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How to handle discipline in a step-relationship

This is a tough one! On the one hand you want to assert yourself and create those all important boundaries between you and your new step-children, but on the other hand you’re not the biological parent. So what is acceptable and what isn’t?

To a large extent the answer to this is going to be entirely dependent on your individual circumstances, and in some cases it may be more appropriate than others. For example, a friend of mine lives with someone who is not the father of her first born, and they have gone on to have a child themselves. The first child is approaching her teenage years, and she doesn’t see her biological father particularly frequently. In this case, mum’s partner actually has quite an important role to play in helping his step-daughter grow up, by modeling acceptable behaviour, and acting in a parental capacity quite frequently by boundary setting and gentle discipline when necessary. This role is made easier by the fact there is a half sibling in the equation – the step-parent will of course be parenting his biological child and therefore this role will likely be more accepted by the other child.

However, if you’re someone who has just got into a relationship where your partner has children, it wouldn’t be appropriate to assume a parental role for quite some time. Even when it does naturally become more acceptable, it’s best to remember the three golden rules:

1. Being assertive is NOT the same as being aggressive

2. Communication is key

3. Timing is everything

Being assertive not aggressive

As with any parenting best practice (and remember this is not meant to be a parenting blog), if you’re looking to discipline your child, most people would agree that being aggressive is not the way to go! Of course this is easier said than done, and certainly in the 20 years of experience that I’ve personally gained, we are all human and assertive behaviour can be blurred or confused with its big bully of a cousin, aggression. In a step-relationship where emotions can often run high, a feeling of frustration can develop – so this can be really really hard to overcome, but it’s especially important to remember. Your relationship is going to blossom over time, but if the frustration you feel isn’t addressed in a healthy way, it’s going to bubble over into resentment and therefore likely to be expressed in the form of aggression. Needless to say, frustration and resentment are both unhealthy emotions that left unresolved will cause issues in the family dynamics. However, to help you master the importance of being assertive and not aggressive, keep reading because the second point should help!

The power of communication

This can be interpreted in many ways, for example communication between you and your step-child, as well as communication between you and your partner. For the purposes of this point, we’re referring to the latter. So if you’re unsure about how to handle a situation, whether it’s an ongoing behavioural issue or a one off occurrence, it’s crucial to chat to your partner about it. You need to agree with another on things like whether they are comfortable for you to help out with parenting, and specifically the discipline side of things. Is there anything either of you doesn’t think is acceptable (e.g. using certain words, discipline tactics etc) For example, a very young child may be accustomed to the ‘naughty’ step, a popular tactic used these days by many parents. The biological parent may prefer that you back them up in this tactic, or use it yourself if they are not around and you think it’s needed. On the other hand, they may think this is too much - perhaps you’ve not been long introduced to the kids and it doesn’t feel like the right time. The most important thing is that you agree on the approach that you both feel is appropriate, and then stick to it – children need consistency. Over time this approach will undoubtedly evolve, but by checking in with each other you’ll be sure that you’re going to come across as a unified couple.

Timing is everything

No doubt that a child who has got used to a step-parent being in their lives over a period of a few years will be more accepting of them and able to respond positively to any discipline. What is not appropriate in the early days of the relationship is likely to become acceptable when the child has grown to know and respect you – which may take months or years depending on whether you’re living with your step-children or not.

It may be that the biological parent takes responsibility for all discipline – and it’s important to stick to this if it’s a principle you’ve agreed on. Over time it will probably feel more natural to transition into a place where you can both discipline the children when it’s needed, but to help that transition you may want to agree a period of time where you ‘double up’.

The benefits of doing this are two fold:

1. The boundaries of what to expect from you as a step-parent will be reinforced by the presence of the biological parent, and

2. A more gradual transition will help to make the new status quo stick. Changing your style overnight is going to cause resentment and confusion on the part of your step-child.

The guidance given so far hasn’t taken account of the age of the child, which of course is a big factor.

You wouldn’t parent a toddler in the same way as you’d parent a teenager – and of course the same applies to step-relationships. In families where the new step-dad finds himself introduced to two toddlers, they are likely to be much more accepting of ‘adult discipline’ whether that’s from their biological or step-parent, by virtue of being a young child.

For older children and teenagers too however, emotions are going to be running high, and a sense of what is acceptable to them and what isn’t is going to be a lot more pronounced – the phrase ‘you’re not my mum / dad…’ is well known for a reason! None of this means you need to become a sitting duck however, and it's important for step-children to respect their step-parents in the same way as anyone would deserve. If the child is rude to you, it's perfectly acceptable and important to set your own boundary to be that you're not spoken to in such a way. To prepare for these (hopefully few and far between!) eventualities, why not practice a few short phrases in your own time, so that you can deliver your messages politely, respectfully yet firmly. You could set the boundary in such cases, then discuss any consequences with your partner, which as the biological parent may be their responsibility to decide.

It’s much easier to administer discipline if the children live with you. Your relationship with them will be deeper, they will be more used to your style, and the new family dynamics will become more settled more quickly. But of course it’s not going to be utopia from the start – this will take time, hard work, and lots of energy and patience. When you move into a place as a new family together, it’s easier to establish ‘house rules’ that you’re comfortable with. Try and give the step-children a role in the household, whether that be tidying their bedroom or cooking dinner once a week for example. This allows them to feel part of the new family more quickly, and by contributing to the household will give them a sense of belonging and contributing. Don’t be discouraged if your step-child is reluctant to do their jobs because ‘they don’t have to do it at mum / dad’s house’. It is completely within acceptable boundaries for you and your partner to want to establish rules in a new household, and it’s a good opportunity for you as the step-parent to establish a degree of authority. This in turn will help to enforce your role as a step-parent, hopefully this will make it easier to be authoritative if needed.

Step-parents who don’t live with their step-children are going to need to be even more patient – it will take longer to build the same dynamics and develop mutual trust and respect to the point where it feels natural and not forced, to discipline your step-child successfully. Remember however, that as above, to discipline is different to asserting yourself. You always have a right to assert yourself if you are not being treated kindly, fairly or respectfully.

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