Of all the issues that come with raising stepchildren, none are more arduous or problematic than discipline. Stepkids may be all smiles and good cheer when things are going well, but then the moment you try to correct them, they fly into their best rendition of the little girl from The Exorcist. Seventy-one percent of stepfamilies with ongoing problems found it difficult to discipline their stepchildren (Artlip et al., 1993), and even families that are relatively conflict-free can struggle in this area.

Reasons why stepchildren are more difficult to discipline

There are a few key things that make disciplining stepchildren different from disciplining biological children:

  • They may not consider you a ‘real’ parent, and will use this excuse to their advantage whenever it suits their needs, much in the same way that kids will disrespect a substitute teacher.
  • The lack of a shared history and a bond that goes back to the very beginning really makes its absence known when it comes to discipline.
  • The bipolar response you sometimes get is evidence of this: You’re cool and all, so long as you don’t tell me what to do, in which case you’re a newbie on the scene and have no right to tell me how to live my life.
  • Children who have experienced divorce often have insecure attachment issues. Disciplining children can therefore tap into fears of rejection and other related issues, so they react as if you’ve touched a sore point on their tooth with a metal object.
  • Inconsistency is another common problem, especially among children who split time between two homes and two separate sets of rules.

 

The struggle to discipline stepchildren

Even if you’re following our advice and trying to leave the lead role in discipline issues to the biological parent, you’re going to end up in situations where you have no choice but to discipline your stepchildren, as the following quote makes absolutely clear:

At first I thought, ‘I can’t really say anything to them. They’re not my children.’ But it got worse and worse – and it began to affect my own children. After my stepchildren visited, my children started running around trying to punch me and shoot toy guns at me and stuff like that. It was like, ‘Who are these monsters?’”
– A frustrated mother (Artlip et al., 1993, pp. 194-95)

Many stepparents feel they can’t act in any type of parental capacity until they love the children and are loved in return, which prevents them from even attempting discipline with stepchildren. But this simply isn’t true. Teachers act as a caretaker and authority figure to children all the time without having a loving connection with every child in their care. As Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman point out, “Camp counselors, teachers, and many other adults routinely guide and discipline young people without feeling a need to love them. It is often The stepparent’s need to love and be loved – instantly! – that makes the overall situation difficult to handle.” (1993, p. 25) Love certainly helps when it comes to guiding children, but it isn’t a prerequisite to discipline.

Other things you should know about disciplining stepchildren

  • It’s quite likely kids will try to test you in the very beginning. When this happens you should be passively firm – holding your ground without getting emotional or trying to push back and punish them. They need to learn whether your “No” really means no and they’re going to try and see how far they can push the limits with you.

 

  • Siblings are apt to jump in to defend their biological brother or sister whenever a stepparent tries to intervene and discipline them.

 

  • A spouse’s ex might be prone to interference as well, taking the attitude of “You can’t tell my child what to do!”