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by Robert Klopfer, L.C.S.W.

"I'm home!", exclaims Frank, coming into his house after a twelve-hour day at the office. "Hi, Dear!" calls out Beverly. Silence from the den where 12-year-old Sean and 9-year-old Pam sit engrossed in their nightly TV programs. Frank tries again: "Hello in there!" Silence. Beverly comes to greet him and sensing his frustration pulls away quickly. Welcome to Stepfamilyland.

Frank and Beverly have been married for almost one year and Frank is frustrated that his stepchildren treat him as if he did not exist. Beverly knows that her children like Frank but knows they lose themselves in the television and do not respond to any sound or voice other than the program on the set. Frank takes their non-response personally. Beverly sees it as a normal response for her children and not an attempt to injure Frank's feelings. Frank is angry with Beverly for not getting her kids to respond to him. She is unable to have him understand they are just absorbed in their show. Until this couple works out their differing perspectives, the couple's relationship is bruised and hurt.

This couple sought counseling for what they called "discipline issues." They had been unable to come to terms with a mutually agreeable plan to help the new stepfather enter into an ongoing biological family system. Both parents must do some homework to enable the process to proceed. A short course in values clarification becomes a must.

In first families, the married couple frequently differs on money, sex, and child-rearing issues. In stepfamilies, discipline causes most couple disagreements. Discipline is connected to expectations of children's behaviors and the attitudes held by both the biological and the stepparent toward these behaviors. Each adult has their own perspective of what they see as appropriate or acceptable behavior for the children involved. Coming to mutually agreeable expectations of behavior and a plan to implement these expectations is a difficult task for most stepfamilies.

Discipline is confusing because of gender and role expectations that we bring to our stepfamily from the culture at-large and our family of origin. In biological families children accept both parents as disciplinarians even though the role is frequently assigned to one parent. In stepfamilies, the children usually resists being disciplined by a new stepparent because they have not empowered the stepparent with that right. The child is reacting to change, loss, loyalty conflicts, and feeling powerless in a new stepfamily. Thinking like a child and acting like an adult frequently helps us to better understand the issues our children are facing.

The counselor helped Frank and Beverly to consider discipline from a teaching perspective first. What values are important? What values do you want your children to learn? Set rules that foster the values you wish the children to learn. With rules come limitations. The couple must place limits on behavior seen as undesirable. The parenting team decides what the consequences will be when a child or adolescent does not conform to expected behaviors. The expectations come from a positive parenting perspective. Frank and Beverly agreed to work on their plan. Many couples can talk about philosophical differences and agree on the gulf that exists in their viewpoints. Good parenting in a stepfamily requires more cooperation between the couple because of the power discrepancy that exists for the stepparent with the stepchild. The child must learn to accept the stepparent as a disciplinarian if the stepfamily is to avoid major conflict. Mary Jean Weston, a Houston, TX based clinician, suggests that the stepparent wait until double the age of the child when they met him/her before trying to be a disciplinarian for that child. This usually elicits cooperation from the child.

Waiting for the children to double their age takes a long time! Many stepfamilies find it helpful to first clarify the parent's and stepparent's expectations and have both agree on rules and consequences. Communicating these expectations to the children comes through a family meeting with both the parent and stepparent present. This shows the children that the couple is united and strong. The biological parent informs the children of the expected rules of behavior. It is advisable for the biological parent to enforce these rules when they are present. The child usually accepts the biological parent's right to discipline and knows there is no threat of loss of the parent's love if the child misbehaves.

If the stepparent is alone with the children, the stepparent is empowered with the "babysitter privilege" of enforcing the rules that the parenting team has set up. Children seem to respond to this approach after testing out the limits a few times. Consistent parenting reactions are crucial to the success of this new system. Being consistent means a clear, but not rigid, understanding and enforcement of rules and consequences. The parenting-team must support each other in the presence of the children even if they do not always see events from the same perspective. Parenting differences need to be worked out in private between the couple.

Now Frank comes home from the office and calls out "I'm home". Beverly responds with "Hi, Dear". Sean and Pam sit by the TV, call out "Hi", and are instantly reabsorbed in The Brady Bunch. Positive attitudes go a long way to help us feel in control and understood.

October 1999