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By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

Aside from juggling households and visitation, the one thing that seems to cause a stepchild of divorce the most difficulty is discipline—the stepparent’s attempts to act as a biological parent to discipline the child.

Unfortunately, because step relationships, particularly new ones, are usually complicated and fraught with conflict, realistically, it can be almost impossible for a stepmom or dad to refrain from disciplining the stepchild. After all, many stepchildren, who have been through the trauma of divorce, test the step’s limits to the max—trying to see how far they can push until the adult is upset or breaks. A child testing limits is part of ‘normal’ parenting and so, certainly, it’s part of stepparenting. The question is how to deal with it?

Stephen Rosenbaum, MSW, LCSW, who works with children and families dealing with divorce in Highland Park, IL, offers the following thoughts on how to handle discipline with a stepchild.
“Generally, people want to be the nice guy or gal,” he said. “If it’s a man, he may want to be the father figure.” That’s great. But, mostly, if the parent is alive, the child doesn’t want a second father or mother.

The stepparent has to realize that there is a natural biological boundary between the child, his parents and the stepparent. “Stepparents need to take their lead from the biological parent—their spouse,” he continued. “They have to move at a snail’s pace in developing their relationship with the stepchild, being ever conscious of not crossing the boundary --of acting like the child’s parent.” This applies, even if the child has a negligent parent. (In some cases, if the stepparent has respected the boundary in their relationship, when the stepchild grows up he is able to appreciate what the stepparent has done in his behalf.)

When one has an acting out stepchild, it becomes difficult for the stepparent to control that child’s misbehaviors and the biological parent must understand that so he or she can help. “As a general rule, discipline should emanate from the biological parent—not the stepparent.” So, if Johnny is running around the dinner table instead of sitting down and eating, Stepmom Sarah should quietly ask Dad to tell Johnny to take his seat at the table, or if Johnny won’t listen, Dad needs to give Johnny the consequence.

A successful stepfamily is able to work out a system so that the biological parent supports the stepparent in disciplining the child. “As time goes on the stepparent will gradually work to assert his or her authority as the spouse of the biological parent and begin to set appropriate boundaries that we all deserve as human beings,” said Rosenbaum. “At minimum, she or he deserves the same respect as the biological parent.”

One thing all stepparents must remember is that it often takes about 18 months or 2 years for a stepfamily to start to build bonds. The process is slow, but, when stepchildren mature, there can be rewards.

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Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at