Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stepmothers: Save your Sanity by Giving Time Outs

In the last few years I’ve heard a lot of stepmothers complain that they don’t know what to do when their young stepchildren kick, scream, fight, or throw tantrums. They’re frustrated by these behaviors but feel like they shouldn’t get involved. After all, most step-parenting advice says that discipline should be left to the bio parent.

Unfortunately, dads don’t always discipline their children consistently or appropriately—or in some cases, much at all. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty about divorcing their children’s mother; other times they don’t want to be seen as “the mean parent.” Whatever the reason, if neither you nor their father enforce rules and discipline then your stepchildren are likely to keep acting out.

(I’ve talked before about why I believe that stepmothers should be able to discipline their stepchildren—you can read about that here, here, and here.)

When it comes to disciplining bad behavior from a young stepchild, I recommend that stepmothers give time outs. Here’s how to make them work for both you and your stepchild:

Give a warning: “We don’t hit people. If you hit again then you’ll have a time out.”

If they continue misbehaving then place the child in a designated time out spot. If they will walk to the spot themselves, great. If not, then you will need to pick them up and place them in the spot.

Here’s where it can start feeling weird: they may try to keep you from picking them up by hitting and kicking. Be as gentle and careful as possible, of course, but don’t let their squirming prevent you from following through with the time out.

If they leave the spot, then pick them up and place them back in the spot as many times as necessary. Over and over and over again if need be. It’s tempting to cave in and give up, especially if they continue having a temper tantrum, but don’t do it. This is where they learn that you mean what you say, that you follow your words with actions, and that they must respect your adult authority.

Never hold them down in the spot. First of all, unless they’re trying to do something like stick their finger in an electrical socket, it’s not okay to impose force on a child. But more importantly, if you hold them down then it removes their ability to decide on whether or not to get up. You want them to decide to respect your authority and remain seated in the time out spot.

Set a timer: one minute for every year of their age. Reset the timer every time they get up from the time out spot. Don’t cave on this, either.

You must remain calm no matter what. Do not appear angry and never yell. It will be difficult, but maintain a neutral tone of voice. You want the situation to be about correcting their misbehavior. Once you start yelling the situation instead becomes about—at least in their mind—you being a wicked stepmother.

Don’t set them up to fail. Don’t taunt them and don’t ask them questions during the time out, because they’re likely to start arguing and getting even more upset. Talk as little as possible until the timer goes off.

Afterwards, ask them if they know why they had a time out. Sounds silly, but kids can get so worked up during a temper tantrum that they get distracted by those emotions. If they seem confused, then tell them why in a neutral tone. “You had a time out because you hit Daddy, and it’s not ok to hit people.”

End by asking them for an apology. “You can get up now but you need to tell Daddy that you’re sorry for hitting him.”

Consistency is everything. You must follow through with a time out for every warning you give, or your stepchild will know that you don’t really mean what you say.

Take a moment afterwards to calm down. I would be physically shaking after giving time outs to my temper-tantrum-throwing stepdaughter. If it helps, say to yourself, “that was hard, but that time out just got me one step closer to a better relationship with my stepchild. I acted calmly and respectfully. I’m teaching my stepchild how to get along with the rest of the family.”

Hug if you can. Your stepchild may need reassurance of your affection after a time out. Once you’ve both calmed down, give you stepchild a hug if they’re willing to receive one. (My stepdaughter would usually still look upset but then run over and hug me.)

It may take months, but time outs will pay off over time if implemented consistently. Your stepchildren will eventually learn what behaviors they are not allowed to get away with in your home. If your partner will give the time outs—great. But if not, take charge and start implementing them yourself. For more tips, check out my post about how to discipline without looking like an evil stepmother.

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