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Discipline in Step-Families

Elementary School Expert Advice from Barbara Potts

Q: My five-year-old stepson lives with his mother and has been in trouble at school and at home. When he and his sister are here, they do the normal things that little kids do. There have been several meetings at school, which Dad, Mom, and I have gone to. Mom is always calling Dad to correct the children and says she doesn't want to be the mean parent. She lets the kids do just about anything they want -- play in the busy street, scream at her, and the future step-dad, etc. Here, they have to stay in the yard and they show themselves and everyone else respect. We are very worried about our son's behavior. He is very violent towards his teacher, sister, and Mom. What can his Dad and I do?

A: It would be good if all of you -- mom, future step-dad, dad, you, and the children -- could be involved in some family counseling. It might be better if someone other than you were to suggest this, though. Perhaps you could let the teacher or the school counselor know before your next conference that this would be a good suggestion and let him or her make it instead of you. The school counselor or the children's pediatrician could recommend a therapist in your community.

If these children, especially your stepson, are at the point of being violent toward other people, it's time to get some help. The school staff should be able to let the mom know that counseling is essential for the children, but if they are not, you may want to ask your attorney about legal steps to take.

Your stepchildren need to continue to see your house as a stable, structured place to be. Keep being consistent with them in enforcing rules and expecting good behavior. Make sure that they see there are rewards for that good behavior in the form of time with you and their dad, taking walks, playing games, or reading bedtime stories together.

Your last question brings up a fine line: Mom's house is hers and she gets to make the rules there, but dad needs to be seen as dad wherever he is and the children need to see that they cannot misbehave in front of him. It would be best if mom and dad could talk without the children around and agree to what rules will be enforced and where.

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Barbara Potts has worked as an elementary school counselor for many years. She has a BA in psychology from Wake Forest University, and an M.Ed. in Guidance and Counseling from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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