Building a Relationship Is More Powerful Than Discipline—Advice Every Stepparent Needs

(Note: While the focus of this post is stepparent and child relationships, the same can be said for and applied to any new adult/child relationship–child care providers, teachers, nanny, etc. Read on!)

You’ve likely been at a park with your children and seen a child you’ve never met misbehaving. Maybe they’re throwing rocks at other kids, pushing kids, or just being unsafe. It’s tempting to say something to the child if the parent is not intervening. But the truth is, if you did, you’ll probably just get a look from the child–a look that says, “I don’t know you, so why should I listen to you?”

This is the perfect scenario to demonstrate why discipline does not work unless you’ve established a relationship with the child.When you’re a new stepparent, it’s crucial to establish a healthy relationship with your partner’s children before you try to discipline them. Although you and your partner should establish and agree on rules for the household together (more on this subject in a future post!), the biological parent should be the only one enforcing the rules until a bond between the stepparent and child is established. When a child feels understood and supported, they’ll feel more emotionally balanced and you’ll need discipline much less. Discipline without a relationship typically results in a power struggle.

There is no set amount of time it takes to establish a relationship with a child. It depends on many factors, such as the stepparent’s level of involvement in the child’s life, the personality of the child, etc. I’ll use our own children for an example.

My youngest daughter (age 2) who does not have a biological father in her life, and was only one year old when she met my husband, bonded with him right away. She started calling him Daddy after just a couple months of knowing him. She heard his two girls calling him Daddy, so it came organically to her. When she first met my husband, she was so young that discipline wasn’t really in the picture for her yet. I mostly used redirection with her until she turned two. By then, her bond with my husband was very strong, and she responds to discipline from him even better than she responds to it with me most of the time. I think it’s safe to say she’s going to be a daddy’s girl!

My two bonus girls, age 4 and age 6, and I are constantly developing our relationship and growing closer. Our bond established fairly quickly as well, mostly because when I first came around, I focused solely on playing with them, talking with them, getting to know them, and comforting them. I let their dad handle all of the discipline during that time, while I worked on building a bond with them. Gradually, I started to enforce the same rules that their dad holds them to (rules we’ve established as a household), but mostly only when he is not home or if he is busy doing something else in the house, and I happen to see something that needs addressed. Even though I now get on to them from time to time, they still refer to me as “best friend,” so it’s safe to say our relationship is firmly founded and still growing.

My two boys, age 6 and 12, have been a little more stand-offish towards my husband. I don’t know if it’s just a male to male thing, or because my husband doesn’t have the naturally nurturing approach that I do (I worked in the field of child care for well over a decade, so bonding with children comes naturally to me), or if it’s just the boys’ personalities. It’s definitely taken the longest to establish a bond between my husband and my boys. They’ve really progressed since they first met though, and my husband is able to discipline the boys occasionally, mostly just to back me up if they are not listening to me, or if I’m not at home. For the most part, they’re still in the relationship-building phase, and I still take care of the majority of the discipline with the boys.

What children are really doing when they are building a relationship with their stepparent is learning to trust their stepparent.

Trust is the foundation upon which every relationship is formed, including a stepparent/child relationship. For biological parents, trust begins at birth. The main reason that maintaining the relationship with both biological parentsis typically so vital to a child is that often, those are the first two people the child learned to trust. When a stepparent comes into a child’s life at any stage other than infancy, they’ve got foundation work to do. They can’t take on a “parenting” role until they’ve established a healthy bond, and therefore trust, with the child.

Here are a few important tips on building a healthy relationship with a child:

  • Listen to them. Some kids really like to talk. Many kids also like to ask questions, and young children in particular like to talk about themselves. Listen attentively when they talk to you. Answer questions genuinely. If it seems like they aren’t in the mood to talk, don’t push it. Read their cues (closed off body language, one word responses or no response at all), and try again another time. Some kids open up right away and others are more shy and open up slowly. Just remember that’s the child’s personality, and don’t take it personally.
  • Play with them! A lot of children love when you take interest in the things they enjoy. Watch how they like to play and ask if you can join them. If they like to dress up, put on a tutu and dance around the house with them. If they like to play school, volunteer to be their student. Barbies? Grab a doll. Hot wheels? Build a track together. Read to them, color with them, toss a baseball around, take them to a park. Do make sure you ask before you join in their play. Some kids prefer playing alone or prefer to play in a particular way. Just as with talking and listening to them, read their cues and if they say “no thanks,” be respectful and give them space. Believe it or not, respecting a child when they say “no thanks” actually goes a long way in building trust as well.
  • Bring out the board games. Board games are helpful in particular with older children or children giving off a hesitant vibe. (Sometimes this is the only way I spend quality time with my own Fortnite-obsessed 12 year old son lately!) Some of my most memorable moments of my childhood are when we played games as a family.
  • Show up. Medical appointments and educational appointments are usually left to the bio parents, but soccer games, dance classes, basketball tournaments, band concerts, etc are great opportunities to see the child in activities they enjoy, and showing up and being encouraging is a great way to show your support.
  • Take care of them. Cook for them, help them with homework, brush their hair, paint their nails, fix their toys, etc. The way babies learn to trust is by having someone that provides their basic needs for them, and that doesn’t get completely go away when children grow. Finding ways to help your partner take care of the children let’s your child see you as someone who will provide for them and give them the safety and security they need.
  • Be kind. Kindness goes a long way–children who come from divorce have been through a lot. They deserve anyone new coming into their lives to be kind.
  • Be patient. It takes longer for some kids than others to build a relationship with their stepparent. Don’t force it, follow their cues, take opportunities for connecting and engaging when you can, and don’t give up!

How do you know when you’ve built a strong relationship? Here are some key indicators:

  • They are excited to see you.
  • They talk about you/ask about you when you’re not there. (In positive ways!)
  • They draw you in family pictures.
  • They ask for your help/advice.
  • They talk your ear off. 🙂
  • They want you to play with them.
  • They show affection.

Once you’ve reached a healthy, strong place in your relationship, you’ll have fewer challenges as a stepparent. At that point, when you need to enforce a rule, you’ll have much less push back from the child than if you tried to enforce rules as soon as you entered their lives. And that will make everyone in the household happier.

What are your first experiences as a stepparent? Was it a struggle to build a relationship with your bonus child(ren)? I’d love to hear YOUR experiences in the comments below!

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