Step-Parents and Child Discipline

This scenario is extremely common among step-families. Whether you realize it or not, your experience fits a familiar pattern. The story usually goes something like this.

A couple with children hit a rough spot in their marriage. After a painful period, during which normal family life is thrown into a tailspin, they decide to get a divorce. Out of this trauma emerges a new set of living arrangements.

One of the parents gains primary custody of the kids. That parent, who is facing a host of new problems, challenges, relational issues, and emotional struggles of his own, simply doesn't have enough time or energy to keep the kids in line. He's doing his best just to survive. For reasons we can understand, he's also desperate to retain his children's affection, and as a result, he does everything he can to appease them, make them happy, and avoid conflict.

More time passes, and the custodial parent discovers a new romantic interest. A second marriage ensues, and the new spouse – that's you – walks into the middle of the situation only to find that discipline and control have flown out the window. The biological parent – your husband – either doesn't realize what's happened or isn't willing to deal with it. The step-parent sees the problem all too clearly, but doesn't feel authorized to do anything about it. She's got her hands full just trying to connect with the kids. What happens now?

We'd suggest that three things need to take place:

  1. First, you and your husband have to take steps to get on the same page. That way, when it comes time to talk to the kids about chores, homework, or respect issues, you'll be able to present a united parental front. Whatever you do, don't allow disagreements about discipline to come between you at this stage of the game – that could prove disastrous to the marriage. The best way to achieve solidarity is to get yourselves into counseling. Enlist the help of a trained marriage therapist. Sit down together with the counselor and figure out exactly what you want your home-life to look like. Decide what kinds of rules you want to establish for the kids. When you come to an agreement, write it all down on paper and make a couple of copies for future reference.

  2. Second, as part of the counseling process, allow time for your husband to work through any residual issues – for example, guilt, anger, grief, or a sense of betrayal – that may still be hanging over his head as a result of the divorce. Talk about these problems openly. Look for ways to confront and solve them together. As far as possible, put the past behind you and come up with a shared vision for the future.

  3. Finally, get the children involved with you in family counseling. The four of you are probably facing a number of difficult adjustments in your attempts to forge a new family unit. Let the therapist talk you through these challenges together. Within this context, the biological parent – your husband – should take it upon himself to make a formal transfer of authority to the step-parent – you. In other words, he should make it clear to everyone concerned that the two of you stand together, and that when he isn't present, you are empowered to speak on his behalf and make decisions as his partner and helpmate. That said, it's very important for you and your husband to understand that you should not be the primary disciplinarian at this stage of the game. That job should fall on his shoulders. If he's always assuming the role of the "good cop," he's forcing you to play the "bad cop." That arrangement could well drive a permanent wedge between you and his children.

For your part, you should explain that you have no intentions of replacing or competing with the children's biological mother. Tell the kids, "I'm here to assist your dad in his efforts to raise you in the best way possible." Ideally, we'd recommend that the kids' biological mother be included in this phase of the discussion. That way, you can agree on a set of behavioral rules that will apply to both households.

Once counseling is over and you're back at home, make sure that you and your husband remain consistently committed to your new family plan. When there are conflicts with the kids, be intentional about backing one another up. Draw up a family constitution or a set of house rules and post it on the refrigerator. Meanwhile, stay sensitive to the emotional dynamics in the household and decide to love one another as a matter of conscious choice.

Since your kids are adolescents, you'll want to give them a voice in the process we've just described. That way they'll have a greater sense of ownership and investment in the finished product. They should have an opportunity to express their own needs and wants. Talk about mutual respect. Ask them what they'd like you to do to demonstrate your respect for them. Remember that if you quash their desires or shut them down when they try to speak, you'll only succeed in creating animosity and bitterness. A transition like this is almost certain to be difficult for teenagers, but you can smooth the road a bit by rewarding them when they do a good job and meet your expectations. Keep a record of your achievements as a family, and celebrate with dinner out or a movie whenever a significant milestone is reached.

What if the kids are resistant to these ideas? It's possible that one or both of them will say, "I don't care for your way of doing things, and I don't want to live here anymore. I'm going back to Mom's house." If that happens, you and your husband may be tempted to ease off on the plan in order to appease them and keep them on your side. We'd advise you to resist that temptation. Maintain solidarity and stick to your plan. Tell the kids that they're old enough to make their own decisions about where they want to live, but make it clear that they will have to abide by your rules if they choose to stay in your house. If they still refuse, you may have to let them go. That will be particularly hard on your husband, but it will be the best thing for his children in the long run. As you have correctly discerned, they're going to have to learn discipline at some point if they want to make it on their own in the world.

Focus on the Family has a staff of trained family therapists available to provide you with sound advice and practical assistance over the phone. If you'd like to discuss your situation with one of our counselors, call us for a free consultation.


Winning the Heart of Your Stepchild

The Smart Step-Family: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family

The Smart Stepmom: Practical Steps to Help You Thrive

Helping Children Survive Divorce

How to Act Right When Your Spouse Acts Wrong

Boundaries in Marriage

Thriving As a Stepdad

Successfully Managing Family Conflict

Help and Hope for Stepfamilies 

Thriving in Your Role As a Stepmom

Remarriage & Blended Families (resource list)

Smart Stepfamilies

Blending a Family

John Rosemond: Parenting with Love and Leadership

Parenting in Blended Families

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