Whose Kids are These Anyway? Or How to Discipline Your Stepchildren

Dear Mr. Dad: This is my second marriage, and I’m totally committed to my new wife. But even thought I hate to admit it, her two kids from her previous marriage are driving me crazy. They play one of us against the other, and my wife—being their mom—usually takes their side in any disagreement. How can we keep our marriage stable and still come to some agreement on disciplining the kids?

A: For some couples, second marriages are a breeze. But most experience all sorts of problems in merging two different households with different traditions and ways of life. When kids are involved, the potential problems multiply exponentially. In fact, it may be even harder on kids than on the adults. At least adults have some control over the situation. Kids have almost none.

Some children resent their parents’ remarriages, while others may feel bewildered by new expectations. And they react just like anyone else who has to copes with an uncertain and frightening situation: they do whatever they can to regain some control. Sometimes that plays out as deliberately pushing their parents’/step-parents’ buttons, or, as you’ve seen, pitting the two off each other. None of this, however, relieves them of the obligation to respect the new step-parent.

The place to start is with a behind-closed-doors meeting with your wife. Talk about your expectations and hers. What kind of behavior is acceptable? What isn’t? Because she’s the biological parent, it’s important that you come up with a plan that she can and will enforce. The kids are less likely to resent taking direction (and discipline) from mom than from you. Several important things to keep in mind, though.

  • Biological parents tend to under-discipline their kids—especially in the eyes of step-parents. That’s often the result of a perfectly well-intentioned desire to reduce the stress in the kids’ lives (after all, they’ve been through enough already, haven’t they?).
  • At some point, you’re have to step in. It’s tempting to try to leave everything up to the biological parent, but that’s not an effective long-term solution.
  • Keep your expectations reasonable. Creating a well-oiled family machine will not happen overnight—if it does at all. Some experts say that it can take as long for a new family to gel as the age of the children.
  • Know your place. You want the kids to like and respect you but you’re not their father. So set your sights on building a solid relationship that’s independent of their mother. The stronger that relationship, the more likely the kids will be to take direction from you.

To the extent possible, try to present a united front and to make sure that everyone knows what happens if they either follow or break them. The trick is to come up with fair and reasonable consequences that won’t overwhelm the kids. Timeout, loss of privileges, and extra housework are typical responses to non-compliance in many families. If you and your wife can’t agree on household rules or discipline, this is a good time to discuss the situation with a trained counselor who can offer an objective perspective. It may take just a few sessions to work through your differences and come to agreement on what the kids should and shouldn’t do. Be prepared to compromise. A lot.

When (not if) you and your wife disagree, be sure to listen to each other respectfully. The kids will eventually grow up and leave home. Hopefully, your marriage will last long after they’ve gone.