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Reality Check: Disciplining a Stepchild

Q. I recently married, and got my wife's strong-willed 4-year-old in the bargain. How can I discipline her but not seem the evil stepfather?

A. I doubt you'll be surprised to hear there's no quick fix for this complex and delicate situation.

And there is a double standard -- you're expected to give like a parent, but may not get treated like one. The problem is, you can't have instant relationships with people. It's hard enough for biological parents to discipline their own children, even after a lifetime together.

"Discipline doesn't happen with any kid until you have a close relationship," says Judy Osborne, director of Stepfamily Associates, a family therapy practice in Brookline, MA. It can take two years for a couple to feel like a team, and four to five years for a blended family to feel like a family unit, Osborne says. Whether you shout and rage or stay calm and controlled, disciplining won't stick until a child has serious feelings invested in you. Which doesn't mean you should stand by and do nothing while she smears yogurt on the windows. It just means you should adjust your expectations of how effective your approach will be during this early stage of your relationship.

Here's what you can do: "Don't rush to be too parental," Osborne warns. "Establish with your partner what your family rules will be," and attempt to enlist the absent biological parent in conveying those rules.

Try to spend some one-on-one time with your stepdaughter -- not too much at first, then more as you warm up to each other. Start by driving her to preschool or taking her to the playground on Saturday.

The bottom line: You're in this relationship because of your partnership with the adult, not the kid, and she knows that. So you need to show your stepchild that you're also interested in a long-term relationship with her. You don't have to love each other, but you never know. You fell in love with her mother, didn't you?

Contributing editor Trisha Thompson is a former editor-in-chief of BabyTalk magazine.