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Stepparents and Alternative Discipline Techniques
Q: Corporal punishment is a hot topic these days; however, when practiced by a stepparent it can lead to charges of child abuse, criminal assault or both. What are some alternatives for a stepparent when dealing with hostile, strong-willed, or wilfully disobedient step-children, in a way that properly enforces parental authority, and yet allows the child to safely express feelings and opinions?
A: Hitting children as a form of discipline or punishment is a form of child abuse in my opinion and has no place in the healthy raising of children. Disciplining your stepchildren is a tough task, a difficult one for any stepparent even in the best of situations. I appreciate your sincere desire to discover the best ways to handle a difficult situation.
First, if possible, I think that the natural parent should attempt to fill the role of the disciplinarian; the stepparent should be supportive and not try to take over this role. Children are bound to be resentful at some level of "the new husband," especially at the beginning. Add to this resentment of the stepparent for ordering them around and punishing them, and you've got a major family problem that can easily escalate into an ongoing war.
I think that as hard as this sounds to you, you should not take their behavior personally. If you can enter into a co-disciplinarian role with your wife, you should never discipline the kids without your wife's cooperation and approval. Don't take charge of these kids and don't have disagreements over the kids in front of them.
Two good resources to begin your learning with are: The Parent's Handbook by Don Dinkmeyer and Gary D. McKay and Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking by Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara C. Unell.
Good luck. I know you might be at your wits' end but you clearly want to do best by these kids. I applaud you for your efforts.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.