Decision making and discipline aren’t easy to navigate in any family. They’re even harder in a stepfamily.
Expecting obedience out of love and admiration for the stepparent is unrealistic. Over time, growing attachment, trust, and love for the stepparent can develop and open the door for acceptance of their influence and authority.
Until that happens, however, children only see the stepparent as an external authority who imposes boundaries on them.
Of course, stepparents may exercise authority without having a bonding relationship with their stepchildren. But that type of authority has its limits. Often, rules without close relationships can lead to rebellion.
It’s no surprise then that exercising authority in decision making and discipline is one of the most troublesome matters for a newly blended family.
So, how can you manage this tricky terrain? Who’s really in charge? Who makes the rules, and who enforces them?
Respect – The Basis for Authority
There is no way you can make your children love, or even like, their new step-parent. What you can require is respect.
It is vital for your children to understand that when they disrespect your spouse, they’re disrespecting you.
To make your point clear, you may have to explain the difference between love and respect. Help your children understand what it means to be respectful and how they should treat their stepparent.
The stepparent, in turn, does well to show the same respect to their stepchildren. Mutual respect lies at the foundation of carrying out the authoritative functions of decision making and discipline.
Once trust and attachment are established, the stepparent may act as an extension of the biological parent. For the time being, the stepparent should consider acting only on authority bestowed to them by their spouse and as one of the two adults in the family.
Navigating Decision Making.
Conflicts of loyalty often weigh heavily on children. They may worry about their parent siding with the step-parent, thinking they don’t care about them any longer.
Consider a few tips on how to facilitate decision making:
Tip #1 – Approach parenting as teamwork.
Sit down and discuss the role the step-parent will play in decision-making and what general household rules should be kept. As parents, you also need to agree that you will have each other’s back when there are challenges. The children should see that you’re acting as a team.
Tip #2 – Involve the children in the decision making.
Have a family meeting where the biological parent takes the lead in explaining to the children what general household rules both parents have outlined. Then, invite input from the children. Ask everybody to suggest at least one rule and work together to come to an agreement on it.
Tip #3 – Don’t get involved in an argument between your stepchild and your spouse.
If there’s a dispute over a decision your stepchild doesn’t like, let your partner work it out with them. Interfering with their problem solving can have a negative effect on your marriage as well as your parenting role. Simply try to be your spouse’s support system and give feedback only when you’re asked for it.
Tip #4 – Don’t insert yourself into parenting discussions between your spouse and their ex.
It may be tempting, but they still have co-parenting responsibilities together. If they have disagreements, they should work it out. If you get involved, the ex-spouse may feel you and your spouse are ganging up on him or her.
This could lead to more conflict and tension between you and your new mate. You can talk with your spouse privately later, but avoid speaking up during the discussion with their ex.
When you establish respect for the stepparent, make sure the children clearly understand you are making decisions together. It will be easier to handle discipline. However, remain prepared for conflict.
Consider a few do's and don’ts for the new stepparent:
1. Do understand why discipline may have become lax.
Be aware of the fact that discipline may have been neglected due to the demands placed upon your new spouse during their time as a single parent. Resist thinking that your spouse is too soft on their children.
2. Do focus on building your relationship with your stepchildren.
Be patient and listen. Your persistent effort to bond with your stepchildren will pay off eventually. It takes time, but it is key to your long-term relationship with them and the health of your new marriage. If they happen to draw closer to you sooner than you expected, carefully use the authority that offers you in a reasonable way.
3. Don’t be a strict disciplinarian.
Again, let the biological parent take the lead on discipline. It’s also important that you remain consistent with their methods of discipline. Then, you can remind the children of the rules, say no when appropriate, and apply consequences.
4. Don’t be a pushover.
You’re a stepparent, not a doormat. If your stepchildren decide not to obey rules they agreed to follow or treat you disrespectfully, you can let them know that you expect age-appropriate behavior. You can tell them that you’re willing to do things for them when they can show you the appropriate level of respect.
All the while, the biological parent can be a great support for the new stepparent. For example, seriously consider whether you’ve been negligent in your discipline and resist thinking that your new mate is too harsh.
Instead of being critical of each other, keep talking and work together on adjusting what works and what doesn’t. Be consistent and avoid irritating your children with haphazard or inappropriate attempts at discipline. And remember, be firm but also be loving.