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Stepparenting Discipline Do’s & Don’ts

A delicate balancing act for blended families.
By Ron L. Deal

Emotional attachment, trust, and love are what open the door to influence in parenting. Once that is established, an adult—foster parent, grandparent, adoptive parent, or stepparent—can lead and discipline a child. Said another way, the old adage is true: Rules without relationship leads to rebellion. Wise stepparents understand this and grow relationship in order to grow authority.

Authority can exist without a bonded relationship, but it has its limits. A police officer can pull you over, a boss or coach can tell you what to do, and a teacher can tell a student the rules of the classroom, but none of these authorities obtain obedience out of love or deep admiration.

Until stepparents establish a love-relationship with a child, they are just external authorities imposing boundaries. That’s why it’s critical early in a blended family that stepparents recognize these limits and borrow power from the biological parent. If they over-step the limits of their role, they can sabotage the developing relationships and any authority they might have had along with it. Therefore, for new stepparents the question is: How do they establish themselves as authority figures while waiting for bonding to occur?

Borrowing power

Think about babysitters.  On their first visit to a home, they don’t have any relational authority with children. The kids don’t know them, don’t like them, and don’t need them. (Stepparents take note.) But if the kids and babysitter get many evenings together, they can form a significant relationship bond over time. In the meantime, while babysitters are hoping for a relationship to develop, how do they manage the children? Answer: by borrowing power.

Babysitters can put children in time-out, take away privileges, and declare bedtime because the child’s parent has passed power to the babysitter. The “she’s in charge while we’re gone” speech is usually quite effective. Now notice, this empowers the babysitter to set boundaries and impose consequences that ultimately are owned by the parent. However, if the biological parent is unwilling or unable to own these boundaries, there will be chaos.

Stepparenting follows a similar process. Initially stepparents act as extensions of the biological parent. They can enforce consequences, set boundaries, and say “no,” but do so knowing full well they are not standing on their own authority. They live on borrowed power until such time as their love-relationship with the child matures and opens the door to more influence and authority.

Discipline do’s and don’ts for stepparents

At best, new stepparent authority is fragile and easily shattered. That’s why these do’s and don’ts  must be a priority.

  • Do make sure the biological parent has your back. Biological parents must communicate to their children an expectation of obedience to the stepparent and be willing to back up the stepparent’s actions. When disagreements occur, settle them in private.
  • Do strive for unity in parenting. Discuss behavioral expectations, boundaries, consequences, and values (read the parental unity rules). Bring your parenting philosophies in line.
  • Don’t be harsh or punish in a way that is inconsistent with the biological parent.
  • Do focus on relationship building. This is your long-term strength.
  • Don’t unilaterally change rules or try to make up for past parental mistakes or failings.
  • Do listen to the child. If they draw into you sooner than expected, don’t look back. Use the relational authority offered you. Don’t get impatient. It often takes years to bond and develop a trusting love-relationship with children. Be persistent in bonding with them.
  • Do communicate with the biological parent a lot! If uncertain, find parental unity before engaging the children.

Taking action

Relationship building tips for stepparents:

  • Play! Having fun is a great way to connect. Do something fun.
  • Track with them. Know what activities a child is engaged in and enter that world. Take them to practice, ask about an activity, be aware of their world.
  • Take interest in the child’s interests.
  • Share your talents, skills, and hobbies.
  • Communicate your commitment. Let the child know you value and want a relationship with them. This helps them to know your heart.
  • Share the Lord and your spiritual walk. Shared spirituality can facilitate connection and a sense of family identity. But don’t be preachy. Instead, share with humility your faith journey so they will see you as a safe person.


Stepparenting is a delicate balancing act. Knowing when to step in or back away is challenging; missteps often pit biological parents and stepparents against one another. The more abreast you are of stepfamily dynamics, the better prepared you will be to help couples get on the same page and unify their family. A good start would be reading The Smart Stepfamily.

© 2012 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.

FamilyLife is a donor-supported ministry offering practical and biblical resources and events to help you build a godly marriage and family. 

Meet the Author: Ron L. Deal

Ron Deal

Ron Deal is a marriage and family author, conference speaker, and therapist. He is founder and president of Smart Stepfamilies™ and director of FamilyLife Blended™, the ministry initiative of FamilyLife® to stepfamilies (for more visit and 

Ron is author of The Smart Stepfamily: Seven Steps to a Healthy Family (and DVD series), The Smart Stepdad, Dating and the Single Parent, The Smart Stepmom (with Laura Petherbridge), and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage: Keys to Success in the Blended Family (with Dr. David Olson). A highly sought-after, recognized expert in marriage and blended families, Ron is a member of the Stepfamily Expert Council for the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor with over 25 years experience in local church ministry and family ministry consulting. He is a featured expert on the video curriculum Single and Parenting (2011, Church Initiative) and his material is widely distributed by a variety of family education initiatives

Ron served as a member of the Couple Checkup Research Team (headed by Dr. David Olson, PREPARE-ENRICH) which conducted the two largest studies of marital strength ever accomplished. They surveyed over 100,000 marriages and remarriages (over 200,000 people) and examined the qualitative differences between highly satisfied marriages and low-quality marriages. The results of their groundbreaking research for couples are published in the books The Couple Checkup (Olson, Larson, & Olson-Sigg, 2008) and The Smart Stepfamily Marriage (Deal & Olson, 2015), and are featured in Ron’s newest seminar for dating, engaged, married, and remarried couples, the Couple Checkup Conference.

Ron is a popular conference speaker and has appeared in dozens of national radio and TV broadcasts both in the U.S. and Canada. His daily 60-second radio feature, FamilyLife Blended, is heard by thousands each week around the country and online. He has appeared on Fox News, MSNBC, ABC’s Nightline, WGN-News, The Mike Huckabee Show, FamilyLife Today, Focus on the Family, HomeWord with Jim Burns, Celebration, and The 700 Club, and his work has been referenced online (e.g.,,, in magazines (e.g., Essence), and in newspapers throughout the world (e.g., USA Today, New York Daily News, Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal, and Minnesota Star Tribune). The May 2012 issue of Ladies' Home Journal featured Ron's therapy work with a blended family couple in their popular feature column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Ron has written feature family articles addressing a variety of family matters for a variety of publications and online magazines including Focus on the Family magazine, ParentLife, The Family Room, Gospel Today, Christianity Today, and HomeLife magazine. On a regular basis Ron trains therapists, marriage educators, and ministry professionals at conferences around the country and has spoken at the National Stepfamily Conference, and the Utah and Arkansas Governors' conferences on the family.

Ron and his wife, Nan, have three boys. Their middle son, Connor, died unexpectedly in February 2009 at the age of 12. In his memory, the Deal's have partnered with Touch a Life Foundation to rescue and rehabilitate children in Ghana, West Africa, from trafficking. They would be honored if you would help them sing Connor's song. Visit Connor's Song to learn more about this ministry and to hear Connor sing.

In addition to FamilyLife sponsored events Ron is available to present his Couple Checkup Conference or Building A Successful Stepfamily conference in your church or community. Learn more here.



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