Discipline and Step-children

Question: I’m a step mother and my step daughter tells me she doesn’t have to do what I say because I’m not her mother. After I refuse to give into her anger, what are a few responses I could give beyond “this is OUR house” or “you know you’ve broken a rule”…
– Brenda

Answer: It sounds like you are on the right track. One of many difficulties in discipline situations is that parents are already doing and saying constructive things but children continue to test our responses. I once heard John Rosemond (whom I often disagree with but not this time) describe children as gamblers, children will continually “test” the consistency of a parent’s response to insure that the 8th response (or 128th) is the same as the 1st in the same way that someone playing a slot machine looks for “the win” even after 8 (or more) “no pays.” Both children and gamblers are “reinforced” if they know a payoff is coming! I suspect that your stepdaughter is experimenting with “testing” if she really needs to comply with your wishes.

The answer is absolutely. Households are built on mutual respect and the rules of the household must be upheld. I applaud you focusing on “breaking of rules” rather than a plea to your authority. You avoid infringing on her biological mother’s relationship with her, you avoid an out-and-out power play, and you focus on her responsibility to manage her own behavior. Discuss the rules of the house in non-blaming, non-threatening contexts, explaining there will be consequences for breaking rules (which can also be established in advance). These discussions could take place in “family meetings” in which you as a step mom would not stand alone. A family meeting would also give your stepdaughter the opportunity to express her issues in a safe and open setting. Each family member needs to feel like a vital, contributing member of a newly reshaped family.

Is there time in busy schedules for family meetings? If there is no one right way to hold family meetings, then they can be configured to meet any family’s needs. There must be time to build family communication and problem solving. With more information about children’s ages and family schedules, we could devote another question to planning family meetings.

I would also begin an ongoing discussion about appropriate expressions of anger. You may even explore with a professional the possibility that your stepdaughter has some unresolved anger about the divorce and remarriage. Parents can teach “emotional literacy” by helping children to “read” their own emotions and express them constructively. You can say, “It looks like you are angry. Do you want to talk about it?” In time, you can establish the trust needed to discuss deeply felt emotions. By helping your stepdaughter really look at her feelings, you can begin discussion about the real issues. Parents may let children give voice to their feelings without abandoning perfectly good rules. The rules are in place before this discussion of emotions.

Parent response to a child’s challenge will be set long in advance of the conflict; Homework must be done before ________. Every 15 minutes late on curfew is 30 minutes earlier on the next curfew. Family chores must be completed as agreed or weekend privileges are removed. Remember good rules must always be enforceable.

I’m sure many parents wish the old “because I’m your mother” really worked! You’ll still always have “because I said so!”

Good Luck,
Karen Deerwester, Ed.S.

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