In newly formed stepfamilies, the standard advice that I give to the couple is for the parent to take the lead with discipline. There is a great deal of research supporting this stance. The most helpful role for step parents during the early years of stepfamily formation is to nurture the relationship with the stepchild and support the parent with parenting tasks. In her book, “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships,” Patricia Papernow, EdD (2013), points out that that the step-couple often becomes divided in their parenting styles.
Most parenting experts agree that authoritative parenting is ideal: a style that is both firm and loving. However, research shows that post-divorce parents are more lenient with their children and may have more permissive parenting.
Stepparents often find themselves doing the work of a parent, but not reaping the same rewards. They may get cold responses from a child rather than warm hugs. This is especially true when the children are having a more difficult time adjusting to the new family. As a result, step parents may push for more order in the household in hopes of feeling supported. This usually presents as a stricter discipline style.
Opposite parenting styles within a stepfamily can put a step-couple at odds with one another, leaving both feeling unsupported.
There are a lot of things that can easily go wrong when step-couples are divided on their parenting styles. According to Hetherington & Kelly (2002), the relationship between the stepchild and the stepparent may be fundamental to the step couple’s happiness. In order to strengthen the stepchild-stepparent bond, the stepparent first must build a positive relationship. As Dr. Papernow puts it, “Connection before correction.” It’s hard to build a positive relationship with a child when you are thrust into a disciplinary role too early.
Hetherington, E. M., & Kelly, J. (2002). For better or for worse: Divorce reconsidered. New York: W.W. Norton.
Papernow, P. L. (2013). Surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships: what works and what doesn’t. New York: Routledge.
Written By: Jackie Dunagan, LAMFT