Discipline is one of the many challenges families face. Disciplining biological children is not an easy task, but disciplining someone else’s children can be much tougher and more challenging, if at all possible (Trautner, 2017). If they are young or in their teenage years, they will test and push the boundaries of the new family dynamic (Bayless, 2014). Therefore, this in itself can push you towards wanting to discipline them. However, it is of great importance to consider the below before jumping into the disciplinarian role.
- Open dialogue
Despite the children’s age, open dialogue about discipline must be constant between the biological parent and yourself as to be consistent and effective (ibid.). Since you come from two different family cultures, you will hold different views about discipline. You might not agree, however it is important to remain honest, caring, understanding and open to each other, despite any differences. Communicate about expectations, guidance, supervision, and about what is working and what is not. Ask about what input you can give and about the way forward if you realise that you are becoming frustrated with the child’s behaviour. This will bring you to the same wavelength as your partner, and it will also help in creating healthy boundaries, therefore lessening the chances of having misunderstandings (Pace, n.d.).
- Tackle one change at a time
Do not enter the family with a list of things you want to change and fix, but rather enter it with a level of sensitivity and understanding (Bayless, 2014). Keep in mind that the children are most probably going through a lot of changes, such as, separation or divorce, moving house and possibly new siblings. New rules will only make the kids feel like you are intruding and trying to erase their experience, thus tarnishing the relationship. In such cases, the family needs time to process what has happened and to get used to the new family dynamic. Give this time and when it slowly settles down, start with trying to tackle one thing at a time (ibid.).
- Connection before Correction
Rather than entering the family taking on a disciplinarian role, your mindset should be more focused on connecting with the children (ibid.). Taking on the disciplinarian role can backfire and tarnsih the development of the relationship. Allow your partner to be the primary disciplinarian whilst you focus on developing a connection with the children. Entering the disciplinarian role might be instinctual, however be aware of this, and move towards basing this relationship on respect, patience, trust, manners, and shared experiences (Trautner, 2017). Once respect is established, children are less likely to meet you with resentment. Here, keep in mind that a connection may take years to develop, and therefore, you need to be patient. Also, you do not have to love each other, but a basic level of respect is necessary.
- Get to know the children
Children, especially teenagers, are not too keen on having one-to-one conversations, especially with someone they have just started to get to know. Therefore, try to get to know them through shared experiences and activities which they usually do with their biological parents and which they are interested in, such as going for a walk, shopping, playing a game or a favourite sports, watching a favourite movie or series, or even going bowling for instance. This will eliminiate any sense of competition, and it will also naturally give you the opportunity to get to know them and also engage with them (Bayless, 2014).
- Practice listening, communication and understanding
Listen to the children, their concerns and needs. Communicate your commitment to wanting a relationship with them, and that you value them (Deal, n.d.). This helps them to realise that you are interested in them and that you care for them too. Furthermore, Bayless (2014) suggests that even though it is best that the biological parent is the main disciplinarian, this does not mean that you just step back and let everything go by. You can still communicate with the children when you feel mistreated or disrespected. For instance, you can share that you are more than happy to take them for their sports activities or to their favourite place if they treat you in a respectful manner. What is most important here is that you do this in a caring way and to hold realistic expectations. However, when the children disrespect you, try to understand what they might be going through and all that they are dealing with, including grief and confusion.
- Encourage and reward appropriate behaviours
Bayless (2014) suggests that instead of trying to discpline and pinpoint the bad behaviour, try to focus on encouraging, complimenting and rewarding the positive and desired behaviours, interactions and attitudes. This will strengthen your relationship with the children.
Michela Aquilina is a trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist who is currently reading for a Masters in Gestalt Psychotherapy and working as a Trainee Gestalt Psychotherapist with Willingness Team. Michela offers therapy to young adults and adults who are experiencing various challenges and issues relating to mental health and psychosocial, emotional wellbeing.
Bayless, K. (2014). The do’s and dont’s of stepparent discipline. Parents. Retrieved from: https://www.parents.com/parenting/dynamics/how-to-discipline-child-step-parent/
Deal, R. (n.d.). Stepparenting discipline dos and dont’s. FamilyLife. Retrieved from: https://www.familylife.com/articles/topics/blended-family/stepparents/stepparenting-skills/stepparenting-discipline-dos-and-donts/
Pace, R. (n.d.). Trying to parent your stepchildren – it is a good idea?. Retrieved from: https://www.heysigmund.com/trying-to-parent-your-stepchildren-stepfamily/
Trautner, T. (2017). Disciplining dilemma: the role of the stepparent. Michigan State University. Retrieved from: https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/disciplining_dilemma_the_role_of_the_stepparent