I’ve talked before about why I believe that stepmothers should feel free to discipline their stepchildren. The million-dollar question is, though, how do you do it without coming across like an evil stepmother? Here are some of my suggestions:
1. Strive for a “balanced” parenting style, as opposed to permissive or authoritarian one. While a lot of stepmothers struggle with being too wishy-washy, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction and become authoritarian. Refrain from punitive consequences. Family therapist Dr. Robert MacKenzie has said that, “instead of teaching responsibility, punitive consequences inspire anger, resentment, and retaliation” (167*). Instead, try to extend consequences that are logically related to the behavior but don’t go over the top. So rather than grounding your stepkid for a week if he keeps leaving his bicycle out in the driveway, just take the bike away for a day. A day (in this instance) is long enough to show your stepchild that you mean what you say, but not so long that he has a long time to build up a lot of resentment.
2. Discipline calmly. Speak in a normal voice and avoid sounding angry or irritated. If you yell and get worked up then your stepchild is more likely to associate you with the angry stepmother stereotype. Besides that, according to Dr. MacKenzie, “anger, drama, and strong emotion can easily sabotage the clarity of your message and the likelihood of cooperation” (132*). You may have to give yourself a grown-up time out before you can do this effectively. (I certainly know I've had to.) Try taking 60 seconds in another room and breathe deeply if this is what it takes to speak calmly.
4. Apologize if you yell. If you do end up yelling or snapping at your stepchild, apologize for loosing your temper and tell them it was unacceptable of you to speak to them that way. Besides being the decent thing to do, this shows your stepchild that you respect and value them. You don't need to worry that saying you're sorry will ruin your credibility. Dr. MacKenzie says that, “some parents believe that apologizing to a child is a sign of weakness that diminishes the child’s respect for the adult. My years of family counseling have shown that just the opposite is true. To children, an apology is not a sign of weakness. . . .Children respect adults who have the courage to be human and take responsibility for their own mistakes” (159*).
4. Focus on the behavior, not the child. You don’t want to make your stepchild feel rejected, you just want her to know that a specific behavior is unacceptable. Do not say “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”; say, “stop poking your brother.” Don’t say “please be more considerate” if your stepchild is yelling; say, “please use an indoor voice” (134*).
5. Talk about actions or behaviors in neutral terms when correcting your stepkids. Now, I started out thinking about this in a different way. I thought, "hey I should just be able to say 'this is the way we do things in my house.'" And while I still believe you should be able to say that if it comes down to it, I think a more neutral approach is best to start. Meaning, rather than telling your stepchildren, "I believe that kids should use good table manners," try something like, "good table manners help us all enjoy our time at the table together." I think this way you get less resistance to doing things "your way."
6. Give them a clean slate. Don’t bring up past mistakes or rehash a problem after it’s over. I have to resist this sometimes when I'm worried that my stepdaughter might repeat a past mistake. ("Remember when you did X thing and then Y thing happened?") You want your stepkids to feel relaxed and comfortable around you without having to worry that you’re going to be picking on them; you don’t want to give them any reasons to harbor anxiety or resentment for you.
7. Listen, understand your stepchild, and don’t disregard their feelings even if you disagree. Licensed psychologist and family therapist Dr. Jeffery Bernstein has said that, “tragically, children who are well loved by their parents do not feel that love if their parents don’t understand them . . . Understanding your child is an important part of helping him become secure and healthy because it shows him you love him” (21-22**). So listen, really listen, without interrupting and try and understand why your stepchild feels the way they do. When your stepchild tells you about something that you disagree with, don’t criticize them and don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. For example, if your stepchild tells you that he hit his brother because he was mad about his brother insulting him, don’t respond to him with “you shouldn’t bother getting upset over things like that.” Instead, let him know that you heard and understood his feelings, but that the behavior he used to express them is unacceptable. Try: “You brother called you a doo-doo head and it hurt your feelings? I understand why you’re mad, but it’s not okay to hit. Next time…” This way, your stepchild feels like you understand him, and that you’re not rejecting him—just the behavior.
8. If your stepchild argues with you, try to hold your ground respectfully. While you don't want to cave into an argument, you don't want to look like you're not listening to your stepchildren, either. Try this suggestion by Dr. Bernstein; he says if your child pushes you, just keep calmly repeating, “I understand; however . . .” (95**). I should add, though, that you don't want to give your stepchildren the idea that it's okay to argue with you--but that's a longer discussion for a separate post.
9. Invite your stepchildren to respectfully suggest a mutually-agreeable solution to an issue. There are a couple of ways to go about this. My first example comes from Dr. Ross W. Green, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Greene advocates a discipline plan which includes these three steps: 1) Empathy Plus Reassurance, 2) Define the Problem, and 3) Invitation (98***). In step one of this plan a parent validates her child’s feelings by repeating what a child's concern and by reassuring the child. Then in the second step the parent expresses his or her concerns. Finally, in the third step the parent invites the child to brainstorm a solution that would both accommodate what the child wants and satisfy the parent’s concerns.
Similarly, Dr. Bernstein tells parents, “don’t be afraid to teach your child to say ‘no’ to you in a respectful way. Your child has a right to opinions and choices that are different from yours” (95**). Bernstein goes on to suggest, “Teach your child to say respectfully, ‘No, I would not like to do the dishes, but I will sweep the floor and vacuum the rug.’ This creates an atmosphere of cooperation and support” (95**). This idea is probably more suitable for children who are older than my own stepdaughter, but I like it. I think if your stepchild feels like they can speak up and suggest a compromise, they’re less likely to imagine themselves as Cinderella before the ball.
10) Balance discipline with warmth, admiration, and respect. Now, kids know when adults are faking enthusiasm or handing out false compliments—so don’t go over the top. But make an effort to praise and thank your stepkids when a natural opportunity arises. Let them know that you value them as a person. Dr. Bernstein says that “praise penetrates even barriers of rough exteriors” (113**). We all want to be liked, and it’s easier to take guidance and correction from someone who we know likes us, too.
* Setting Limits with your Strong-Willed Child by Robert J. MacKezie, Ed.D., Co. 2002, Three Rivers Press, New York.
** 10 days to a Less Defiant Child by Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD, Co, 2006, Marlowe & Company, New York.
*** The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, PhD, 2005, Harper, New York.