Paralyzed Parenting & Stepfamilies: When You Don’t Follow Through
by Ron L. Deal, President, Smart Stepfamilies
For these commands are a lamp, this teaching is a light, and the corrections of discipline are the way to life.”
No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
It’s one of the biggest complaints I hear about biological parents (either from a stepparent or an ex-spouse regarding the other biological parent): “They just don’t follow through. No matter how much we discuss it, once we make a plan, they just don’t follow through with discipline—and the rest of us are suffering for it.”
There are lots of reasons that biological parents “get wimpy” (pardon my directness, but that’s what it is) with their kids. Some are “tired and just don’t have the energy to see it through,” others are afraid the other house will become more appealing to the children if they are too harsh, while still others just don’t have any parenting skills and simply don’t know what to do (if this is you—read a book or go to a class!).
But in my experience, a significant number of parents in stepfamilies get paralyzed by what parenting expert John Rosemond calls “psychological thinking.” These parents spend an inordinate amount of time trying to analyze “why” their child misbehaves. “What does it mean?” is this parent’s most asked question. The fact that 15 year-old Susie can’t seem to get her assignments turned in at school is not just about a lack of responsibility, it is assumed symbolic of some mystery the parent must figure out. Furthermore, to this parent punishing a child or “holding their feet to the fire” for something that obviously is about some “deeper psychological need,” doesn’t seem fair. The net result is a parent that doesn’t respond in ways that will reshape the child’s behavior, they just do nothing.
Five Consequences of Psychological Thinking
When parents get bogged down by assigning psychological causes to their child’s behavior, John Rosemond points out that several consequences become inevitable:
- The child is no longer responsible for what he is doing. Something else is held as responsible for the child’s misbehavior. This might be another parent (ex-spouse) or circumstance (divorce, death of a parent, etc.), or the parent might hold themselves responsible (guilty).
- The child is transformed from someone who is misbehaving into a victim of circumstances that are beyond his or her control. Instead of discipline, he warrants compassion.
- The child’s behavior is justified by the circumstances in question. Suddenly, he is innocent of wrongdoing. He doesn’t really mean to do what he is doing.
- The parent’s ability to discipline is paralyzed. How can a parent punish a child for doing what he can’t help doing?
- Because they cannot bring themselves to punish the child, the parents become unwitting accomplices in and enablers of the child’s antisocial behavior, so the child’s behavior becomes progressively worse over time. (p. 105-106)
Paralyzed by Guilt
Biological parents in first-families fall prey to psychological thinking, too, but it in my experience, parents in single-parent and stepfamilies are even more prone to this pattern. Why? Because of guilt.
- Guilt from the divorce or parental decisions that have complicated the child’s life.
- Guilt from the various life circumstances that have resulted from the death or divorce.
- Guilt over a loss of family income and all the things the child doesn’t have.
- Guilt over an ex-spouse who is uninvolved in the child’s life.
- Guilt over the decision to remarry (or the timing of the remarriage).
- Guilt over sinful choices that have brought difficulty to the child’s life.
The list goes on and on.
Guilt exacerbates parental pity for the child’s “victim state” and creates an inverted power system where parents feel that they owe their children. Misbehavior is justified, excused, and from this twisted perspective, is considered partial restitution for what the parent owes the child. Guilt and sympathy, then, lay the foundation for the parent’s paralyzation and inability to follow through.
What Kids Need
As Rosemond points out, a paralyzed parent enables misbehavior which will undoubtedly escalate and worsen over time. This is particularly difficult when a paralyzed single parent remarries. The new stepparent is set-up for defeat when they bring the child’s outrageous behavior to the attention of the biological parent. They are often met with defensiveness (“he’s not selfish, he’s just going through a rough time”), counter-blame (“you just don’t like my son”), or passive-aggressive patronizing (agreeing to discipline and then not following through). Further, the child will likely exploit the divided parental team, disrespect the stepparent, and stiff-arm the stepparent keeping them emotionally distant.
But perhaps the most ironic result of paralyzed parenting (that is justified by the belief that it somehow reduces the child’s emotional pain) is that it unwittingly prolongs a child’s hurt, anger, and sadness over the past because they are never purposed to manage it responsibly. A child whose “depression over the divorce” excuses irresponsibility without consequence has no motivation to act better. Likewise, a child who hits or openly mistreats his stepsiblings without consequence will continue to “be mad” about how “unfair” life has been to him or her.
Children, rather, need parents who boldly respond with firm and loving consequence to the child’s behavior. Can you show understanding when the child wants to discuss his or her feelings about the past? Yes. But feelings about the past should not excuse the present.
Proverbs (see Prov. 6:23; 13:24; 19:8) tells us two things: Discipline is the way to life and a lack of discipline leads to death. Believe it! Do yourself a favor—don’t fall prey to guilt. Wrestle with it, ask God to take it away, and make the choice not to be paralyzed by it. As I like to say, “Just because you get handed a guilt-trip ticket, doesn’t mean you have to go for the ride.” Parent your kids. Love them enough to discipline them well. It’s their gift for life.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.