How you go about disciplining stepchildren will determine the kind of success you have. Do it poorly, and your discipline attempts will increase behavioral problems rather than solve them, creating a very bad pattern for the future.
Tips on how to discipline stepchildren: Some basic rules & guidelines
- The biological parent should take the lead role in discipline issues. This doesn’t mean the stepparent does nothing or never tells the kids what to do. It simply means that if areas of contention arise, the biological parent steps in. If there’s an ongoing issue of concern with the kids, discuss it privately and have the biological parent handle it or dole out any punishment. The stepparent should be the reporter, the biological parent the punisher.
- Be sure to get in the habit of pointing out the positive in kids. (See our section on communicating with stepchildren.) “Most of us want to please others,” writes Elaine Shimberg, “even if it’s a stepparent whom we aren’t sure we really like.” (1999, p. 66) But if kids feel like they can never please you, they’re going to stop trying and take the opposite approach.
- After each of you have gotten on the same page as far as discipline issues are concerned (see the section in our stepfamily eBook on united parenting), hold a family meeting and discuss these rules and expectations. Work on creating a code of conduct together, and have kids come up with their own consequences for when they break the rules according to what seems fair and reasonable. It’s always a lot easier to enforce rules and consequences when kids have agreed to the merit of the rules ahead of time and played a role in creating the consequences.
Don’t just tell the children what you expect of them, ask what they expect from you. (Fairness? Patience? A warning when they are doing something wrong?) How do they expect you to conduct yourself? Don’t take the cocky authoritarian attitude of “I’m the adult, he’s the child, so he can’t tell me what to do.” If a child’s requests for your code of conduct are reasonable, hold yourself to the same standards you expect of them. Create your own consequences if you fail to follow them. This type of quid pro quo goes a long way with stepchildren.
Discipline techniques for stepparents
You don’t have the same shared history, the same secure bond, or the same long track record with stepchildren that you have with biological children. This means that stepchildren are going to be hypersensitive toward your discipline efforts. Like a rubber band that’s already stretched tight, you have a lot less leeway before they snap, which means a lot less room for error. Cleaning up your technique and making simple adjustments to the way you discipline children can make a big difference in terms of how often you’re straining this relationship. Since they have less of a propensity for taking guidance from you, your delivery matters. Here are some practices that will help:
- Focus on trying to manage the situation, not the child. For example, if the kids are acting rambunctious and doing laps around your new furniture, rather than screaming at them to settle down, ask them to come to the park with you, or suggest a fun physical activity they can do in the backyard. If you hear from the tone of their voices that things are starting to get antagonistic between two siblings, go ask one of them to help you with a special project that pulls them away from the situation. This won’t prevent every conflict, but you can easily cut the amount of discipline you need to do in half simply by looking for ways to manage the situation rather than scold the child.
- Avoid disciplining stepchildren in front of the other kids whenever possible. So rather than shouting, “Jolene, I need you to stop doing that!” from across the room, say “Jolene, come see me for a minute please” and then handle the situation confidentially. Not only does this spare the child a public shaming in front of their siblings, but it helps prevent the siblings from ganging up on you. You don’t want to get into situations where a child acts defiant simply in order to save face in front of his or her siblings.
- Since stepchildren are more insecure in their relationship with you, get in the habit of starting off discipline with a positive statement:
- Alex, my dear, you know that I love you, but what on Earth do you think you’re doing right now?
- I’m not mad at you Amy, but I really need you to…
- There’s a lot of times I’m pleased with your behavior, now is not one of them.
Providing a little sugar with each reprimand like this can alter the way your words are perceived and make cooperation more likely.
- Get in the habit of issuing warnings that allow the child to take the initiative and adjust their behavior accordingly: “Can you correct this situation on your own, or do you need me to step in and discipline you?” Then clearly state what you need them to do, not just what you don’t want them doing. If the child continues their misbehavior, they’ve got no one to blame but themselves.
- Call them out about expectations in situations where kids are misbehaving just to be difficult. If they aren’t listening to what you say, ask: “Is this an unreasonable request? If I were your biological mother, would you still be arguing so much?” If they continue to think you’re being unfair or refuse to listen to you, respond with, “If I told your father what is going on right now, what would he think of your behavior? Would he think this request is unreasonable?” Then rather than scolding them or giving a lecture, talk about how you enjoy having them around but expect them to abide by the rules. Kids often know when they’re being ornery, and this is another way to allow them to correct the behavior on their own.
- The end result of every discipline episode should be affection and reconciliation. If you have to discipline or punish your stepchildren, wrap it up with either statements of affection (“I like/love you, and I want us to get along”), or physical affection (“I could really use a hug from you right now. It would make me feel a lot better”). Then cap it off with a hopeful statement about the future: “It makes me really sad when we argue like this, so let’s try not to do this very often.” If you’re not re-setting the stage to an affectionate baseline each time, then you’re allowing resentment to build and inviting more problems in the future.
- Remember to focus on what gives rise to misbehavior or rebellion in the first place. Do they feel threatened or insecure? Stressed out? Have they lost their place in the family? Is it a cry for attention? Content children do not misbehave – they have no reason to. So rather than blaming the child for “bad” behavior, look deeper to the source of the problem.
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