The roles of stepmother and stepfather are not easy, a confusing mix of similarities and differences to that of biological mother and father roles. Equally baffling are the alien roles of stepson, stepdaughter, stepsibling, and half sibling.
Teenagers, even in the best of biologically intact families, are capable of making your hair stand on end. Multiply that a few times over and you have an idea of the havoc they’re capable of within the stepfamily mix – a situation where constructive discipline often goes begging. Traditional biological – family discipline often backfires, creating even less harmony, security and order, leaving everyone wondering not only what should be done but by whom.
Do you and your mate disagree on what “effective” discipline is? Do you and your spouse discipline through pain, guilt and frustration instead of using discipline to guide, teach and protect by respectfully asserting yourself? Do you usually enjoy being a stepparent, or do you endure it? As a stepparent do you:
- Feel uncomfortable with, or unsure of, your authority?
- Feel significantly criticized about how you discipline your stepchild by someone whose opinion matters?
- Feel too little disciplinary support from your partner, i.e., you often feel “It’s me against them?”
- Feel significantly disliked and disrespected by your stepchild and feel hurt, resentful, torn, and guilty?
Perhaps you honestly don’t like your stepchild – which shapes how you co-parent him or her. Your partner may want you to discipline his child differently (more strict/less strict/more friendship), and you don’t really want to or don’t know how.
The first step is to adopt a long-term problem-solving outlook. The short-term rifle shot of “I want Jenny to start cleaning up her room now” isn’t going to work. Adopt a co-parent, partnership attitude: “This is our problem,” instead of “It’s me against you here.” Accept that it’s not a matter of simple “obedience” or “the mess in her room.” Effective discipline is about a group of deeper unmet needs that you and your partner need to uncover together, focus on one at a time, and resolve over time.
Work with your partner to develop the skill and confidence needed to spot and dismantle toxic relationship triangles. Discipline conflicts promote them, which makes lasting solutions all the more evasive.
SORTING IT OUT
When your stepchild disobeys and efforts to gain his or her consistent cooperation aren’t working, you need to look at the real problems underneath the defiance. When your stepchildren haven’t grieved their losses enough, you and your partner (including ex-mates) need to do this together and with compassion. Without exception, all stepfamilies are based on major sets of broken bonds, i.e., losses, for adults and kids alike; the loss from a gradual or sudden breakup of their biological family through separation and divorce, death, or desertion. Surprisingly, another set of broken bonds comes from remarriage and/or people from different families moving in together.
Children (biological and step) often test for safety, not because they’re rejecting you. If this is the case, support their needs, learn specifically what it will take for them to feel safe, and assert your needs patiently while they test.
Your stepchildren may be overwhelmed with their many developmental and adjustment tasks in this new household and may be paralyzed or angry about having to do them, through no fault of their own. Pay attention, often steady support, and praise their progress as they adjust, over time.
As a stepparent, you may be trying to discipline too soon. You have to earn your stepchild’s respect and trust over many months, after the wedding. Whenever practical, let your mate set limits and enforce consequences. Concentrate on earning the child’s trust and respect, without being a doormat. Assume disciplinary authority gradually.
Does your stepchild perceive (correctly?) that the limits you set are disrespectful demands instead of requests? If so, learn communication skills and change your attitude. Your message needs to become one of equal respect.
Your partner, your stepchild’s other (biological) parent, or someone else may be sabotaging your disciplinary authority by either overtly or covertly encouraging your stepchild to disobey you. Confront this person respectfully and firmly about his or her actions (but not his or her character, which will cause the person to become defensive and sabotage your intent). Work to uncover the real needs underneath the sabotage and solve these problems, if possible. Free your stepchild from being caught in the middle.
You might have unrealistic expectations of yourself, your partner, and/or your stepchild – e.g., I’m an adult, so my stepchild must willingly respect and obey me. Wrong. Adjust any unrealistic expectations and check the results over time.
Your teenage stepchild might be experimenting appropriately with early independence – just as you’re trying to get your stepfamily to bond together. Become an expert on what teems need to be able to break away safely. Refocus from bonding, obedience and acceptance to helping the child leave your new nest, over time. Try to see the “rebellion” as normal testing, not personal rejection – and respectfully assert your boundaries while the teen learn.”
YOU WILL NEED PATIENCE
Every one of these problems is “normal.” Improving your stepchild discipline problems will ground and empower you. Guard against wasting valuable time, energy, hope and patience on ineffective surface solutions. Earn the deep satisfaction and joy of raising relatively healthy, productive children.
Take heart. Over time, your stepfamily can grow to be a reliable, healing refuge of warmth, contentment, safety, respect, fun, and support. To get and savor these rare plums, the earliest challenge for you and your partner – and then your kids, ex-mates, and key relatives – is to clearly accept that together you make up a difference kind of normal family: a stepfamily. If you do not accept your true stepfamily identity in your hearts, you are at great ongoing risk of striving endlessly to be what you are not – a biological family. For most co-parents and minor kids, this becomes increasingly stressful and frustrating. It’s like trying desperately to make your poodle into a pony. It can’t, and you won’t.
Ultimately, the unexpected complexities, confusion, disillusionment, and lack of informed help combine to crack and ultimately destroy so many stepfamilies. In stunned disbelief, previously divorced biological parents and their minor (and grown) kids find themselves living the horrors, agony, financial, and conceal convulsions of family breakup and divorce – again.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS: Revolutionary Tools to Create a Blended Family of Support and Respect (Llumina Press). For more information: http://amzn.to/stepfamily