Stepparenting and Discipline: Foundation for Effective Communication; Part 1 of 3

Stepparents face challenges that biological parents never will. These can range from financial issues such as child support obligations to the division of time between the natural child and stepchild and questions pertaining to appropriate training and child rearing of a non-biological child.

There are two schools of thought in American culture in reference to the discipline of stepchildren. One group promotes the passive approach that suggests that the parent of origin ought to administer the discipline and the stepparent should merely lend support and reinforcement. The active approach claims that a stepchild must realize that the biological parent and the stepparent are a united front and discipline is an equally shared responsibility.

The instantaneously happy stepfamily is a fallacy, particularly if the stepparent has never had a child of his or her own. Sacrifices that oftentimes seem unreasonable take place on an ongoing basis. The passion and romance of a newfound marriage can be quickly stifled by a visitation schedule that interrupts a weekend and summons shared attention with a stepchild.

Spontaneity is quickly extinguished as issues dealing with the care and entertainment of the child emerge. Demands faced after remarriage with regard to the financial support of the stepchild can cause anger on the part of the adjusting stepparent. A variety of emotions arise as each family member adjusts to the assigned role in the family and struggles with unmet expectations and feelings of isolation and disillusionment.

Adjusting to someone else’s child can be an overwhelming challenge for a stepparent, particularly if the stepchild resents or dislikes them. The struggle for place and space on an emotional level may cause a family a great deal of heartache and emotional pain. Although stepparenting is a challenge for stepmother and stepfather alike, stepmotherhood remains the more formidable role largely because society for the most part still regards the woman as the nurturing parent. She is perceived as being the one who sets the emotional environment of the family. She is judged on how well or how poorly she seems to fare as the substitute mom. The husband’s natural children also often judge the stepmom as a rival to the biological force in the family.

The question of discipline ranks high on the list of problems faced by blended families. Two sets of household rules generally merge and typically, members of a combined household engage in a struggle to determine which family is dominant. A biological parent and stepparent in disagreement over discipline styles only frustrate family members and invite anger and discord.

The blended family must work out its code concerning who imposes punishment on whose children and in what manner. A husband and wife must decide if they wish to be perceived as a unit or as separate heads of two different households. Agreed upon norms and forms of discipline are required in order for a stepfamily to abide successfully because when children sense there’s disagreement they tend to play one parent off against the other.

It is not unusual for two adults in a family to hold differing views on child rearing. In a family of origin, these issues are gradually encountered and adjustments are made stage by stage. Eventually, parents and children gain a sense of what’s expected and learn behavior that is encouraged, and that which is to be avoided. The blended family is expected to make these same needed adjustments instantly.

Factors that determine discipline styles include the ages and the emotional well being of the children in question. The strategy for issuing discipline also depends on whether the stepchildren reside with one natural parent and a stepparent or if they are occasional visitors. In an effort to remain consistent, let’s examine the disciplinary approach of a part-time blended family situation where the children visit the non-custodial parent once or twice a weekend per month.

Researchers disagree in their conclusions concerning the most effective way to discipline a stepchild. Those who encourage a passive approach warn the incoming adult about overstepping bounds. According to child-counselor Thelma Kaplan the spouse of the part-time parent must become reconciled to having a lesser role to play than the natural parent has. She believes that the stepparent can control what is acceptable in his or her own household but cannot hope to have a great impact on the general behavior of the youngster.
In his book, “How To Discipline With Love,” Dr. Fitzhugh Dodson instructs the stepparent to discipline a stepchild slowly. He cautions that emotional support is the absolute pre-requisite to discipline. He encourages rewarding positive behavior and uses a variety of techniques to discourage misbehavior. One such method is instead of stating to a stepchild, “Stop biting your nails,” address the issue by asking, “I can see you bite your nails. Would you like me to help you break the habit?” This approach registers the complaint in a non-aggressive manner. The uncertain status of a visiting stepchild necessitates added sensitivity on the part of the stepparent and loving disciple from the familiar, biological parent.

We will continue our discussion about discipline methods in issues to come; for now, consider that the most important task is to develop a loving and safe relationship with stepchildren. Without that foundational element, discipline of any style will only be met by resistance and further alienation.


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