How to Parent as a Team and Steer Clear of Power Struggles
Recently we were coaching Jim and Willow (not their real names). They were struggling with a nagging parenting dilemma that was causing frustration and tension in their stepfamily.
As they described their frustrations, we began to understand that Jim and Willow were stuck in two ways:
They were having a hard time parenting as a team
Jim was unintentionally getting locked in power struggles with his step-kids
Jim tended to focus on compliance with his step-kids. He was working really hard at establishing parental authority and was stuck in frustration when the kids didn't respond. Here's what it sounded like:
"Pick up the trash you left in the living room."
"Why haven't you finished your homework."
"Stop pestering the dog!"
And when the kids didn't respond the way he wanted (which was often), it was irritating for Jim - even leading to anger at times. "They need to learn to be responsible" he complained! (Which is a reasonable expectation)
Willow had some concerns of her own:
"Jim just barks out orders and expects the kids to jump."
"I'm worried that my kids are starting to resent Jim."
"I've been teaching my kids to be responsible for years - in ways that I feel are best for them.”
Jim & Willow actually want the same things for the kids. They both want the kids to learn responsibility, but they weren't yet working as a team to get there. That kept them stuck in daily power struggles.
This may sound very familiar to you…most step-couples have different ideas about behavioral expectations for the kids. We've been there! Everyone in your stepfamily wants things to go their way (including the kids) so that's what they're trying to achieve. And when the step-couple struggles to parent as a united team, this all leads to power struggles which result in stress and tension for the whole family.
Sooner or later every step-couple will experience these challenges to some degree, but they don't have to stay stuck there! There are 3 things every step-couple needs to understand that will help them avoid power struggles and become an effective parenting team:
1. Step-Couples Must Parent Differently
The root of Jim's challenge was his unrealistic expectations about authority. His heart was in the right place - he wanted to teach his step-kids responsibility so they can be successful in life.
But what Jim needed to understand is that in step-relationships, true authority must be earned. That takes time because true authority can only occur when trust has been established. It can take years for healthy bonds and real trust to develop in step-relationships.
Attempting to direct and discipline step-kids too soon will backfire and create high levels of stress and tension. Power struggles inevitably erupt as kids refuse to accept a step-parent's authority (as Jim had already experienced). Growing resentment, anger and guardedness will be a barrier to achieving a healthy and trusting relationship - where authority will eventually emerge.
In a stepfamily, the biological parent already has established authority - the bond and history they have with their children is strong and trusting. Kids are already used to following a parent's instruction and can easily accept discipline from them. This means that it's best when the bio-parent remains in the role of primary disciplinarian and the step-parent stays focused on building connection with their step-kids - growing trust over time.
Okay…so, all of this made sense to Jim and Willow, but there was another problem…Willow worked nights and Jim was often left home alone with the kids. Was he supposed to just let the kids go wild while she was gone? The answer is of course, NO.
That bring us to our next point - Jim will need to temporarily borrow power from Willow whenever she's gone and he's left in charge of his step-kids…
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2. Use the 'Transfer of Power' Strategy Every Time
A step-parent can manage and direct step-kids, while maintaining connection with them by using the 'Transfer of Power' strategy suggested by stepfamily expert Ron Deal. This is easy to do and very effective if you're consistent in using it every time:
Parents: Before you leave your partner alone with your kids you need to communicate and let the kids know that while they're gone, the step-parent is in charge. Willow will need to make the expectations clear to the kids about how they should behave and what she expects while she's gone: "While I'm at work tonight, I'd like you to clean up the mess you left in the living room, finish all your homework and remember to treat the dog respectfully". This sets the step-parent (Jim) up with "borrowed power" and will protect the step-relationships because the kids know that the ultimate power comes from you — their primary authority figure.
Step-Parents: It's crucial that you don't fall into compliance mode while you're partner is gone. If a child breaks a rule or refuses to do a task, simply remind them of the expectation given by the bio-parent and show empathy: "I know mom said you needed to get your homework done tonight…it's going to be a bummer if she get home and has to give you a consequence…I'll feel sorry for you if that happens. I'm here to help with the homework if you change your mind and decide you want to get it done before mom gets home".
