Stepparenting and Discipline: Foundation for Effective Communication; Part 2 of 3

Last week we outlined some of the issues that can complicate communication between a stepmom and her stepchild. This week we look at how the key to achieving success as a stepparent is to build a strong relational foundation and build upon it with proper discipline and healthy interaction. Being aware of parenting boys versus girls is also important.

In their popular book “Raising A Daughter: Parents and the Awakening of a Daughter,” Jeanne and Don Elium propose positive reinforcement in lieu of active discipline. They claim that when daughters hear behaviors framed in a positive way, they have pride in the reasons behind their actions. The authors encourage parents to listen to “feelings” and understand “positions” as opposed to constantly exposing what they do wrong.

The Eliums believe that before the issue of discipline is to be addressed, parents must be certain that their daughters are aware of the answers to the following questions: 1) Are we in relationship? 2) What is the nature of our relationship? 3) Who am I within the relationship? 4) What is necessary in order to maintain a connection in the relationship? The authors feel that daughters are more focused on connection than rules and are not motivated by traditional disciplinary methods.

Jeanne and Don Elium also wrote a complementary book entitled, “Raising A Son,” in which they explore issues concerning raising a young boy. They declare that boys need to know three things before they will respond to discipline: 1) Who is the boss? 2) What are the rules? 3) Are you going to enforce them? The authors claim that helping children understand the answers to these fundamental questions will guide them to being self-disciplined. They encourage parents to develop a strong sense of self-will in their children, which can assure they will choose to live as happy and well-adjusted members of society.

In the book, “Stepmotherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked” by Cherie Burns, Dr. Clifford Sager gives advice and warns against excessive discipline. He feels it frustrates the stepchildren and stunts the development of personal relationships. He advises the stepparent to “take a back seat for a long time, and strive to be an appropriate adult friend instead of a disciplinarian.” According to counselor Thomas Seibt, also consulted in this book, stepparents should certainly choose to suspend their authority to discipline during the rough settling-in period.

Psychologist James Melter observes, “there is an enormous pull in stepfamilies for polarization, where one partner becomes the good parent and the other partner becomes the bad.” Stepchildren are generally dealing with resentment toward the stepparent and discipline generated by them simply irritates the friction between them. Allowing biological parent sole discipline rights avoids the “wicked stepparent” syndrome.

Jeanette Lofas, CSW and Dawn B. Sova claim that children of divorce are damaged not only by the loss of self-esteem that goes on before and after the divorce, but also what happens following the break-up. In their book, “Stepparenting: The Family Challenge of the Nineties,” they outline the “classic” bad habits that form in children when a biological family becomes divided

  1. Few or no meals together
  2. Family values, mores and ways of thinking become TV dominated
  3. Discipline and guidance is severely lacking
  4. The child becomes the center of attention
  5. Couples fail to restructure their new families
  6. Lack of civility and the resultant lack of co-parenting between ex-spouses
  7. Visitation schedules are not upheld
  8. The inability to have a conversation
  9. The accepted desire not to be part of the family

Professionals who propose a passive approach to stepparent discipline suggest that a natural parent is responsible to correct behavior that he or she has helped produce; behavioral patterns that have been permitted by the natural parent should be corrected by them alone. They believe that when a non-biological parent begins to try to alter the unacceptable behavior of the child, the relationship is likely to become volatile and emotional. The child views the influence of the stepparent as intrusive and offensive.

Lofas and Sova encourage stepfamilies to regard the stepchild visit as more ritual than visitation. They believe that a ritual provides a sense of security and continuity by its very nature of being an expected event. They feel since it’s difficult for a child to shift gears from his or her weekday routine to the step-home, measures should be taken to ensure that the child looks forward to the structure and views it as a caring and nurturing experience.

Janet Nadler reported in her doctoral dissertation, “The Psychological Stress of the Stepmother,” that quite a few of the stepmothers interviewed complained that they were excluded from the decisions made concerning their stepchildren and felt they had responsibility but no authority. Many of these women simply felt like nothing short of a household maid. Therefore, she concluded, “A stepmother who is not sanctioned by her husband to participate in child-rearing will be uncertain of her place in the family.”

Nadler’s advice to the non-parent in disciplining other people’s children is clear: “Don’t use third parties. Don’t tell the parent to tell the child. Instead, work out any problems with the child directly.” If the stepparent feels a part of the decision-making process she or he will be more likely to accept the responsibility of childcare in return for full citizenship in the family. This approach introduces the opposing view of stepchild discipline, which encourages an active role by the stepparent.

Laying the foundation for relationship is pivotal in the quest for a healthy relationship between children and their stepparents. Without a viable relationship, communication breakdown will surely occur. Next week we will consider more options in the pursuit of healthy stepparenting in the final segment of this series.


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