Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily


Keys to Effective Child
 Discipline in Stepfamilies

Primary Problems
 and Solutions

by Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/co/discipline.htm

Updated 06/27/2015

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      This YouTube clip by the author provides context for what you'll read in this article.The video mentions eight lessons in this self-improvement Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be  stepparent's first union. The article provides options for bioparents and stepparents ("co-parents") to avoid and resolve significant problems over child discipline. The article...

  • summarizes how child-discipline in stepfamilies differs from that in typical intact biofamilies;

  • summarizes typical surface problems over discipline;

  • identifies the primary problems that cause these surface issues; and...

  • proposes specific solutions for these primary problems.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...


  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it;   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6 ;

  • general child-discipline guidelines;

  • effective parenting, stepfamily, and stepparenting basics;

  • Q&A items about stepparents, stepkids, and stepsiblings; and

  • solutions to three common family stressors

Discipline Differences

       The goals of child discipline are the same in any family: to teach minor kids respect, responsibility, and cooperation, guide them lovingly toward successful adult independence, and maintain order and harmony in their home.

      Because typical multi-home stepfamilies are far more complex than intact biofamilies, effective child discipline is often harder to maintain. Consider these differences and their collective implications... 

      1)  Disciplining stepkids involves your child or my child or grandchild, rather than our child. This inevitably breeds stressful loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Healthy intact biofamilies have these too, but they're simpler and less frequent.

      2)  Healthy bioparents discipline their children without fear of being rejected by them. Typical stepparents are concerned about rejection by their stepkids, which is a real possibility.

      3)  Stepfamily mates choose each other, primarily. Typical stepkids' opinions about bringing a new adult into their homes and family aren't given equal weight, which can feel disrespectful. Residual hurt and resentment can taint kids' response to the most respectful stepparental discipline.

      4) Stepparents and stepkids may not like or respect each other. This can make effective child discipline hard - specially if the stepparent and/or stepchild mistakenly believes s/he must love the other person! Few healthy biofamilies experience this.

      5)  Co-parents' cohabiting requires merging child-discipline rules, values, and priorities from each adult's prior families, including "the other bioparent/s." Conflicts are more likely than in the gradual evolution of shared discipline rules and values in typical intact biofamilies.

      Disciplinary conflicts can be specially stressful if (a) one of the new stepparent has never parented (at all / a boy /a girl / a teen) before, and if (b) partners didn't discuss parenting values, styles, and roles  before cohabiting. Conflicts are specially likely with courting couples who minimize or ignore their stepfamily identity and what it means. 

      6)  A commitment ceremony often causes significant changes in adults' and kids' expectations about child guidance and limit-setting. For example: "Yesterday, I was your Mom's boyfriend. Today I'm your stepfather. Now I have the responsibility, the authority, and the right to discipline you, but I didn't yesterday." 

      So child discipline may not have been a significant problem during courtship, and may become one literally overnight. This is specially likely if a stepparent tries to force major limit-setting or consequence changes quickly, disrespectfully, and/or rigidly.

      Recall: we're reviewing how stepfamily child discipline differs from intact-biofamily discipline... 

      7)  If child visitations are involved, kids and co-parents may experience three conflicting sets of child-guidance rules: (a) the kids' biofamily, and the (b) custodial and (c) non-custodial stepfamily homes. This may get more complex, considering the added child-discipline rules in active bio- and step- relatives' homes. And...

      8) Unless a bioparent died, child-discipline arguments often increase ex-mate hostilities. If the step-parent tries to intervene on their mate's or a stepchild's behalf, s/he may be regarded as "interfering," and tensions can escalate. This is specially hard on typical kids, who can feel caught in triangles and lose-lose loyalty conflicts they can't understand or resolve. Typical intact biofamilies have no equivalent of this stressor. And...

      9)  Bioparents may be "too lax" by a stepparent's standards, creating a values conflict. This can happen because...

  • an over-busy bioparent wasn't able to provide balanced discipline before co-habiting;

  • they may have significant guilt over the pain and disruption of their biofamily separation, and instinctively not want to add to their kids' burdens; and because ...

  • typical bioparents are often more tolerant of their own kids' behavior than a new stepparent - specially if the latter has never parented before.

      And another discipline difference is... 

