Discipline Dilemmas:  Don't Make the Most Common Mistake

Discipline Dilemmas: Don't Make the Most Common Mistake

Stepfamily expert Ron Deal estimates that the most common mistake that stepparents make is punishing a stepchild before building a relationship with them. 

Parenting is challenging for any couple, but step-couples need to carefully strategize the best approach to disciplining their kids, or the results can be detrimental.  Often in blended families, we see biological parents that expect their kids to readily accept discipline from their stepparent, and stepparents who claim to have as much authority as the parent. But here is what we've learned throughout our years of parenting and studying research-based advice from the experts:  What really counts is how much authority children are willing to accept from the stepparent.

The bottom line is that true authority is earned over time through the development of a trusted relationship.  And healthy authority requires a certain amount of willing submission.

During my experience in recovery from substance abuse, I learned the serenity prayer.  It goes like this:  "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference".  This simple meditation can be helpful in many areas of life, but let's explore what it looks like when applied to stepfamily dynamics and one of the biggest challenges we face as parents and stepparents.

Accept the things you cannot change

Regardless of the family structure, parents (and stepparents) quickly realize they don't have control over their children's natural reaction to many of life's challenges.  This includes how they accept and adapt to complex stepfamily dynamics.  

We must accept the reality that step-parents cannot demand parental status or authority - it simply doesn't work.  And attempting to force authority with your stepchildren will only cause damage and sabotage your relationship with them.  This creates a major setback to bonding and will actually delay the process of establishing healthy authority, built on trust.  For more on building healthy bonds with step-kids, see Mike's earlier post: Step-Parenting 101  

Change the things you can

We need to change our understanding of step-parenting…it's actually a two-person job! Parents need to maintain primary authority while supporting the step-parent in creating connection with the kids.  

Parents: the truth is that the parental standards of the home will follow your lead, so you mustfunction consistently in the role of primary disciplinarian.  Your kids are able to more readily accept discipline from you.  This is because you are the safest, most well-defined parent figure in their life and you have the highest level of connection and parental authority.

Step-Parents:  be patient, authority doesn't need to be taken it needs to be earned. It will take courage to back off and allow your partner to be the primary disciplinarian, but it will be worth it!  Over time, a stepparent's authority will progressively develop.  As bonds and trust grow, authority will often be given to the step-parent by the child. This approach will help the child to gradually accept their new step-parent and freely enjoy them without the strain of discipline.

With my daughter Annika, I have always been 'the heavy', handing down consequences for poor behavior and delivering bad news.  I also chose to give Mike the role of 'good cop'.  He got to be the one to deliver good news like:  "We're going to Disneyland"!  This naturally set Mike up for opportunities to bond with Annika in ways that wouldn't have been possible if he'd been put in a position of having to discipline and dole out punishment.  This strategy wasn't always easy for me and it also took courage, but it has worked really well for us.  Over the years Mike and Annika have shared countless connections in little moments and big events that were unburdened by the association of discipline strife.  As a result, Annika has a strong bond with Mike and regularly seeks out his advice and guidance because she has learned to trust him.

Know the difference

I also love this quote:  "Knowledge Speaks, but Wisdom Listens"!  Listen to the children living under your roof.  Let them set the pace regarding the authority of the step-parent.  This doesn't mean handing over control to the kids.   It means being sensitive to the healthy development of their relationship with the step-parent in their lives.  Look for clues and test the waters, but take it slow and remember the crock pot!  Step-parents, if you experience a negative reaction, pull back and focus on simply growing your relationship.  

There are many factors that can influence the pace of a step-parent's authority such as: ages of the children, their unique dynamics and history as well as their personality types.  Younger children tend to accept a step-parent's authority relatively quickly, while older pre-teen or teenaged kids may never accept it.  That's okay…the goal is to develop a relationship built on mutual respect and meaningful connection.

I have one more quote to add from Patricia Papernow:  "Children thrive when stepparents concentrate on connection, not correction, and parents practice caring, responsive and firm parenting."  Knowing the difference and accepting your distinct role will help to minimize discipline dilemmas and lead to more serenity.  It may take courage to implement change, but remarkable relationships within your stepfamily will be the reward!                

QUESTION:  What's one thing you can change in your approach to discipline?  Leave a comment below...

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