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by Ron L. Deal

Recent feedback from a Smart Stepfamilies reader reminded me how difficult it is to understand the quagmire of stepparenting and how challenging it is for me to communicate about it. A reader saw something I had written about stepparent discipline and questioned, “I thought your books teach that stepparents shouldn’t discipline stepchildren at all.” That’s not what I teach, but I’m pleased the person took the time to share their confusion; it encouraged me to again wrestle with the topic in this edition of HomeLife.

Relationship Opens the Door

Emotional attachment, trust, and love are what open the door to influence in parenting. Once that is established an adult—foster parent, grandparent, adoptive parent, or stepparent—can lead and discipline a child. Said another way, the old adage is true: rules without relationship leads to rebellion. Wise stepparents understand this and grow relationship in order to grow authority.

Authority can exist without a bonded relationship, but it has its limits. A police officer can pull you over, a boss or coach can tell you what to do, and a teacher can tell a student the rules of the classroom, but none of these authorities obtain obedience out of the love or deep admiration. Until stepparents establish a love-relationship with a child they are just another external authority imposing boundaries. That’s why it’s critical early in a blended family that stepparents recognize these limits and borrow power from the biological parent. If they over-step the limits of their role they can sabotage the developing relationships and any authority they might have had along with it. Therefore, for new stepparents the question is how do they establish themselves as authority figures while waiting for bonding to occur?


Babysitters, on their first visit to a home, don’t have any relational authority with children. The kids don’t know them, don’t like them, and don’t need them. (Stepparents take note.) But, if the kids and babysitter are lucky enough to get many evenings together, they can form a significant relationship bond over time. In the meantime, how, then, do babysitters get things done? While they are hoping for a relationship to develop, how do they manage the children? Answer: by borrowing power.

Babysitters can put children in time-out, take away privileges, and declare it bedtime because the child’s parent has passed power to the babysitter. The “she’s in charge while we’re gone” speech is usually quite effective. Now notice, this empowers the babysitter to set boundaries and impose consequences that ultimately are owned by the parent. However, if the biological parent is unwilling or unable to own these boundaries, there will be chaos.

Stepparenting follows a similar process. Initially stepparents act as extensions of the biological parent. They can enforce consequences, set boundaries, and say “no”, but do so knowing full well they are not standing on their own authority. They live on borrowed power until such time as their love-relationship with the child matures and opens the door to more influence and authority.

Discipline Do’s and Don’ts for Stepparents

At best new stepparent authority is fragile and easily shattered. That’s why these do and don’t must be a priority.

  • Do make sure the biological parent has your back. Biological parents must communicate to their children an expectation of obedience to the stepparent and be willing to back up the stepparent’s actions. When disagreements occur, settle them in private.
  • Do strive for unity in parenting. Discuss behavioral expectations, boundaries, consequences, and values. Bring your parenting philosophies in line.
  • Don’t be harsh or punish in a way inconsistent with the biological parent.
  • Do focus on relationship building. This is your long-term strength.
  • Don’t unilaterally change rules or try to make up for past parental mistakes or failings.
  • Do listen to the child. If they draw into you sooner than expected, don’t look back. Use the relational authority offered you.
  • Don’t get impatient. It often takes years to bond and develop a trusting love-relationship with children. Be persistent in bonding with them.
  • Do communicate with the biological parent a lot! If uncertain, find parental unity before engaging the children.

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.