If getting them to like you is your priority when it comes to your stepchildren, then good for you for wanting to foster strong bonds with your extended family. But that doesn’t mean you put aside solid rules and thoughtful discipline. Here are five steps for lovingly maintaining law and order in your blended household.
1. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE A SAP WITH YOUR STEP…
I am firm with my own stepkids (there are three of them), and the result is mutual love and mutual respect, too. “Structure is important for everyone’s well being,” advises Melissa Kester, MA, LMFT, Founder and Director of Madison Marriage and Family Therapy, PC in New York City and the editor of Towards Healing. “Neglecting this leaves everyone depleted and uncontained.”
2. … BUT DON’T BE A DRILL SERGEANT EITHER
When kids get disciplined by their biological parents, they (hopefully) understand on some level that their parents’ unconditional love remains intact. But when children misbehave with a stepparent, they may have a real fear that they are no longer loved. I remember chastising my stepdaughter Delia for jumping on the banquet table at a restaurant. “One more time and we’ll have to skip dessert,” I told her. I also added “I love you.” Her face lit up. “You still love me!” she cried triumphantly, thrilled that my love for her was unshakable (even in the face of public banquet-bouncing).
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3. BE CONSISTENT WITH ALL YOUR KIDS (STEP AND OTHERWISE)
Age difference aside (even a jealous stepchild can’t expect his eight-month-old brother to help fold the laundry), nothing breeds bad feelings like favoritism. Make sure that one kid isn’t bearing the brunt of your disciplinary measures over the other: if your stepson got a “no TV time” dictum passed down for bad manners, then your biological child needs to receive the same punishment for the same infraction. “Each child is an equal part of the family,” says Kester. “You would never tolerate your lover saying you or your children are inferior and deserve less in the family, would you?”
4. REMEMBER THAT THERE’S ANOTHER HOUSEHOLD…
If your stepkids don’t live with you full-time, then they’ve got two whole sets of rules to remember, so exercise some extra patience and understanding. While some rules are sacrosanct (scooter minus helmet=no scooter) others can vary from parent to stepparent. After showering, my stepdaughter Delia kept throwing her soaking wet towel on the floor, despite the nearness of the towel rack. I know that at her (much larger) primary dwelling, she has her own bathroom, so towels on the floor there may be her prerogative. Keeping that in mind, I had to ask her a couple of times to hang it up in the future, explaining my reasoning: It helps the towel dry faster, and keeps the bathroom looking and smelling fresher.
5. … AND RESPECT THAT OTHER HOUSEHOLD
“We don’t have to do that at Mom’s house,” I was told once by my stepson. I can respect that—and still maintain the rules that help my own household run smoothly. Respect for your stepkids’ “other” parent—even if she is your partner’s ex—can peacefully coexist with your own rules, punishments, and rewards. “I understand you don’t have to do the dishes at your Mom’s house, but I’d like you to do them here” is a fair request. And don’t forget a dose of positive reinforcement. “A child needs to know they are doing well,” explains Kester. “Even if a child nearly reaches their goal, we can still say, ‘Good job—almost there!’”