Adolescents, Anxiety, Articles by Jacqueline McDiarmid, Break ups, Children, Communication, Conflict, Couple's counselling, Couples, Family counselling, Friendship, Relationships, Trust, Uncategorized

Should Step-Parents Discipline?

One of the hardest parenting gigs is being a step-parent. They often find themselves expected to do parenting chores such as running kids to soccer or enduring kid-friendly dinners. They may be expected to put up with attitude from teenagers and share the stress of difficult relationships with the ex of their partner.

As a Family Counsellor in Sydney CBD and Eastern Suburbs of Sydney I hear resentful complaints from step-children about their step-parents (because frankly it’s not easy being the child in this scenario) and I hear resentment and despair from the step-parents. And often the parent tells me they feel pulled between both.

One of the questions I get asked as a Family Therapist is should the step-parent discipline their step-child or children?  There’s not a straightforward answer to this. It depends on factors including levels of attachment and how long a step-parent has been in the life of the child, for instance.

Determining just how much active parenting, including disciplining, that a step-parent should do is tricky.

As a starting point, I recommend that unless step-parents have been parenting the child full time since they were a toddler, they should not be delivering consequences and making disciplinary decisions. The child’s parents, regardless of whether they are together or not, should be making disciplinary decisions together. However, step-parents also need to have some agency in the family. They shouldn’t feel as if they have no say about a step-child’s behaviour.  Therefore, it is a good idea if the parents also take into consideration a step-parents views.  It is important that step-parents feel supported and heard, particularly as most find themselves doing some parenting of their step-child, or they have their own children who are impacted by parenting decisions.

Here are some tips around discipline for step-parents and parents:

  1. Just because a step-parent isn’t in charge of discipline, it doesn’t mean step-children should be allowed to treat them like a doormat.  Sometimes it helps to think of what would be appropriate in a babysitting situation and apply that code of behaviour to step-parenting.  A babysitter would be expected to remind the kids to do this or that, or pull them up on poor behaviour – but the actual disciplining of a child would be left to the parents.
  2. The parents and their ex partners should agree on discipline. They should make the call on what sort of behaviours require a punishment or deserve a consequence. But they should also make sure step-parents are fully aware of these standards so they’re not excluded and so the parenting of the children is consistent.
  3. When a parent issues a consequence, punishment or lecture because of negative behaviour, the step-parent should resist the urge to listen in or have a say as well. Again, unless you have parented your step-child from babyhood and have developed strong attachment with the child, you may actually damage your relationship with them and cause resentment if you get too involved with disciplining them.
  4. Step-parents should try to remain calm and considered when dealing with negative behaviour from step-children. Remember that the children are probably dealing with grief, loss and confusion a lot of the time; they didn’t ask to be in a blended family or step-family. They didn’t choose their parents’ new partner.  One of the worst dynamics I see is when step-parents take negative behaviour personally.  If this is you, remember you are the adult and they are just kids.
  5. Unfortunately, a lot of step-parents find themselves suddenly parenting a child or teen without much experience. The child might be a lot older than their own kids, or maybe it’s their first time as a parent. It pays for step-parents to get up to speed with different stages of kids’ development, the things that drive adolescent behaviour, and even information about attachment. If you haven’t learned it by experience, you can at least try to pick up parenting knowledge in other ways.
  6. Step parents who encourage and reward good behaviour are likely to be rewarded by step-children who start to connect and even like them.
  7. If you’re a step-parent and you have different ideas about rules and discipline to your partner, try to introduce them slowly. Be aware that too much change too quickly can result in suspicion and resentment from step-children.
  8. Get support from a Family Counsellor if you believe that your step-children are turning your partner against you. Equally family counselling should be sought if children feel like they are losing their parent because of the step-parent. A Family Counsellor will help you to sort out the structure and relationship connections in your family – in a way that provides security and consistency for the children.
  9. Get individual help from a Family Counsellor if you feel like you are struggling in your new role as a step-parent. As a Family Therapist I even work with ex partners and their new partners (four parents) all in the same room. This helps to get everyone on the same page and can help create a sense of parenting teamwork. This is vital if you have a child who is mentally unwell or at risk in some way. It is also excellent for stopping what is called “splitting” from the child who might play off different parents/step-parents against each other.

Step-parents are often in a unique position to “see” things that parents don’t see with their children.  And they can have some really good ideas about how to approach situations with children.  However, the people who know their children best are actually their parents.

If you are a step-parenting or soon to be one, then getting help with this transition phase is a good investment in your new family – in fact I think it is vital.

About Jacqueline

Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families.  She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas.

In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.

Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families.  She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.

Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.

Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter.  Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.

Qualifications and Professional Membership

Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.

Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute.  She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.

Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.

She is a Clinical Member of the Family Therapy Association of Australia and a Clinical Member of PACFA.

If you feel as though you could benefit from talking with a Therapist please contact  The Sydney Couple and Family Specialists on 02 8968 9397 or email

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