      10)  When stepparents feel the bioparent's child-guidance is "lax," the new adult can feel they "must" become the major rule-maker and/or enforcer. This guarantees recurring relationship triangles and loyalty conflicts. These often conflict with a stepparent needing to be liked and accepted by their stepkids, and often promotes increasing resentment and frustration at "always being the bad guy."

      Stepparents can also come to resent that they "must" do one or both bioparents' jobs, though no one asked them to. A high-risk version of this occurs when a stepparent is left at home with their stepkids while her new mate is at work.

      11) Stepparents can feel left out, unimportant, and hurt if not invited to participate in, or not supported by their partner in, child-care efforts. Conversely, stepkids can resent their bioparent's authorizing their stepparent to set limits and enforce consequences for them. This is specially likely where (a) one or more kids or grownups haven't grieved major losses (broken bonds) well enough, and/or (b) a stepchild hasn't finished normal "testing" well enough.

      We're half done reviewing 21 ways typical stepfamily child-discipline is different than in intact biofamilies. Were you aware of all these factors? Here are 10 more... 

      12) Bioparents trying to please their kids and new mate can send confusing, stressful double messages like "I want you to share in disciplining my kids" and "I don't like what you're doing, or how you're doing it." This is usually a sign of significant psychological wounds.

      13) Stepkids over three or four are likely to resent and/or resist discipline by new adults at first, regardless of how "fair" or justified. This can be specially tough in homes where (a) a stepparent is caring full time for their partner's child/ren, and/or (b) where the stepparent is insecure and gets hooked into lose-lose power struggles with a stepchild. It's normal for minor kids in any new environment to test prevailing rules: "Will they be enforced? By whom? How? How much power do I have here?"

      14) Because new-stepfamily adults' child-discipline values, rules, and styles usually differ, significant values conflicts are almost inevitable - e.g. "You're unrealistic and too strict about Nicole's homework!" "No way! You're too soft - look at her grades." Typical kids are quick to sense this and use such conflicts to their own advantage, adding to the uproar. And...

      15) Even if co-parents feel OK about the balance of stepfamily child-discipline responsibility, step-kids and stepsibs will often bitterly claim that one or more co-parents "aren't fair." This is true in any family, but it often feels more confusing and stressful in typical stepfamilies. That's often because co-parents (specially stepparents) aren't yet clear enough on what their jobs (roles) are and/or how to do them "right."  And also...

      16) In some re/marriages, older stepchildren can be close to the age of their stepparent. This can cause awkwardness and role confusion about parental guidance and household rule-making and enforcing. Reducing these and requires adults' true Selves in charge + realistic stepfamily expectations + effective communications + clear, realistic stepparent job-descriptions. 

      The last five differences between stepfamily and intact-biofamily child discipline are... 

      17) Even if remarrying adults and their kids and ex mates reach stable compromises on child discipline, bio-grandparents can misunderstand / resent / disagree with / be fearful of the way the new adult "is raising our grandchild." This is likely to be communicated no matter how sincerely the grandparents try not to interfere..

      When true, this puts their adult son or daughter in the middle of a complex loyalty conflict. This can be specially difficult if the grandparents are close with their former son or daughter-in-law, who will always be their grandkids' "other parent." Similar values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles can arise with aunts, uncles, and cousins, too. 

      18) If stepfamily child-discipline harmony is achieved over time and then the other bioparent or a grandparent remarries, discipline rules and consequences may have to be renegotiated again. This is in the context of your adults and kids merging 16 catagories of things among all your extended biofamilies, over many years.

      19) When one bioparent is dead, children can frustrate a new stepparent by making comparisons like "My real Mom/Dad was never so mean about... (homework, curfew, eating habits, language, church, etc.)" The stepparent can feel frustrated and victimized, being up against a "saint" or "ghost" with whom s/he can never negotiate or "compete." 

      20) Counselors, therapists, and friends who don't know stepfamily realities (which is common) may advise re/marrying couples to discipline children just like intact bioparents. Such well-meant advice can increase re/marital and family stress.

      21) Because of the common half-truth  that "stepfamilies are pretty much like biofamilies," the 20 differences summarized above can initially take all members of a new stepfamily by surprise - causing household confusion, doubt, frustration, and tensions. 

      The point is: child discipline in average multi-home stepfamilies is different from intact biofamilies in many environmental ways, though the goals and basics are just the same. Do you agree?

