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Published January 28, 2011, 12:00 AM

Stepfathers must learn to tread lightly with kids

I recently met with a young married man whose wife had left him. The core of their dispute was his overzealous, strict and occasionally harsh discipline of his 5-year-old stepdaughter. This fell well short of “abuse,” but in his wife’s mind, what he was doing was extreme. He felt too sure of himself and what he was trying to do that it finally resulted in a painful separation.

By: Val Farmer, INFORUM

I recently met with a young married man whose wife had left him. The core of their dispute was his overzealous, strict and occasionally harsh discipline of his 5-year-old stepdaughter. This fell well short of “abuse,” but in his wife’s mind, what he was doing was extreme. He felt too sure of himself and what he was trying to do that it finally resulted in a painful separation.

This is the advice I gave him.

You are going into uncharted territory. There are a few landmines around. No, this isn’t about war. This is about stepfamily conflict and a delayed strategy for winning. Psychologist James Bray of the Baylor College of Medicine has some helpful guidelines for surviving this hazardous course with minimal wounds and scars. The battlefront terminology is mine.

  • Give up your nuclear family myth of making this “one happy family.” The only thing nuclear will be the explosions going off, around you. For one thing, there is an ex-spouse out there who is the child’s father and who will be a part of your family system. And so will his parents. Your stepchild and wife have multiple relationships and loyalties that make a stepfamily unique.

  • Don’t put fuel on a fire. High conflict between ex-spouses is harmful to the children. Don’t add to the problem by taking strong stands yourself. Your efforts with your wife should be calming and supportive instead of inciting and inflammatory.

  • Don’t attack beyond your supply lines. Concentrate on building your relationship with your new wife. Don’t jump into stepparenting without first building the bonds you’ll need to withstand the pitfalls ahead.

    Don’t be surprised if your wife acts as the enemy. Her loyalties are to her daughter. She’ll be protecting her, even from you. It may even seem to you as if they are a team and you are the “outsider” who is being excluded.

    Don’t view your stepdaughter as a competitor, otherwise firefights and insurrections will be popping up all over. It will take time for your wife to trust your ideas about parenting. It will take a couple of years before the two of you become an effective team – especially with parenting. You’ll have to earn trust all over again from a worse position than when you first married.

  • Build relationships slowly. Lay low and keep your head down. The confusion, protection, sidetaking and acting out swirling around is completely normal. Even if you are a skilled parent with lots of good ideas, active parenting will only make things worse.

    Boundaries about dress codes and bathrooms should be established. Stepdaughters are especially wary of physical hugs and touch but welcome verbal acceptance and warmth – especially after the relationship has been established.

    Be interested, friendly and respectful but don’t push. Your wife needs to be the primary disciplinarian with her own child. You can be her eyes, ears and support behind the battlefront. It will take at least a couple of years before your presence on the front lines will be accepted.

    Expecting the best is not always the best. Your own fears about lax discipline can be put on hold until your teamwork and mutual trust has been established.

    Your discipline shouldn’t be harsher or more rigid than your wife’s discipline – even if she is low key and inconsistent. You need to calm her fears about you first before you can be her partner. Concentrate on being a nurturing parent until she trusts you.

    Be aware of your wife’s experiences with discipline as she was growing up. Her own relationship with her father will be a blueprint for what she expects from you. Like it or not, your discipline may need to be more low key than his once was. At least for a while.

  • Learn tactics for success. Take a stepparenting class together and understand the issues around authoritarian, permissive, disengaged and authoritative parenting. Work and negotiate strategic goals for now and save the common tactics for later once you move up to the front lines.

    Attending support group for stepfamilies will help acquaint you with the unique aspects of stepfamily conflict. Go for counseling help if you need to.

  • Family rules will protect you. In the safety of headquarters, each of you independently write a list of important family rules. Compare and rank the lists. Choose three to five family rules upon which you both agree. Together brief your stepdaughter on the rules and consequences. Post the rules prominently. When a rule is broken, be matter of fact and explain you are merely enforcing what the general (mother) wants.

    One family rule should be respect, courtesy and manners. Your manners, courtesy and respect, not just hers. Especially courtesy. Courtesy will carry the day until a genuine bond has been formed. If and when there is an “ours” baby enters the picture, your stepdaughter will have her radar out for “preferred” treatment.

  • Pride in the outfit. Your unit needs its own patches, flags and identity. Wait a couple of years until your position as an insider is secure. Then establish mutual family rituals and traditions that will make your family distinctive. Trying to do this too soon will create resistance and loyalty conflicts by your wife and stepdaughter who need the old rituals for safety and comfort.


Val Farmer is a clinical psychologist specializing in family business consultation and mediation with farm families.

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