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Stepfamilies: Help for a Dad and His Stepson


Q: I have a 7 1/2 year old son from a previous marriage. My present husband and I have two more boys ( 2 & 6 months). Our 2 year old is sooooooo hard headed and throws some huge fits if he doesn't get his way. My husband says he is only 2 and doesn't know any better; however my 7 year old gets treated like an adult. If he doesn't sit up straight at the dinner table, if he eats too fast, if he shuts the doors too loudly and so on. He currently has all of his stuff boxed up, and he doesn't have any toys to play with. We went to a counselor and she is the one who made the suggestions. I was just wondering if you all had some punishment suggestions.


A: My name is Cheryl Erwin; I am a marriage and family therapist who works with children and families and one of the co-authors of several books in the “Positive Discipline” series. I also raised my son, now 25, as part of a stepfamily (two stepfamilies, actually, if you count his dad’s home) and know how complicated it can be.


It’s good that you and your husband recognize that your two-year-old’s “hard-headedness” is partly due to his age and development. Preschoolers need kind, firm teaching and parenting tools like distraction and redirection while they learn about boundaries and social skills. However, your seven-year-old is also not an adult. He is immature and unskilled, and is still adjusting to the changes in your family over the past few years, including a new stepdad and new siblings—changes that might even be hard for us to accept as adults. It sounds as though he’s being asked to live up to expectations that are beyond his ability at seven.


Children need more than love to do their best: they need what we call a sense of belonging and significance. A child’s sense of belonging can get confused when parents remarry and families change, and when kids feel discouraged or out of place, they often misbehave. “Misbehavior” attracts adult attention, and for a little guy now competing with two babies, that might seem good enough.


With all respect to your counselor, punishment—no matter what kind you use—is not going to solve this problem. Imagine for a moment that you are your son; try to see the world through his eyes. You don’t say whether he goes back and forth between your home and his birth dad’s home, but if he does, there’s another layer of complications, since the rules are probably different there. Your seven-year-old might see his stepdad being strict with him, but loving and kind with his little brothers—and that doesn’t feel fair. He might even be trying his best to please, but be unable to sit up straight, close doors properly, and follow all the rules all of the time. And that would be discouraging for anyone.


Here are some suggestions you might try to make a difference:


·         First, connection (relationships) always comes before correction. Your son and his stepdad need to build a relationship of their own, which will take time and patience on your husband’s part. Spending “special time” together—perhaps 10 or 15 minutes each day just hanging out or talking together—might help them learn to connect better and build real respect and affection.  

·         Your son will probably do and feel better if you and your husband offer him encouragement. Notice what he does well; give him credit when he tries to do the right thing. Having our mistakes constantly pointed out to us is discouraging, and doesn’t invite good behavior. Your husband undoubtedly means well and wants to be a good dad to your son—but what you are describing is not truly helpful in the long term.

·         Discipline and punishment are not the same thing. The word “discipline” means “to teach,” while punishment is something a more powerful person does to a less powerful person to “make” him obey. If you look at discipline as teaching, what might your son need to learn in order to get along better in your home? Taking away all his toys doesn’t actually teach him anything—except to resent and resist you. I would suggest unpacking the toys together (with your husband) and having a kind, respectful conversation about what you want from him. Be sure he truly understands your rules. Kids rarely see the world the same way adults do.

·         Consider having regular family meetings where you can share appreciation and encouragement and solve problems together. This will help your son feel like an important part of your new family and teach him problem-solving skills at the same time.

·         You might also consider taking a parenting class for stepfamilies with your husband or reading a parenting book together. I would suggest you read “Positive Discipline”, “Positive Discipline for Preschoolers,” or “Positive Discipline for Your Stepfamily” (which is out of print but available at libraries, used, or as an e-book at


It isn’t easy to build a new stepfamily but it is possible. Encourage respect and kindness, and be patient.


Warm regards,

Cheryl L. Erwin, MA, MFT

Certified Positive Discipline Associate and Lead Trainer


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