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Ask Mr. Dad: Can you discipline stepchildren? Should you?
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Ask Mr. Dad

Ask Mr. Dad: Can you discipline stepchildren? Should you?

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QUESTION: I recently got remarried and really want to make my relationship with my new wife a success. One of the things I love about her is that she’s a great mother. I really like her kids (7 and 11), but ever since we got married, they treat me horribly. They’re rude, refuse to do what I ask, and constantly run to their mom to tell her how horrible I am. Unfortunately, she tends to take their side. This is causing more disagreements between me and my wife. I’m hoping that our marriage isn’t doomed. What can I do to save it?

ANSWER: You’ve raised an incredibly common — and incredibly important — issue.

Second marriages are already complicated, but trying to blend two families with different routines and traditions is even harder. Add in a few kids, and the number of potential problems approaches infinity (mathematically impossible, but you know what I mean).

Blending families is often harder on the children than on the adults. You‘ve got some control over how things go, but they don’t even have a vote.

As a result, kids in blended families sometimes react by doing what you or I might in unfamiliar (and possibly unwanted) situations: something — anything — to try to gain some control. All too often, that can mean being annoying, rude and deceitful.

To make matters worse, biological parents often under-discipline their kids — “they’ve been through enough already,” the logic goes, “I should give them a break.” But none of this relieves your stepchildren of their obligation to respect you. Notice that I said “respect.” “Love” is a dream at this point.

Your first order of business is to have a long adults-only sit-down with your wife. She needs to hear your side of things without any interruptions. Then, the two of you should come up with a list of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, expectations, consequences and how much authority you’ll have to discipline the kids. Your wife has to be completely on board, because she’s the one who’ll have to tell it to the kids, and she has to be able — and willing — to enforce the rules.

If you and your wife can’t agree on household rules or discipline, this is a good time to discuss the situation with a neutral counselor who has experience dealing with blended families. It may take a few sessions to work through your differences and come up with something that’s acceptable to both of you. Be prepared to compromise. A lot.

In the meantime, here are a few ideas that may make your life a little easier.

Don’t expect overnight change. Some experts I’ve spoken with about this say it can take as long for blended-family relationships to run smoothly as the age of the oldest child.

Understand that sooner or later, you’ll have to step in. Given what you’ve been dealing with, you’ll be tempted to leave all the disciplining and rule-enforcement to your wife. That might work pretty well in the short run, but it’s not an effective long-term solution.

Know your place. You want the kids to like and respect you, but you’re not their father. Your goal should be to build a strong friend relationship with the kids. Anything more than that would be frosting on the cake. The stronger that relationship, the more likely the kids will be to take direction from you.

Finally, whether you’re with a counselor or alone with your wife, get into the habit of listening to each other carefully and respectfully. The kids will eventually grow up and leave home. The goal is to make sure your marriage will remain strong long after they’ve gone.

Armin Brott is a syndicated columnist and author of eight books on fatherhood. Visit his website, www.DadSoup.com, or follow him on Twitter @mrdad.

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