Unless a child is doing something unsafe or really disrespectful, you don't necessarily need to jump in with correction (let the parent take care of that later if needed). But if discipline is absolutely necessary in the moment, make sure to remind the child of the expectation and tie your reprimand directly to a rule or expectation the parent has already made clear: "I'm so sorry you made the choice to kick the dog even though you know you aren't supposed to treat him that way. Until you're able to treat the dog respectfully, you'll need to spend some time in your room". Jim needs to stay calm, focus on his step-child's behavior and give lots of empathy.
As a Team: Then, when the parent gets home get together right away to talk about how things went (out of earshot of the kids). If a child made a poor choice such as refusing to do homework, then decide as a team what consequences need to happen — the bio-parent can then deliver the consequences to the child as soon as possible.
Follow through is crucial. If a child knows they can act out when the parent is absent (without any repercussion) the Transfer of Power strategy will not be effective. This strategy will only work if both partners are playing their role well. Once kids understand that the adults are in charge and that their bio-parent will always hold the ultimate authority, this can be a game-changing strategy for any stepfamily!
Lived out well, the Transfer of Power can reduce the impact of all those power struggles and increase the peace in your home. And the best way for every step-couple to make this effective brings us to our next point…
3. Getting on the Same Page with a Solid Game Plan
Jim and Willow's parenting struggles aren't uncommon for stepfamilies. In fact, their situation reminded me of Mike and I shortly after we got married. We had different expectations about authority, different parenting styles and different ideas about how to solve our problem. Finally we decided we needed some help, which was one of the best decisions we've ever made.
We knew we weren't on the same page and that we wanted to end the cycle of frustration, confusion and conflict that sucked us in every time a parenting issue came up (which was often). But what we've learned is that having a game plan make all the difference!
Get on Board with a Parenting Method
There are so many parenting resources out there to choose from. We chose the Love and Logic method and this gave us the 'play book' we needed to get on the same page about how we were going to parent. I don't know about you, but we've seen that every parent (and step-parent) can benefit from expert parenting instruction - especially since parenting is probably the most important job you'll ever have…and the hardest!
Find a method that focuses on authoritative parenting, using both firm and loving techniques to teach kids how to take responsibility for their own choices and self-manage behaviors. Reset Families is another great resources for step-by-step help in ending power struggles, setting clear expectations and responding appropriately - all while balancing relationships and accountability.
Map Out Your Desired Destinations
If you're going to lead your stepfamily forward as a team, first you have to make sure you're working toward the same goals. Mike and I encouraged Jim and Willow to clearly identify what we call their Desired Destinations.
Desired Destinations are simply the MOST important family values or character traits a couple wants to teach and model in their home. Clearly identifying your Desired Destinations is critical because when you aren't intentional about where you're headed as a family, you'll probably end up somewhere you really don't want to be (we call this a 'Default Future').
Here are some simple questions every step-couple must consider together:
What do you want relationships to look like in your stepfamily?
What kind of atmosphere do you want to create in your home?
What are the values you want to teach and model to your children and step-children?
Every step-couple can get on the same page by discovering what's most important to each of them and clearly mapping out how they'll lead their family toward their common goals.
Once a couple is clear on their Desired Destinations, parenting decisions become simpler and teamwork increases. If you're ready to define your Desired Destinations and create a clear path forward for your family, we can help you with a simple, specific strategy to do just that…click here to learn more.
Transformation is Right Around the Corner…
Parenting challenges and power struggles are one of the most common reasons step-couples reach out to us for support. These can be some of the most difficult areas of stepfamily life to navigate. Mike & I know because we've been there!
Ultimately, issues around parenting can pull couples apart and damage step-relationships. But You don't have to allow that to happen in your stepfamily…You can do something different! Focus on being a team by intentionally choosing your Desired Destinations and then build a solid strategy for eliminating power struggles as you parent as a united team!
QUESTION: What are some ways you’ve discovered to be a unified team around parenting in your stepfamily? Leave a comment below…