still can have input," Dr. Papernow says. If your partner is not supportive of your needs or is practicing permissive parenting, you can still decide what you will and won't do. "The kids aren't being respectful to you? It's okay to let them know that you're happy to take them for driving practice, make them a sweet dessert, make their favorite meal for dinner -- when they can treat you respectfully. Being a stepparent does not mean being a doormat," Korf says. The goal for stepparents, Dr. Papernow says, is authoritative parenting that is "loving and kind while still making developmentally appropriate demands for maturity and setting realistic requests of kids."
DO realize that stepchildren will test you. "Expect kids to act out," says Rosalind Sedacca, founder of the Child-Centered Divorce Network and author of How Do I Tell the Kids About the Divorce? "Biological or step, kids naturally will test the waters and push the boundaries when there is someone new onboard. Children are feeling their way [through] how much control they have, and they will try to play both parents off each other." Don't take this as a sign that your stepchildren will hate you forever or that you'll never be happy together as a family. Instead, keep having honest communication with your spouse about parenting issues and continue to find ways to have positive interactions with your stepchildren to build the relationship.
DON'T take everything personally. Your stepchildren are dealing with their own feelings of loss, anger, confusion, and resentment about the divorce or remarriage. It may be easy to see their misbehavior as a direct attack on you, but remember that they need space and time to process the changes that have happened in their life. Even biological children are known to lash out at their parents with an "I hate you!" every now and then. "Children aren't responsible for liking and getting along with the stepparent," Sedacca says. "It's really the stepparents' responsibility because they are the adults." Even in the face of misbehavior or disrespect, maintain a sense of calm and maturity.
DO encourage and reward appropriate behaviors. Try the carrot method. Carrie Krawiec, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Birmingham Maple Clinic in Troy, Michigan, and executive director of the Michigan Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, recommends that stepparents focus on encouraging desired behaviors, attitudes, and interactions rather than disciplining for bad ones. "Biological parents generally have had all that time from infancy through the present to generate attachment and all those positive, loving feelings between themselves and their child. Stepparents are usually getting involved once the child is old enough to misbehave, but in most cases missed the opportunity to fall in love with the little bundle of joy," Krawiec explains. "If we think about all of those loving feelings like a bank account, stepparents who jump in to discipline are making withdrawals before they have sufficiently built a comfortable cushion." Instead, Krawiec recommends looking (and you might need to look hard) to find ways to point out, compliment, and reward the right things the kids are doing.
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