Discipline can be a difficult issue for all families, but it can be even more challenging for stepfamilies. The key to successfully curbing some of the anticipated struggles is to communicate the expectations of everyone in the new family right from the start. Parents need to know what role to play, and the stepparent needs to feel like an "insider." The children should be aware that, though they may not love the new parent immediately, they must treat their stepparent with respect.
To Discipline or Not: That is the Question
This issue raises concerns among many stepparents, biological parents, as well as the children. Some experts believe that the stepparent should not ever take on the role of disciplinarian, while others feel it is imperative in order to maintain the correct balance within the new family.
The key is to take it slowly. "Don't try to overpower the child or displace your spouse, but at the same time, remember that you are a parental figure in the home and shouldn't be afraid to assert your authority," says Karon Goodman, stepmother and author of The Stepmom's Guide to Simplifying Your Life. "Be consistent. Let your stepchildren see how you discipline your own kids. You have to remember, too, that you are the adult."
According to the Stepfamily Association of America, more than half of Americans today have been, are now or will eventually be in one or more step situations in their lives. Being a stepparent is not easy. "I was very surprised at how hard it was," says Goodman. "The biggest problems I faced were my own insecurities. It's very difficult to find your place as a stepmom and to trust yourself with so many decisions to make and so much unfamiliar territory to travel."
Bill Maier, Psy.D., vice-president for Focus on the Family and psychologist in residence in Phoenix, Ariz., advises families to seek professional counseling long before the wedding date. "Expectations, roles and parenting styles should be clarified with the help of an experienced therapist," he says. "Couples who attempt to 'go it alone' may be setting themselves up for frustration and failure."
Time of Transition
It is very difficult to establish credibility as a stepparent if both of the adults are not consistent and agreeable on the way issues are handled when they arise. In the early months, it is often best for the stepparent to take more of a backseat role when the biological parent is at home.
"Each parent should reassure their kids of their love and attention despite the difficulties of transition to a new family," says Goodman. "It's great if everyone can spend lots of time together before the marriage in very informal, non-threatening environments."
Goodman has been a stepmother for more than six years and has learned a few things along the way. "The parents may even want to have a casual meeting so that everyone can discuss any fears or concerns," she says. "If the kids are reluctant to talk, the parents can just give their 'vision' of the family-to-be and reassure everyone of his or her place."
It's important to let everyone in the family adjust at their own pace – and in their own way. Maier reminds parents that blended families present a whole set of parenting challenges that must be navigated with extreme care. "An unsuspecting stepparent may suddenly be confronted with long-standing alliances, power struggles and an 8-year-old who has assumed the role of 'surrogate spouse' in Mommy or Daddy's absence," he says.
It's crucial for parents to listen for the growing pains that are bound to rumble in the home. Be prepared to address the serious issues with a professional, and always be open to communicate a concern with a child or with your spouse.
"Because typical multi-home stepfamilies are far more complex than intact one-home biofamilies and have many additional tasks to negotiate, effective child discipline is often harder to achieve," says Peter K. Gerlach, MSW, from Oak Park, Ill., the founder of Stepfamily Information Program, a research-based educational site to help co-parents build high-nurturance relationships and families. "Over half of U.S. stepfamilies re-divorce legally or psychologically within 10 years."
Jesse Raymond, a mother from Middlebury, Vt., says that the best advice she can give new stepparents is to follow the discipline regime that the biological parent follows, especially in the early days. "Don't institute new rules," she says. "It is imperative that the biological parent establish that everyone respects each other. Everyone tends to feel threatened at first."
Raymond says that at the time she remarried, her husband's children were 5 and 8 years old. "He told them that they had to do what I told them because I was a grown-up in the house," she says. "It's been 10 years, and we have been a family a long time."
Top 10 Tips for Coping
April Clay, a chartered psychologist from Alberta, Canada, offers her tips for coping with discipline issues:
- Work at a relationship first. In the initial stages of the relationship with your stepchild, the operative phrase should be "go slowly."
- Have frank discussions about discipline styles with your partner. Sit down with your partner and discuss your individual parenting styles.
- Tolerate and work with differences. Accept that there are times you must agree to disagree.
- Decide how much discipline responsibility is appropriate to your situation. Most experts advise that the biological parent handle the majority of the disciplining. That said, don't take too much of a "hands-off" approach; this could lead to feelings of powerlessness and resentment.
- Decide on some key family rules. Choose rules that will be essential to the effective functioning of the stepfamily.
- Pick your battles. Decide what is really important; know your room for compromise.
- Seek support. Back each other up.
- Hold meetings. Conduct regular parent meetings to refine and develop your parenting alliance.
- Consider taking a parenting course together. This may give both of you common ground to work with.
- Do assume adult authority. Exercise your role as an adult who is to be respected. There will be times when you will have to cope with confidence.
Stepparenting can be difficult but comes with so many great rewards. Being a dedicated, consistent stepparent can have a long-term impact on a child. Remembering that the same feelings of insecurities or awkwardness that you might be feeling as a parent are probably parallel to what your stepchild is experiencing.
Every family has its ups and downs. Discipline issues are always on the forefront of many conflicts within any home. Setting the ground rules early is a positive step toward developing a long-term commitment to your new family. It takes time to trust in each other. Persistence, love and understanding will go a long way in building the foundation for a bright future.