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Stepparents and Discipline

Read tips on how to effectively discipline your stepchildren -- without overstepping boundaries.

Stepparents and Discipline

Now that you've determined an approach to discipline and made a few decisions, the main question comes up again: What about discipline and the stepparent? What part is done by you, and what part does the bioparent handle?

As a stepparent, your approach to discipline will depend on where you are in the process. A new stepparent has a different role than a stepparent who has been part of the family for years. James K. Keshet, author of Love and Power in the Stepfamily, has developed a five-stage approach he calls the Stages to Stepparent Authority. I like them a lot, and with a number of changes, I've adapted them here.

Keep in mind that each family will move through these stages at a different rate. Some may happen concurrently.

  1. Be an adviser.
  2. Protect your rights.
  3. Enforce established rules.
  4. Join with your partner to set new guidelines.
  5. Make spontaneous choices.

Stepparents can move through these five steps swiftly and concurrently—or (more often) it can take years to get through them.

Step 1: Be an Adviser

At first, the direct assigning of limits and consequences should probably be left up to the bioparent, and you should avoid taking a direct role. Some say it takes at least two years for kids to begin to accept discipline from a stepparent. Two years is also about the time it takes to grow a strong, trusting stepparent/stepchild relationship. Any correlation? You bet.

Don't Be Wicked

Wait until respect and affection are built before moving in like some terrible disciplinarian—and then don't move in like some terrible disciplinarian!

During this adjustment period, defer to the bioparents (yes, plural). That doesn't mean you don't have a disciplinary role. Remember that discipline is the entire process of raising a child. You can and should model good behavior, treat the kids with respect, and encourage and reward them for things they are doing well. Leave the bioparent in charge of dealing with any major problems until you've gained their trust. Then you'll be able to assert yourself in a way they won't resent.

Bite your tongue. At times, and for certain people, this is going to be very difficult. Keep biting. Drag your partner into the bedroom to hiss disciplinary suggestions—that's cool. You have the right to voice your opinions, but let your partner be the final decision-maker and the enforcer.

Step 2: Protect Your Rights

Yes, leave matters of discipline to the bioparent for a while, but don't be a pushover when it comes to your own rights. You are a member of the household. You need privacy and consideration. It's also important that your stepkids understand that you and their bioparent are a disciplinary unit (remember the unified front theory?). As time goes on, they need to begin to see you, too, as an authority figure.

If you feel your rights or feelings are being stomped on, you may have to step in and assert yourself. Be prepared for conflict. Your partner should be your ally here.

Step 3: Enforce Established Rules

As you move into more of an authority role, you can begin to enforce already established rules and regulations. Continue to take somewhat of a backseat role by using reminders: "In this house, we all clean up on Saturdays," or "Josh, you know your mother insists you eat some vegetables before you eat dessert!"

Step 4: Join with Your Partner to Set New Guidelines

During this step, you begin to participate in family meetings, decide on the family values and rules, and help decide on jobs, duties, responsibilities, and expected behavior. You become one of the family decision-makers, and as an adult, your voice holds more authority than a child's.

Stepping Stones

It may take a while and some work for the bioparent to feel comfortable with you making disciplinary choices for his or her child.

Step 5: Make Spontaneous Choices

Back off on the discipline until the entire family is comfortable with one another. Once you've lived together for quite a while and are comfortable with steps 1 through 4, then you can begin to make independent decisions about discipline without deferring to your partner. It's appropriate to make spontaneous disciplinary choices in these instances:

  • When the bioparent is not available
  • When there are no established consequences for the misbehavior

Any decisions you make should be based on family values, rules, and limits.

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