Fly with the Phoenix

Step-parents walk the line called discipline
August 8, 2010, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Family Transitions | Tags: , , ,

Two people recently asked questions that reminded me of the unique challenges step-parents face. There is a duality to their role, and often, the balance can be hard to strike.

Consider this woman, a mother who is living apart from her daughter. She confided that it hurts her to hear that the child is calling the stepmom “mom.” I understand how she feels because I’ve had those emotions and have struggled with them. It used to feel like sandpaper on my ears and I must have visibly cringed at least once because my daughter said “what’s wrong” to me. I lied and said nothing. Most of my friends weighed in on my side (that’s not a surprise to me). They agreed that out of respect, my daughter should refrain from calling her stepmom “mom” in front of me. More on that in a minute.

You see, from the time my daughter was about 4 years old, she was told by her dad that his wife would be called “mom.” I guess a therapist could have a good time dissecting that, but the reason isn’t important. This woman does care for my daughter, and refers to her as “my daughter” and has said to my child  “I’ve always wanted a little girl” (she has four sons). My ex-husband refers to those young men as “my sons,” so you can see there’s not much of a line between his and hers in that household. Judging by my daughter’s loving feelings for everyone there, it looks like it’s worked for them.

Society, as it comes to terms with the growing number of divorces, has created the “blended family” presumably for the good of the children. I can see that a child must feel loved, safe and cared for in both households, and the idea of a blended family provides that and works much of the time. No adult wants to be treated like a second-class parent, and historically, stepparents have received a pretty lousy deal. But that was then, and today’s blended family allows stepparents to be more involved with all the kids, birth and otherwise. However, this increased involvement in raising stepchildren leads to some definite challenges, and stepparents have to be ready to face them, which leads me to the second question.

Another woman told a story about a 12-year-old stepdaughter who openly defied her dad and stepmom over taking some clothes back to her mother’s house, presumably, the custodial home. When the stepmom called her on this action, the kid replied “you’re not my mother; you can’t tell me what to do.”

Boy, if we all had a dollar for every time a preteen or teen said that, it would make a nice college fund, right?

However, the comment took this woman aback and she didn’t know how to respond, so she just walked away. God bless her, but that allowed this child a big victory. The stepmom asked if she is supposed to discipline her stepdaughter and how would a birth parent feel about that.

Discipline, most of the time, should come from the birth parent. It’s simply their job. In addition, children may be harboring some resentment toward a stepparent; after all, that person’s presence in the home pretty much puts the kabosh on mommy and daddy reuniting. So for a stepparent to administer discipline, the child is most likely going to rebel, and that doesn’t help an already fragile rapport.

Now, there certainly are times when a stepparent must discipline a child. Let’s look at the girl with the bag of clothes. While it may not have been the stepmom’s place to call the kid on packing up all her clothes to take home (she might have mentioned it to the child’s father), she certainly should have disciplined the kid for the smart mouth. Otherwise, the message to the kid is “No need to respect me; I’m JUST THE STEPPARENT.” Presumably, dad wasn’t around when this happened, so it was up to the stepmom to act.

Back to the mom who struggles with her child calling stepmom “mom.” I hope this mother will soon realize that no one can replace her in her child’s life. I don’t know how often the mother sees her daughter, but she has to remember there is a bond there that really is strong. The stepmom plays a role in the child’s life (caregiver, mentor, etc.) but there is no birth bond there.

For me, understanding this and truly embracing it helped me to realize it doesn’t matter what my daughter calls her stepmother. There’s nothing I can say to change the practice, so becoming secure with myself as the birth parent led to eventual acceptance. I’m thankful this woman loves my daughter, but I know it is I who will forever remain “mommy” to her.

Parents, as you continue to quilt together your blended families, keep these thoughts foremost in mind:

You must be united before the kids. A divided front will fall (and I speak from experience). Talk about how you as kids were disciplined by your parents because that will certainly color how you discipline yours. If you don’t believe in spanking, but your spouse does, work it out before the need arises to dole out the appropriate consequence. Communication is imperative between the two of you in private.

Define roles, again, in private, so you both know who is going to do what before going into battle. It’s OK to get real specific here. And if a stepparent sees that a birth parent missed a chance to teach a child through discipline, let that instance go (unless the kid would be put in harm’s way by the action), and then talk to your partner in private as soon as you can about this so you can agree on the appropriate action the next time it happens.

Be sure all members of the household–not just the kids–know the rules of the house and what the consequences are for stepping over the boundary. Curfew, for example,  in some households can be negotiated. Alcohol or drug use in most homes has a zero tolerance, meaning if a kid comes home wasted, that boy or girl is in trouble.

Parents, will you share your disciplining stories and tips? It would be beneficial to others. We aren’t perfect–we’re parents–but we all want to do our best for our children. Take the time to comment and if it’s shared with everyone, you will receive a free one-hour life coach session by phone, courtesy of Hopeful Transitions.


3 Comments so far
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This is such a difficult topic of conversation. I’m a ‘vetern’ of almost 3 years with two, adult stepkids – one of which lives in my home with my husband and our 2 year old. Discipline has been, to say the least, our hot button topic.

I have struggled, desperetly to distance myself, to allow his bilogical parents to guide him and, when needed, discipline him. An argument can be made that a step son over the age of 21 doesn’t need either, but that is simply foolishness. The kid lives in my home, has a history of making poor decisions that affect my life and is not willing to take positive steps to better his life and his position.

over the last three years, I have tried a variety of tactics, like being the heavy, ignorning him, discussing issues with both of his parents – nothing has worked.

Currently I am working under the belief that the kid is faced with three options (I believe this because both of his biological parents have stated this). He can either go to school, get a full time job or he needs to move out. The problem with this is two fold. First, his parents have a history of ‘caving’ when he is concerned and second, he is the king of excuses, like “I couldn’t register because I didn’t know who to call.” For this reason, I am providing him with guidance to register for classes.

I’m left feeling resentful and angry.

As a stepmother, the thing that I think is the most useful is having someone to vent to.

Comment by Wicked Stepmother

You have a challenge in your stepson, no doubt, but it seems like you are approaching this situation with great wisdom. It’s understandable that you can feel resentful, angry and such when your spouse doesn’t back up the plan as you’d like. Actually, giving your stepson those choices of get into school or get a job if he wants to live at home are the best you can do for him, otherwise the enabling will continue. I hope you and your spouse can be firm and united in this. Try to keep communication open and active around this situation with your spouse so there aren’t surprises and reinforce (with love and respect) what you need.

Your blog is interesting! I chuckled at the post about your shower. Sometimes, humor is our best defense, yes? Best of luck to you, and thanks for the comment.

Comment by hopefultransitions

i deleted the email you sent me!! Can you resend?

Comment by Wicked Stepmother

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