"It's not fair!"
"You're not my mom, so you can't tell me what to do."
"If I were your real child, you wouldn't treat me this way."
"You let HER kids do this all the time. Why won't you let me?"
These common accusations fly fast and furious whenever we need to get our step-kids to change their behavior. The reality is that this behavior isn't reserved for step-kids; children wage this kind of guerilla warfare on the peace of their home regardless of the make-up of their family. Children push boundaries and test limits all the time. However, the pain of those accusations seems to sting a little more when aimed at step-parents trying their best to show love to someone else's natural child.
But it doesn't have to be this way all the time. You can build a peaceful home by creating shared behavior expectations and consistently following those rules. There are four basic steps to create this kind of structured home environment: 1) Set behavior expectations, 2) Check for understanding of the rules, 3) Use consequences for not following the rules, and 4) Everyone follows the rules.
Set Behavior Expectations
Rules get a bad rap. Sometimes we see them as limits on freedom. But for kids, rules create needed structure. Rules help them understand what people expect and help them feel their world is stable. As a result, the best defense against a disrespectful home environment is to establish clear and equitable rules that govern how everyone behaves in the home.
Plus, because we're human, it's possible that the actions of your step-kids unconsciously bug you more than your own children's actions, so you point out their problem behavior more often. Or maybe because you don't want to cause waves between you and your step-kids, you don't point out their problem behavior at all. Unfortunately, nothing undermines a kid's trust more than the belief that an adult is favoring someone else. However, if everyone is following the same behavior expectations, you reduce the possibility that you are treating some of your kids differently.
Set your expectations broad and limit them to four or five general, age-appropriate rules. Here are four to consider:
Respect others and their stuff. (No hitting, no yelling, no teasing, no using other's belongings without permission.)
Respect our house. (Keep things clean.)
Tell the truth. (Be honest about what you've done and what you're going to do.)
Participate in the Family. (Contribute ideas, participate in meetings, and attend family outings.)
Invite the kids to help create your list of rules for an added harmony boost. It's a fact of life that people are more invested and willing to do something that they have had a part in creating.
Check for Understanding of the Rules
Make sure that once you've created the rules, everyone understands what they are and what they mean. Start by creating a rule chart that can be posted in the home. If you have toddlers or young children, adding pictures to the chart can help them to remember the rules.
Once you have your chart, go over it with the kids again. You need to break down what kinds of things you mean by your rule. For example, if your rule is "no hurting," you'll need to talk about different ways you can hurt someone. You might say, "Our rule is that we don't hurt people with our bodies, we don't hurt people with our words, we don't hurt people with our actions. This means we don't hit. We don't tease. And we don't leave people out."
Of course, you'll need to use different examples depending on the age and understanding of the children in the home. For instance, in clarifying a "no hurting" rule to toddlers and preschoolers, you'll explain that they're not to hit, kick, bite, etc. Tweens need to understand that the rule means they must include younger siblings in the choice of what shows to watch or what video game to play, etc.
Don't skip this discussion. It's essential to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Use Consequences for Not Following the Rules
When someone breaks a rule, there must be a consequence that reinforces to the child that he must follow the rules. To successfully enforce behavior expectations, you should decide the consequences beforehand and include them on your rule chart.
Keep these five things in mind when creating your consequences.
Rules should be appropriate to the offense. Often when we don't have the consequences decided in advance, we blurt out totally inappropriate (and unenforceable) consequences for bad behavior. If a kid is eating in front of the TV, blurting out that there will be no TV for a month is a consequence that's too harsh and it's unenforceable. Because, let's be honest, there is no way you're not going to let your kid watch TV for a month. Instead, if a child eats in front of the television, the consequence should match the offense. Maybe since the child has disrespected the house, you make him turn off the TV and clean up the room (showing respect to the house). Your best consequence is going to reinforce the rule.
Consequences should be immediate. We want kids to make the connection between their wrong actions and the consequences. Immediate reinforcement will lead to the most significant behavior changes. Also, if you delay enacting the consequence, the child may assume she's gotten away with the behavior, so when the consequence eventually arrives, she's going to fight it. But kids don't reserve their misbehavior for moments that are convenient to us. They usually act up in moments when we're distracted or busy. We might be up to our elbows in chicken guts, navigating a tricky intersection, or just relaxing on the couch after a tough day at work. But all the research on child psychology says that a consequence should be immediate to be the most effective. This doesn't mean that if you're on the way to school and the kids start teasing each other in the backseat, you need to turn the car around and take them home so they can face the consequences. But you should certainly call out the bad behavior. Let them know that you've seen it, remind them of the consequence, and let them know the consequence will be enforced when they get home. Then make sure you follow through. Put a reminder on your phone if you have to.
Consequences should be consistent. Consistent means that when someone breaks a rule, the consequence is applied every single time to every single violater. As a step-parent, if you fail on the consistency rule, everything else falls apart. If you punish the kids differently, they'll notice and internalize their belief that you're unfair. They'll lose respect for the rules and respect for you. Consistency can be the most challenging aspect of enacting family expectations for adults. Why? Most adults aren't interested in playing behavior warden 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It's hard to deal with misbehavior every single time it happens. When we're tired, rushed, or mad, it can be hard to apply consequences consistently. Unfortunately, it's a crucial part of making the behavior expectations work. The good news is that while it may be super hard at first, it will get better over time. As kids come to understand that there's a consequence every time they break the rule, they'll stop misbehaving as frequently.
Shower kids with positive attention. This is the fun part of creating shared behavior expectations. When you see a child following the rule, praise them for it. Say simple things like, "I love that you remembered to pick up your towel after your shower. That makes me so happy." Positive attention helps reinforce the rule, builds your kids' self-esteem, and leads to a better relationship between you and your step-children. Kids can spot a phony compliment a mile away, but sincere and specific praise is excellent.
Follow the Rules. OK. Here's the tricky part. The adults have to follow the rules, too. Everyone should follow them because they are family rules. If you don't follow the rules, then kids realize that they are really just "kid" rules, and you won't get the same buy-in. So if the rule is "Respect Our House," and you don't allow the kids to eat on the couch while watching TV, you must also follow that rule. If the rule is "Tell the Truth, " they need to see you telling the truth, even in those times as an adult where a little white lie will save you from looking bad. Ensure that everyone in the home, caregivers, babysitters, etc., knows and follows the rules.
Some Final Thoughts
Because your step-kids are switching between homes with different behavior expectations, you may have an adjustment period every time the kids come back to you. That's normal. It doesn't mean that your shared expectations aren't working. Keep at them.
Finally, don't take it personally if the step-kids react to your new behavior plan with skepticism or rebellion. They're not dummies. They know they're about to be held to higher standards than before. But hang in there. Stay pleasant but firm. The peace you find as you create a home based on shared behavior expectations will be worth it.