I need advice on disciplining my five-year-old stepdaughter. Her father
is reluctant to discipline her and that responsibility falls on me.
He says he is going to take an active role in parenting but usually
does not. I feel that I am becoming the wicked stepmother. How can I
get him to help control her behavior when she acts inappropriately?
ANSWER: You are on the road
to becoming the "wicked stepmother"! This is a common pitfall for stepmoms.
The terrain of the stepfamily needs to be carefully navigated if you
are not to make this fairytale character come true. Should you continue
to be the disciplinarian in your family your relationship with your
stepdaughter will suffer. This should be her father's role, as you suggest
and not yours.
One of the strongest predictor's for success in stepfamily
development is the relationship between stepparent and stepchild.
The second strongest predictor is a good couples' bond. Since the
biological bond between parent and child predates the couples' relationship,
the need to honor and respect the boundaries of this previous bond
is essential prior to fully incorporating a stepparent as a major
authority figure. Any shortcuts precipitate problems later.
Oftentimes, because of cultural loading on mothers
to be the primary caregivers, stepmothers are susceptible to being
placed in this role precipitously. Men more than women, following
divorce, tend towards looking for a "replacement mother" to continue
the work the biological mother did in the biologically intact family
unit. This is a setup for failure and frustration! Do not take this
role on. Step back and require that your husband play the "heavy"
or you are likely to end up the scapegoat for everyone's negative
feelings in the family.
Love includes discipline. Your husband is failing
to cope with parenthood. Perhaps the dynamic in his last marriage
was to leave this part of the job to Mom and he is attempting to do
the same here. This could have also played a part in the failure of
the first marriage, if responsibility for parenting was left to one
parent! But you are not the parent. Your stepdaughter has a mother
and a father.
Tell your husband you do not want to discipline his
child, as it gets in the way of your forging a friendship with her.
It takes time for a stepfamily to bond. Let him know that his lack
of limit setting as a parent is jeopardizing the future of your family.
(And simultaneously undermines whatever authority you do muster in
the situation) By putting you in charge of discipline, he is setting
up a situation in which he is the good guy and you are the bad guy.
This void in parenting by him runs the risk of communicating to his
daughter that he does not love her enough to do the hard part of the
job! And leaving it to you ensures that your relationship to your
stepdaughter will become wrought with conflict, before you have ever
have the opportunity to secure your bond.
This kind of situation is not fair to any of you.
Refuse to take this on, even if it means leaving him alone in the
room with his daughter and her out of bounds behavior. Continue to
develop a positive relationship to your stepdaughter. Take her on
special outings the two of you can enjoy together if possible. But
keep it simple and the interaction positive. Try to develop a good
friendship with her. However, do not get drafted into the middle between
your husband and his daughter. If your husband experiences difficulty
developing this aspect of his parental responsibilities, ask him to
seek out the advice of other fathers. Refer him to fathering resources
on ParentsPlace. Perhaps a fathers' support group could serve to help
him reflect on his own relationship with his father, and why this
part of parenting is so hard for him. It is his job to do whatever
it takes to develop his ability to cope with parenting. Developing
his parenting skills is his obligation as a parent. He owes this to
his daughter, as well as himself.
Approximately 50% of remarriages end in divorce,
in part due to unrealistic expectations for family roles and relationships.
Do not be seduced into "mothering" this child because she already
has a mother and a father. Try instead to forge a special friendship.
Over time, as your bond grows, you may gradually and quite naturally
acquire the status of an authority figure who can also discipline.
But you will not be filling in for your husband's lacks. With time
and patience on your side, you may have the opportunity to grow into
a workable stepfamily. Otherwise you may find yourself seeking a divorce
as refuge from the "wicked stepmother" you could become.
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