How to Avoid Becoming the Wicked Stepmother

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?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

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 set-up 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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