Disciplining Step-Children

Step-parents walk on a tightrope. On one hand, they are second parents – and in cases when the real parent can’t play a major role in their child’s life, they function as primary guardians. On the other hand, step-parents can never assume full parental status. A step parent would never (and shouldn’t!) take the place of a child’s real mother or father. Yet, children misbehave around step-parents just like they do around biological parents. While the parent is free to discipline and is even obligated to do so as part of his and her parental responsibility to guide a child in the proper way, step-parents are not completely free to discipline. There are limits and restrictions for step-parents, depending on many different factors. The spouse’s personality and wishes, the presence and level of involvement of natural parents, and the ages of the children in question are some of the factors that will determine what forms (if any) of discipline can be used by the step-parent.

To avoid unnecessary conflict, upset and confusion in the matter of disciplining step-children, consider the following tips:

Get Support from Your Spouse
If you’re a step-parent, use your ally in the house — your spouse! Before enforcing any discipline strategy, sit down with your husband or wife. Get a consensus regarding rules in the household, as well as a list of justified consequences for breaking the rules. Make sure your spouse is the one who communicates these rules and consequences to his or her child. If your step child can see that the discipline strategy is not just your idea and in fact, you and his natural parent are on one team, he or she will more likely be less defiant and more cooperative.

Do Not Negate Nor Badmouth Your Spouse’s Ex
It’s hard to take a stepchild to task on something his or her own biological parent allows. To do so is to create competition between you and your spouse’s ex, a face-off that you will always lose. Rule of thumb: if the discipline issue is not a huge matter — that is, you can afford to let it go — then let it go. If you really must enforce a new rule, clarify that you only expect compliance from your stepchild while in your presence or your home. Give the child explicit permission to follow the rules in the other parent’s home, so that the child does not feel internal conflict.

Bond with Your Spouse’s Ex
If it’s possible, get to know and work with your spouse’s ex as part of the extended parenting team. You and your spouse’s ex both have the children’s best interests at heart; the more everyone is on the same page, the easier it is for both parents and kids. At best, you can level off on the parenting values that you both share, and may even learn a thing or two from each other. If you have a good rapport with your spouse’s ex, you may also simply refer discipline issues to them.

Employ Positive Parenting Strategies
Disciplining step-children using negative consequences is risky unless they are very young. In a way, it’s tantamount to punishing someone you didn’t earn the right to “punish.” If you must discipline a step child, employ positive parenting strategies, such as the CLeaR Method (see, Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice by Sarah Chana Radcliffe), rewards and  positive feedback. This way, a child is less likely to feel resentful of your intervention.

Befriend Your Step-Children
Discipline has one goal: behavior change. But remember that there is more than one way towards change. Being a confidant or advisor is a good, stress-free ways to influence stepchildren. By building your relationship with your step-kids, you automatically enhance your “parenting power” – that is, the power to influence the children. This is especially important when the step-kids are teens.

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