Step’s and Discipline – a Fine Line

The dynamics of marriage are clearly drawn out.  There is one person who is generally a disciplinarian, while the other is more passive when it comes to passing out punishment to the children.  But, when a marriage breaks up, those dynamics change because the passive parent must learn to discipline and the disciplinarian must learn to be softer.

What happens when the dynamics change again by introducing a step parent into the equation?  It is a fine line for the step parent and doling out discipline to the children that are not theirs.  In a perfect world, when a family is blended, the person who lives full time with kids that they did not bring into this world, will act and be the other parent and will be accepted as such by the children.  The truth is we do not live in a perfect world.

When the step parent only has the kids with them on a part time and barely any time basis, that fine line is even finer.  So, how should discipline be handled?  First marriages can go by the motto, what’s mine is yours, but second and third marriages?  It doesn’t work that way.  Even if your new spouse tells you that their kids are as good as your own, the fact is they are not your own.  They belong to someone else, and that someone else may not like you disciplining their children, and you can believe that those children will tell that other parent every single thing.

Not stepping on toes is tough when you are the step.  You don’t want to step on the natural parents toes or your new spouse’s toes and you certainly don’t want to step on the children’s toes.  But, when you are left to care for those children and the new spouse is not around, you must take on a role that is not that of friend, but one that is of parent, whether those children are yours naturally or by marriage.  More importantly, those children need to know that you have been given that role by the natural parent.  And, even more importantly, the new spouse needs to stand by you as you discipline and dole out punishment by backing you up.

It is vital to lay out the role that you will play as the step before you even get married.  You need to know the rules and the boundaries.  For instance, my husband has 100% support from me regarding my children.  We parent together, and if I am not around, or he is with the kids without me and they misbehave, he knows he has the right to correct them and punish them as he sees fit.  My children know this as well, and I have made it very clear to them that he is the other parent in this house and he is to be respected and listened to.

That is not to say that sometimes I don’t wince when he calls out one of my kids for being disrespectful or puts them in their rooms when they are fighting with each other.  I do wince, but I also know that because he is acting as a parent, they not only respect him but go to him for more and more things as the marriage is progressing, which lightens the burden on me and strengthens the relationship between them.

As a step parent in my past marriage, my then husband took on all the parenting roles and my role was one of babysitter.  I did not have the authority to discipline, and the children knew it.  When one of them misbehaved, I was to report it to my ex, and his response would be, “I wasn’t there to see it, so what do you expect me to do about it?”  It made for children that were often very disrespectful and even more often misbehaving.  They knew they not only did not have to listen to me, but that their own father disregarded what I had to say.  It made for a bad step situation and a very difficult one.

If you aren’t ready for your spouse to discipline your children, then let them know up front that they will not be taking on that role, and that they are there for the fun stuff, but that you will take on the serious stuff.  But, be sure you do take on the serious stuff, and if you tell your spouse to tell you when discipline needs to be doled out, and you will handle it, handle it and don’t undermine the already negligible role you have given the step parent to begin with.

If you do want discipline to be handed out by the step, make sure your children know it and understand it.  It will help their relationship with the step to know what the boundaries are and the steps relationship with the children will be set as a parental figure and not just that as a play date.

Either way, support the step in their decisions and have faith that they are only doing what is in the best interest of the children.  If you don’t have that, then perhaps they weren’t the best choice for you to bring into your children’s lives to begin with.

What are your experiences with doling out the discipline as either the step parent or the parent who is married to the step?

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Lee Brochstein About Lee Brochstein

Lee Brochstein is a certified professional divorce coach, blogger, a well-known author and a nationally known expert from her appearances on television and radio talk shows. She enjoys alliteration, Mad Men, Big Bang, mixed breeds, vanilla lattes, red wine and her kids when they aren’t killing each other. Follow her on twitter and Facebook.

  • Molly Monet

    Well, neither my ex nor I have gotten re-married yet, but I would say that I have learned to stay out of how he and his girlfriend handle the kids when they are with them. One of my greatest divorce lessons has been that I couldn’t control him when we were together, so how could I possible control him now that he doesn’t live with me? It has made our relationship so much more peaceful now that I just trust him to do the right thing.

    • PostDivorceCoach

      Amen, Molly! A large part of divorce is letting go of control, but it is tough when you have another opinion thrown into the mix by the way of a step parent. And, when it comes to discipline…it really is a fine line!

  • Lotus Blossom

    I think this is a process that many families have a hard time figuring out, because there isn’t a catch all answer. There are so many if’s and but’s that come up, and no set of children are the same. I don’t know a step-parent that has come into their role easily. It’s very easy to feel like the outsider or the baby-sitter.

    In our home, most of the punishments are handed out by me, the step-parent, because I am with them more. I’m talking “go to your room”, “No TV” kinds of punishments, I have never and would never spank my Skids. I also came into being a step-parent with older Skids. Step-parenting to a very young child may be totally different. The only comparison to that I have is being a Nanny. I Nannied for 2 young kids for 6 years and the parents fully backed me on any punishment I laid out (again, no spanking).

    My husband is very easy going, and I am more rigid when it comes to things. The Skids had to re-learn how the household was going to work, like having chores and cleaning up after themselves. I am not the maid.

