In 1990, I became a single parent to my son and daughter, who were ages 8 and 5, at the time. Thus began the tough journey of merging work, children, child care, visitation and many other issues into our lives. It was much more difficult than I could have imagined.
In 1993, I was married to my present husband, who also had custody of his two sons. In 1994, we added one more son to our “Brady Bunch” family.
I remember sitting down with our pastor previous to our marriage and he asked the question: “Where do you see yourselves in five years?” We looked and each other and the reality hit us that in five years we would have four teenagers in the home. We knew we would have our hands full.
On our wedding day the kids were 14, 11, 11, and 8 years-old. We had a wonderful wedding with all the kids standing up with us. We felt prepared. We had read books on parenting with blended families and had gotten good pre-marital counseling. The kids seemed to genuinely get along and like each other. We were hopeful and positive that life would be “happily ever after.”
The honeymoon period was short. Within a couple months, we were having behavioral problems with the oldest especially. The reality of both of his parents being divorced and remarrying was hitting him hard; not to mention moving to a new house in a new town and having to start in a new school with a new stepmother at that awkward age of 14.
We learned very quickly that step-parenting was one of the most difficult things that we would ever be called to do. Now, 19 years later, I look back and often wonder how we ever made it through. I’m positive that without the grace of God and the support of friends and family we would not have been able to do it.
As a counselor, I see many blended families trying to navigate the difficulties of step-parenting. I’m sure I could write a book on all of the things we have learned over the years but I wanted to pass on something that I call “The Rubber Band Theory.”
Have you ever noticed that when you discipline your child at first they are upset, and maybe even angry, but eventually they seem to draw closer to you and want to reconnect. With my three biological children this always seemed to be the case.
Kids seem to know that they need to be disciplined and although they don’t like the consequences, they accept their punishment because they love you and know that you love them in return. They are like a rubber band and quickly “snap” back to you wanting to reconcile with you. Their desire is to get back in right standing with you and so both parties are able to forgive, move on and continue to love each other.
Not so with my stepsons, however. When I was the one doling out the discipline it seemed to drive a deeper wedge of discontent and rebellion in them. They did not snap back as quickly and sometimes not at all.
And if we think about it, the reason is clear. I did not have the history of a loving bond with them. I did not carry them for nine months, nurse and diaper them and love them through their childhood scrapes, scratches and tummy aches. I had not rocked them to sleep at night and tucked them in to pray and read with them. I had not bonded with them physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Here’s the truth about what most kids are thinking, “My mom and dad aren’t together anymore and I wish they were. I don’t like having to deal with my new parent, home, siblings etc. This is not my choice and I didn’t have any say in it. Maybe this is my fault. If my parents really loved me they never would have let this happen.”
I see so many step-parents trying to become the disciplinarian to their new son or daughter. The new step-parent almost always has good intentions; they want to provide structure and proper boundaries in their new family. Sometimes they believe they are trying to make up for what the child’s bio-parent is lacking or perhaps never provided, but often times this approach does not work at all and is even making things much worse.
So what is the answer? Here are some suggestions that I believe will help blended families deal with discipline and step-parenting in general.
1. When dealing with discipline don’t be reactive. Have pre-established expectations for all the children in the home. The children should be aware of these and the consequences for misbehavior. No child should be given preferential treatment.
2. Have a family meeting once a week to discuss successes, schedules and other things that may need to be addressed within the family.
3. If a child needs to be reprimanded, do it in private away from the other children unless the issue includes another child, then it can be discussed with those involved.
4. When discipline needs to be given, the parents should discuss the consequences privately between themselves and come to an agreement as to how to best handle the situation and then go together to talk with the child. It’s best if the child’s biological parent is the one doing most of the talking.
5. Remember to let the child know that you love them but don’t condone their behavior. Try to stay away from “you” statements like, “You are making me crazy, you need to be good, you are a troublemaker.” These are shaming messages to the child and lead to a sense of there being something inherently wrong with them. Instead say something like, “What you are doing right now is not OK. Your behavior or attitude needs to change. Right now, I don’t like the way you are acting.” Always communicate that you love the child but not the behavior.
6. Never dole out punishment if your anger is not under control.
Studies among blended families tell us it takes seven years for a child to accept a step-parent as someone whom they love and respect. So please keep that in mind and be patient and understanding when it comes to how you react to step-children. They have typically been through a lot of emotional trauma going through the separation and divorce. Often they are expected to be happy with the choices of adults and have the added difficulties of adjusting to living back and forth between two homes. I often wonder how much we as parents would like it if we were told we have to switch back and forth between homes every other week or weekend. Most of us would say “NO WAY,” yet we expect our children to just accept it and deal with it.
As a final note, there is hope! Despite difficulties and making many mistakes, our children are all doing well today. The oldest four are adults and are living successful and fulfilled lives. Two are married and we have three grandchildren. God has been faithful to see us through even the toughest of times and he can do that for your too!