      Because of these many differences, typical stepfamily members can have "problems" with child discipline. There are two levels of such problems: surface, and underlying primary stressors. Let's explore each level now...

Common Surface Discipline Problems

      See if any of these are “significant” now in or between your co-parenting homes…

Your stepchild ignores or disobeys you too often, and your attempts to improve this aren't working;

You feel uncomfortable with and/or unsure of your authority to discipline your stepchild;

You feel criticized about how you discipline your stepchild by someone whose opinion matters;

You feel too little (disciplinary) support from your partner - i.e. you feel "It's me against them" too often;

You feel significantly disliked and/or disrespected by a minor or adult stepchild, and often feel hurt, resentful, angry, frustrated, and guilty;

You and your mate (or other family member) disagree on some aspect of (step)child discipline, and you can't resolve your differences well enough;

Someone is upset because you seem to discipline your biokid/s differently than your stepkid/s;

You honestly don't like or respect a stepchild, which biases your discipline despite your best efforts;

Your partner's ex mate or another relative has significantly opposed or sabotaged your co-parenting authority and/or your efforts to discipline their child; and/or...

You mates often disagree: s/he...

  • wants you to (want to) discipline her or his child differently (e.g. more strict / less strict / more friendship / more humor / more praise…); and...

  • you don't really want to, or you don't know how.

      These are typical surface problems with stepchild discipline. They are caused by combinations of these...

Primary Problems

  • one or more co-parents is psychologically wounded, and denies or ignores this. Until these wounds are proactively reduced, they will amplify all these other problems:

  • family adults don't know how to communicate or problem-solve effectively. Corollaries are they...

  • don't know how to communicate effectively with kids, or they...

  • don't know effective child-discipline basics; and/or...

  • how to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems effectively;

  • one or more family adults or kids hasn't finished grieving major prior losses. This often means adults are ignorant of healthy mourning basics, and haven't grown a "pro-grief" policy to guide everyone;

  • some adults ignore or deny their identity as a stepfamily, and/or what this identity means. This usually means they have unrealistic (biofamily) role and relationship expectations;

  • adults are unclear or conflicted on parenting roles and responsibilities, and deny this, or don't know how to fix it as teammates;

  • adults don't know how to admit and manage family membership, values, and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles; and/or...

  • co-parenting ex mates haven't resolved their mix of relationship barriers; and...

  • family adults are ignorant of stepkids' concurrent developmental and adjustment needs, and how to fill these needs cooperatively and effectively; and...

  • adults are following uniformed or harmful (step)parenting advice from ignorant supporters; and/or..

  • adults blame one or more kids for these problems, and avoid taking appropriate responsibility for them;

      A final over-arching primary problem is...

  • re/married mates made up to three unwise commitment decisions,  which cannot be undone.

      Here's how to resolve (or avoid) each of these primary problems:


       The ideas below extend these general discipline guidelines. Option - use this as a checklist to track your progress.

__  1)  Three universal stepfamily stressors are psychologically- wounded adults + ineffective communication + unfinished grief in adults and kids. So to minimize discipline (and other) problems, all co-parents should study, discuss, and apply at least Lessons 1-3 in this nonprofit Web site.

__  2)  A common stressor is adults ignoring or minimizing their stepfamily identity and what it means.  One meaning is that child-discipline is very different in typical stepfamilies (above). So all family adults should study and discuss Lesson 7  - ideally starting before co-parents commit and cohabit. 

__ 3)  If the relationship between any stepchild's bioparents is hostile or combative, all family adults should read and discuss this article and seek to improve the relationship for everyone's sake. If anyone claims that "the (stepchild's) other bioparent" is not a full member of the stepfamily, read and discuss this article. Failure to do these two things guarantees ongoing, divisive loyalty conflicts.

__ 4)  All adults (including grandparents) learn kids' normal developmental tasks and typical family-adjustment tasks after parental divorce or death. Then stay aware of each child's status with these many tasks and tailor your parenting to help them

__ 5)  All co-parents should negotiate and agree on '''job descriptions'' spelling out which co-parent is responsible for what with each stepchild. Failure to do this guarantees misunderstandings and arguments over parenting in general and discipline in particular.

__ 6)  Communicating effectively with typical minor kids and teens is a learned skill. All your stepfamily adults can profit by studying and applying Lesson 2 and these ideas.

