Whenever I coach stepfamilies – either parents, their children or the family as a whole – there’s one issue that almost always crops up: discipline. How do stepparents avoid being seen as the nasty interloper with ridiculous new rules, and how do teenagers and kids cope with the changing boundaries of a blended family?
There’s no getting away from the fact that the relationship between stepparent and child is a tricky one to navigate. Get it wrong and it could be more than just you and your stepchild who suffer. Get it right and the rewards for you, them and your new family can be huge.
Take time to connect first
Before you assert any kind of authority you should invest time in getting to know and understand your partner’s children. Kids are hard-wired to test boundaries, and they will immediately set about finding your weak spots. I know from my own experience as a stepparent how hard it can be to resist being tempted into a showdown. It’s far easier to achieve if you can let go of your determination to lay some ground rules. Yes, it’s important to start as you mean to go on, but not at the expense of relationship building. We’ll come back to rule setting in a moment.
Stand united with your partner
As far as the kids are concerned, you’re the newcomer. Before long a battle of wits can develop with you in one corner of the ring and them in another, ready to fight it out for supremacy. Their most powerful tactic of all; however, is to step out of the ring themselves and leave you and your partner at war.
A couple came to me last year for advice because they had completely different outlooks on how to tackle their daughter’s behaviour. The girl, who was 15, picked up on this immediately. She knew her Dad wouldn’t stop her bringing friends over because he wanted her to feel settled in their new home, but she also knew her stepmum hated the fact she was inviting people to the house without asking, staying up late and drinking. Once the couple decided to present a united front, the daughter’s behaviour started to change. It didn’t happen overnight, but over the next few months, she started telling them when she was inviting people over. Six months down the line she had stopped pushing the boundaries so hard and started asking first if it was OK to have friends around.
Embrace your differences and tackle the challenges together.
Many couples make the mistake of thinking one side of the family has to adapt to the other’s way of living if things are going to work out. When two families come together it isn’t just two sets of people that have to merge; it’s two very different cultures. Even if you and your partner have a similar outlook on life, it’s likely you’ll have handled things very differently. Going forward, don’t try and impose your way of thinking on your new family. Blending is a gradual process, so discuss each issue as it arises and find a new way of working that you both agree on.
Don’t be too eager to be liked
Most of us truly want to get on with our stepchildren. We start out with lots of enthusiasm and feel demoralised when things aren’t perfect. It’s crucial that you don’t set your standards too high, otherwise, you’ll feel like you’ve let everyone down if things don’t go according to plan – and it’s safe to say they won’t. Families of all kinds, blended or otherwise, are dynamic and they all have their challenges. They bring together a wide range of personalities, priorities and problems. Lower your expectations, both of your stepchildren and yourself. There will be times when you don’t get on with each other. That’s fine. Thankfully most people who are part of a stepfamily already know there’s no such thing as normal.
How to set rules and boundaries
I prefer to talk about respect rather than rules. When you’re dealing with teenagers, in particular, you quickly realise that the more you try to control things, the less control you actually have. As a stepparent, you should always be respectful of your stepchild’s needs, feelings and concerns. By showing them respect you are acting as a role model, and over time they will come to trust and respect you in return.
Another way of encouraging your stepchild to adhere to agreed boundaries is to reinforce good behaviour. Rather than watching out for bad behaviour and pointing out that you want things to be done differently, try noticing when your stepchild does something you’re pleased with. Not only will this help with relationship building, but it will also build their self-esteem, and this will have a huge impact on their drive and direction in their teenage years. For more advice on building your step teenager’s confidence download my ebook 21 Ways to Build Your Step Teenager’s Confidence.
Angela Whitlock is a stepparent to four children and an experienced teenage and stepfamily coach. She is also the author of The Accidental Parent series of advice books for stepfamilies. www.angelawhitlock.com