For anyone raised on a steady diet of Disney movies and Brothers Grimm fairytales, the thought of becoming a stepparent, particularly a stepmother, can be downright terrifying. The stepparents in these classic stories are always evil, usually plotting to abandon, maim, or disappear their stepchildren. Typically, stepparents are the most hated characters in the land.
Why would anyone sign up for that? Oh, right: Love. Well, then, it’s a good thing we’re not living in a Disney movie. Still, those childhood tales stick with us. As a stepparent, you want to help guide your stepchildren, and that often means laying down the law. But disciplining a child who is not your biological offspring can be tricky. And, let’s face it, there are certain things that are going to be awkward serving shiny, red apples to your stepdaughter, for starters.
So how do you effectively and positively discipline your stepchildren without looking like an evil intruder? The first step is to establish a set of clear, safe boundaries with your partner, say the family mental health experts behind the nonprofit group, HelpGuide.org. “An important part of building trust in a family has to do with discipline,” advises one HelpGuide article on creating a strong and loving blended family. “Couples should discuss the role each stepparent will play in raising their respective children, as well as changes in household rules.”
Jessa Nancarrow of Lawton, Oklahoma, learned this lesson early on in her second marriage. When she met her husband Paul, Jessa was a single mother of two elementary school aged boys and had been divorced for more than seven years. Paul, on the other hand, was a medic in the U.S. Army, childless, never married, and used to living with a bunch of rowdy men. Needless to say, those first few months of semi-co-parenting could have been disastrous if Jessa and Paul hadn’t established clear boundaries right from the start.
“I think the only thing that saved his sanity in those first six months was that Paul realized he was a student and didn’t have to immediately step into the role of father,” Jessa, 39, says. “He sat back for the first few months and watched how I did things. He interjected where he thought it was appropriate; sometimes he was right to do so, other times he was wrong. He was learning how to be a parent and basically going through a crash course. I think if he had immediately tried to be their father, the boys would have found him too overbearing and would have shut him out.”
The experts at HelpGuide agree. They advise new stepparents to follow Paul’s model and ease into the role of disciplining parent by letting the biological parent to take the lead until “the stepparent has developed solid bonds with the kids,” allowing the children to see their new stepparent as more of a friend or counselor rather than a disciplinarian during those first few months.
The Nancarrows took this advice to heart, and Jessa said it has strengthened their family. “Paul played only the positive roles of being a father at first. He was a mentor, teacher and role model,” Jessa said. “One of the most positive things he did right off the bat was teaching my youngest son how to swim. That immediately created a bond between them. It was only later that Paul started to take on some of the more unpleasant roles, like being a disciplinarian and being the big gun when mommy was too tired to deal with their bad behavior.”
The couple also established clear boundaries for the boys’ discipline. “They were pretty basic boundaries,” Jessa says. “No physical violence and no raised voices.” Paul has never had a problem with the first one, Jessa said, but the second boundary can be tough for an Army guy. “He was trained by the military, so the no raised voices is harder for him but he is learning to tone it down.” And, now that the couple has added a baby to the mix, raised voices are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
“Our advice to new couples is to talk about this type of thing before you get married, to get on the same page regarding your boundaries and parenting goals, and to be as honest with each other as possible,” Jessa said. “If not, you run the risk of creating friction later on.”
Jessa and Paul talked about their views on discipline and parenting methods before they agreed to take that walk down the aisle. “He and I were raised differently, so what is acceptable to one of us is not always acceptable to both of us,” she says. “If we didn’t talk to each other about the way that we wanted the boys to be raised, the boys would have gotten mixed messages, and that could have been very detrimental.”
Other tips for disciplining stepchildren:
- Remember that your stepchildren’s ages, genders, and dispositions are going to play a huge role in how they handle a stepparent thrown into a disciplinarian role. If you’re coming into a marriage and your stepchildren are younger than 10, it’s going to be a lot different, and probably a lot easier, to establish rules and regulations than if you’re dealing with a child in the throes of adolescence.
“Those who come into the family during the preadolescent or adolescent stage may have the most trouble since these children are trying to show that they have no use for a parent at this time in their lives,” writes author Wednesday Martin in her guide to understanding the complicated relationships between stepmothers and their stepchildren, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. “They’re rejecting and impossible even to the people they love the most. Can you imagine how they’re going to treat a stepparent?”
- When in doubt, defer to the biological parent. “If there’s a behavior for which your stepchild needs a consequence, let your spouse deal with it and support their decision,” advise relationship experts Carri and Gordon Taylor in their guide to positive step-parenting techniques, Blending Family? The 5 Secrets of Effective Stepparenting.
Deferring to your spouse helps your stepchildren see you as the “good cop,” and can strengthen your marriage, too, the Taylors point out. “It’s important not to be the heavy, but you can’t disappear either. Maintaining your presence and at the same time supporting the bio-parent is difficult, but will be productive. The irony is that when you relax and support the bio-parent, the relationship with your stepchild will form faster.”
- Before taking on any disciplinary roles, get to know your stepchildren and figure out where they’re coming from. Like the Nancarrows’ story of the new stepfather taking his youngest stepchild swimming, remember that you must develop a bond and build a level of trust, before trying to correct their behavior.
Being a stepparent can be one of the most rewarding roles you’ll ever have. It can also be challenging. But children grow up fast, and there are hundreds thousands of wonderful moments along the way. So when you start to question your role as a stepparent, and you start to feel like the Brothers Grimm had you pegged, just ruminate on this piece of wisdom from The Happy Stepmother blog: “It’s easier to develop a caring, loving, and friendly relationship with your stepchildren when you don’t have the burden of parental responsibilities and can simply enjoy your time together. Stepchildren should be assets, rather than liabilities, in your life.”