Discipline is a major bone of contention in nearly all families, and in step families this is amplified by one of the members of the family not being biologically related to the child. It’s important to approach discipline as a stepparent with caution and clear communication. Let me explain how…


Creating a bank of love first

The biological parent has loved the child, possibly from the moment of conception and for many years before the new relationship. They have formed bonds of love that over time have become strong.

A good analogy of the relationship built is a piggy bank where the biological parent has been “putting money away” for many years before they need to take some out. Every correction or discipline is taking money out of the piggy bank. If the piggy bank is full, a bit missing doesn’t affect the balance too much.

A step-parent who enters the scene and tries to offer correction or discipline to a non-biological child has no money in the piggy bank. The correction, no matter how mild, therefore comes over as a major crisis. It takes years to put money into the piggy bank – so as a new step-parent, please do tread carefully when it comes to discipline.

Early in a relationship the most successful step-parent, step-child relationship is where the step-parent focuses first on developing friendship with mutual respect and affection, with no disciplinarian role.


Build slowly

The relationship should not be rushed. Initially start with an emotionally non-threatening, distant parenting relationship. Then after a couple of years (depending on the age of the children) step parents can begin to spend more time in direct childcare and rule setting.

Agreement between the spouses as to when this is appropriate is important. And even if the parents agree on the discipline approach, test the waters slowly with each child. As mentioned in my article “Common Challenges Of New StepFamilies” each child will have differing times to accept and participate in the new relationships within the stepfamily.

The younger the child is when the new adult enters the life, the easier it usually is to put the “money in the bank” and the easier it is to start being part of the direct parenting and disciplining role to the child.

The older the child, the harder this is. It can take 4-7 years to have a relationship that has developed enough to be able to discipline without hostility and unrest between parents, as well as between the stepparent and child.


The dynamics of the couple

When couples are critiquing each other’s parenting style it is often accompanied by lots of angst and resentment. This can quickly become the cause of relationship breakdown. When anger and resentment come to play, couples just can’t see their way out, other than their partner making all of the changes. But there is a way.

First it is important to understand the dynamics that are happening with the couple.

Usually the parent feels that the step-parent is being too strict and critical of their stepchildren, while the step-parent frequently feels that the parent is too lenient with and accommodating of their children.

This can lead to the step-parent feeling that the parent sees no wrong, and the parent feels that the step-parent can’t see any good in their child. And just as any mama or papa bear, they will protect their child no matter what.


This dynamic can happen irrespective of the parents or step-parents’ gender, sexual orientation or whether children live in or not.


The interaction between the parent and the step-parent around discipline can be described as a positive feedback loop, in that each perceived position invites a reciprocal and counter response from the other.

In other words, as the step-parent perceives the parent’s position regarding their children to be too soft and maybe tolerating of inappropriate behavior, the step-parent’s attempts to promote adequate firmness and discipline are reinforced.


The step-parent often says something like “Someone has to bring these kids into line”.


This response is turn reinforces within the parent a sense of needing to counteract the perceived harshness from the step-parent by showing their children yet more lenience and understanding.

This might have the name of positive feedback loop, but it is anything but positive for those living in the loop.


Stopping the negativity loop

Often the feelings that are being triggered are actually feelings within the adults, and this is the key to stopping the feedback loop.

For instance, the parent might be feeling guilt about the children being separated from their other parent, and maybe is being more lenient, or more generous than they would be in another circumstance.

Or the step-parent is already feeling left out of the family group and ignored. This trigger’s feelings from their childhood days when they were feeling not valued, and so they react to the situation with more emotion than maybe it warrants.


Dealing with our own childhood wounds and healing our inner child will go a long way to solving the angst within the family.


Having and showing a mutual consensus and support on rules and expectations is essential. This will allow the step-parent to become more authoritative within the family unit.


Bridging the gap

Unity within the couple’s relationship bridges the emotional gap between the step-parent and stepchildren and positions both adults to lead the family. Without this it almost always results in resentment, and resistance.

It is possible for the step-parent to discipline a stepchild, but not for a number of years until the “bank account” has been built up. In the meantime, the biological parent will need to do most of the parenting work, and the step-parent will need to step back and let them, supporting them where needed.

If the couple find themselves resenting how the children are being treated then it is worthwhile looking at the positive feedback loop model to see if that is what is happening. It also helps to have each partner to look at their own feelings and reactions to see if there is something in their past that is being triggered by the new family relationships.

Parenting and discipline is a very hot topic and it can be valuable to get outside assistance to help with your individual situation. For support with stepping into your stepfamily successfully, or understanding how to discipline as a step-parent, please do get in touch to find out how I can help you.

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