    One thing I don’t tolerate is back talking, or eye rolling. With 2 teenage girls in our house, there is a lot of that sometimes. I’ve heard the “You’re not my mother!” thing a few times. And they are right. However, I’ve never claimed to be, but I am the adult in our house, and I will be respected. I’ve also explained that I am not required to do anything for them, and they will be treated as I am treated. If they want to continue to be treated well, they will treat me well. And they do 90% of the time. We still have breakdowns occasionally, but the girls are happy they have me in their lives.

    There have been times where I’ve stepped back from everything regarding the kids because it’s been too much, especially during our custody case last year. As the step-parent, it’s hard because you care just as much, but have no say. Major decisions are made by DH or both of us together. But day to day “Can Susie come over?” things are handled by me.

    I have heard about step-parents who have no say in the household. I feel bad for them, and it usually doesn’t last, because who wants to live like that? The house ends up being run by children because the bio-parent doesn’t put their foot down. There has to be a united front from both adults or it will never work.

    • PostDivorceCoach

      That is very true. That is how it was in my house with my ex. The kids ran the asylum because I did not have the authority or the respect. It was a bad situation. In my home, it is much different. I allow my husband to be a parent to the children. There is no step in my house. He parents them like a father and, although the transition was difficult at first, they love him like a parent.

  • Cathy

    It is a delicate line. In my situation my children were older when we married ( high school). We made the decision not to live together until they graduated from high school. In hind site, that was a good decision for us, as children that age have a hard time accepting someone new in the house. I know when they are young, the situation is different.

    The divorce affects young adults in their twenties when the are forming their own relationships. This is the only childhood they will ever have. A book I found helpful is “The Love They Lost”, by Stephanie Staal. Cathy | Treatment Talk

    • PostDivorceCoach

      Cahty: Thank you for the book recommendation! I think you handled it really well actually and moving in after the children are grown, if they are already older does make it easier on them and on you, most of the time. But, I’m wondering if it built up a wall with them and you? Did they feel “left out” of their father’s life and decisions because you waited?

  • JBog

    I believe it is not only different for different families, but also, that it changes as the kids grow older and family dynamics change as well.

    Even though we have no control over what happens in the children’s other household, it certainly has an impact in our own. Obviously, the ideal situation is for the two households to be aligned as closely as possible, and communication between the parents to be transparent and supportive. The closer two parents can get to this ideal, the better off the children are going to be.

    In my own situation as a stepmother, I have absolutely no interest in disciplining my step-kids, even though they live with my husband and me full time. I spent 18 years as a single Mom, and when it comes to the difficult duties of parenting, sorry folks, I am off the Mom-Meter.

    Meanwhile, my dear hubby was the “good cop” in his previoius marriage. What’s more, his ex-wife was physically and verbally abusive to the kids. So, whenever anyone so much as raises their voice, my step-kiddos freeze up with that deer-in-the-headlights look. “Discipline” smells too much like “abuse” to them.

    What’s more, having successfully reared my own family, I firmly believe that the window of opportunity for influencing children’s behavior via discipline slams shut once they are teens. Time-outs for a four-year old: effective. “Grounding” for a 16-year old: not so much, in my experience. So I take on the role of “good grown-up friend” and “advisor” for my teen step-kids. But I do not attempt to discipline them.

    In my situation, my husband is a busy executive, whose job takes him around the globe. This situation sometimes encroaches on my personal boundary of avoiding full-time, hands-on step-parenting. That becomes a conversation between us. Sometimes that means he cancels or shortens a trip. Sometimes it means he sets the kids down and briefs them on acceptable behavior while he’s gone. Sometimes, I reluctantly out the Mom Hat back on and wear it for a few days. Sometimes, I just back off and let them be hooligans, and their Dad can mop up the messes when he gets back.

    However, as I said, every situation is unique. It’s important to avoid generalizations. It’s also important to keep trying new things until you find something that works.

    • PostDivorceCoach

      Love your approach, and yes, sometimes you have to keep trying new things to make it work for you.

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  • -Chip.

    Wow. That hit the spot!!! I’m in this EXACT situation right now, coming from a family that wasn’t divorced, parents working for DCSS in California (father a family law attorney), and I’m with a woman from a divorced home, divorced from her first marriage, with a child from a deadbeat …

    I have zero control, although being left in a position of responsibly with a child, and the child misbehaves, and I’m wrong for it.

    And now it’s “over” for pointing this out, even sourcing and responding to this post. (Defensive personality.)

    • PostDivorceCoach

      It is one of the toughest positions to be in. You aren’t the father and sometimes being the friend is just not enough. You have to have enough power to tell the child when they are doing something wrong, and you have to have the other parent backing you up. Sorry you have to go through this.

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  • Brittany :)

    Well I am in this same situation…and the nagging baby mama tries to use the kids to get too him. Drives me crazy and its even caused fights. There kids are disrespectful and very bad. My fiancee tells me to whoop them but I don’t feel right doing that but then again I don’t like them treating me the way they do sometime especially if there with me all day, my fiancee doesn’t get home till late from work. So what do I do, them treating me the way they do just makes me dislike them.Makes me feel horrible to feel that way but I can’t help it..what do I do?????????