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How do you Discipline Step Children?

Mum arguing with daughter

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The whole area of the discipline of children is difficult enough, with everyone having their own views about what discipline means, and how it should be carried out. It’s a contentious area, so much so that many couples find it hard to reach agreement about it and find it a frequent cause of arguments. But for step-parents, the question is even more fraught. Does a step-parent have the same right to discipline a child as their birth parents? If a step-parent’s view on discipline is very different to that of the birth parent or parents, whose viewpoint prevails? Yes, it’s a difficult area, but there are some approaches which can help.


First and foremost, everyone in the family needs to know where the boundaries lie in terms of the children’s behaviour. This really can avoid a lot of problems further down the line, and it starts with the step-parent and the birth parent coming to an agreement about what is and is not acceptable. Ideally, both parents ought to be involved, but if there has been an acrimonious break-up, it may not be possible to enlist the other birth parent in the task. Nevertheless, it ought to be possible for the step-parent and their partner to talk over and agree the rules around the matters which commonly cause problems, such as cheekiness and answering back, bed times, and meal times. For older children and teens, other issues might be more relevant, such as use of mobile phones, curfews, or rules about alcohol or sexual relationships. Either way, the crucial thing is that the two of you need to be agreed about the boundaries that are set. The children also need to know what the rules are, and what the consequences will be if they do not abide by them. It can be helpful for older children to have some say in the boundaries that are set in the family; it is important to be able to negotiate and compromise, and they are more likely to comply with the rules if they have been consulted in the making of them.

Parents arguing over children

Putting discipline into practice

Agreeing the boundaries may turn out to be the easiest bit. When a child oversteps them, the birth parent and the step-parent also need to be united in their approach to what should happen next. Typically, one of you may be quite relaxed in your approach, and may be inclined to let the matter slip a few times, or to deal with it by talking it over, while the other may have a zero tolerance approach and feel that the behaviour should be ‘nipped in the bud.’ Once you notice this type of disagreement creeping in, you really do need to talk about it and agree the approach that you are going to take, because children will not respond to boundaries for long if they can see that one parent figure enforces them much more firmly than the other. Most importantly, the birth parent needs to back the step-parent up in their agreed approach, otherwise, the step-parent is undermined and the children will quickly conclude that the ultimate authority still rests with their birth parent. In the long-term, this can result in a step-parent really struggling with a child’s behaviour and being ignored or treated with a lack of respect.

step mum discipline

Keeping a balance

As a step-parent, trying to live with your partner’s children, the emphasis can easily end up being upon discipline alone. But remember that you need to build a relationship with these children if they are to respond well to you and respect you. As well as discussing discipline, talk to your partner about having fun with the children, about how they like to be played with, their favourite activities and the ways that you can all spend time together enjoying each other’s company. It may all feel difficult at first, but remember that plenty of people do develop loving relationships with a step-parent that are maintained into adulthood. After all, the presence of an additional adult with a concern for their welfare and a willingness to have fun simply can’t be anything other than a positive for any child.




About Paula Hendry

About Paula Hendry

Paula Hendry is a freelance consultant in the field of social work. She has been a social worker for twenty five years, and specialises in mental health. Paula has two children and writes in her spare time (which is virtually non-existent.)

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