__ 7)  Expect significant values and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles in and between your kids' homes over child discipline and other things. They're inevitable and normal, so all your adults and older kids should read and discuss these ideas on how to manage these stressors..

__ 8)  Go slow on changing existing discipline rules. Too much change too fast overwhelms little and big people! Kids need to learn trust and respect for a stepparent before they'll award them the right to discipline. This takes time!

__  9 Expect young and teen stepkids to test and re-test household and stepfamily rules. What may look like defiance and rejection can really be an anxious child needing to prove "Somebody really is in charge here: maybe this family won't break up like my last one did. Maybe I'm safe here."

__ 10)  Try viewing adult child-discipline values that clash as different, vs. good-bad or right-wrong. Imposing one adult's discipline style can cause resentment and hostility all around. Success-odds are higher if you compromise, rather than fight. Open disagreement on discipline styles and values is better than silent judgments and resentments.

      More suggestions toward effective stepfamily child discipline...

__ 11)  Help minor kids understand that their stepparent isn't trying to replace or "become" their same-gender bioparent. Option - tell kids a stepparent is like a caring aunt or uncle.

__ 12)  When a stepparent is the only adult available to supervise a minor child, it can help if the bioparents verbally "authorize" the stepparent to act in their place in front of their kids - e.g. "Tammy, if George asks you to do something, it's the same as if I asked you, OK?

__ 13)  If a stepparent has no child-rearing experience or none with teens, it can help if s/he intentionally reviews (at least) Lesson 6 (parenting basics) with other co-parents. Better: all co-parents take courses like Parent Effectiveness Training ("P.E.T."), Active Parenting, and Systematic Training For Effective Parenting ("S.T.E.P").

      Such courses are often available from local schools, adult education programs, churches, community mental health centers, and independent Family Life educators. Co-parents attending such a course together demonstrates that they take their nurturing responsibility seriously.

__ 14)  Over time, experiment with _ who sets the child-behavior rules and limits, _ who sets and enforces consequences, and _ how. Because typical multi-home stepfamilies are complex, it usually takes many months to find comfortable disciplinary balances among all minor kids and co-parenting adults. Shooting for "flexible consistency" is usually preferable to rigid rules and consequences.

__  15) Stepparents and bioparents review and compare their parents' styles (authoritarian vs. democratic, teaching vs. punishing, lenient vs. harsh) and values about child discipline. If one co-parent came from a patriarchal family and the other from a mother-dominated household, values conflicts may be inevitable. Note that typical birth-family disciplinary styles were not designed with a stepfamily in mind!

__  16)  If a stepparent resents a stepchild talking disrespectfully to their spouse, say something like "I don't like the way you're talking to my wife (husband). It feels like a put-down, and I need you to stop, now." A child can't dispute your right to say this. They can dispute "I don't like the way you're talking to your mother (father)," as in "It's none of your business how I talk to my own parent, so get lost!"

 __  17) If kids visit other bioparents periodically, it helps if adults tell each other nonjudgmentally of key disciplinary rules and consequences in their respective homes. When values conflicts occur and viable compromises don't emerge, then aim for agreeing to disagree rather than criticizing or trying to convert each other.

      Accept that it's often confusing and frustrating to kids who must follow two sets of household rules and consequences - specially if they're contradictory and/or inconsistent. Kids' natural reactions to major rule-differences are frustration, anger, rebellion, sullenness, withdrawal, depression, and hyper-reactivity on returning from a visitation.

+ + +

       You just read 17 specific ways to avoid or minimize "problems" with stepfamily child discipline. Did you realize how many options your family adults have? How many of these options could each of your adults and supporters describe now?


      Average stepfamilies can experience significant confusion and conflict over child discipline in and between their homes. While disciplinary goals are the same as in healthy biofamilies, the multi-home stepfamily environment differs in over 20 ways which promotes stress. From 36 years' research, this Lesson-7 article...

  • builds on these general child-discipline guidelines,

  • outlines relevant stepfamily environmental differences, and...

  • common surface problems with child discipline in stepfamilies, and it...

  • identifies the primary problems that cause them, and it offers...

  • 17 specific solutions to these problems.

      Also see this article on parenting a "problem child," and keep studying Lesson 7.

      Recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? What do you want to do now with the ideas you just read? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self or ''someone else''?

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