House rules for stepfamilies… Not the sexiest topic I’ve ever written about, but perhaps one of the most important.
When I first became a stepmom, we didn’t have hard and fast rules that were clearly defined. My husband, Kevin, and I thought we knew the rules and that we properly communicated them to my stepdaughter, Krista.
But in reality, our feedback when she did something “wrong,” only made her worry that she was going to make mistakes and get in trouble.
It was up to us to clearly define and communicate those expectations so that she didn’t feel like she was aiming for a moving target.
No matter how clear you think you’ve been (“Kristen, I tell them to put their dishes in the dishwasher every day!“)… I can guarantee that if you haven’t had a family meeting about the house rules and posted them somewhere everyone can read them, then your stepchildren are not as aligned on the rules as you want them to be.
Creating house rules in stepfamilies is a way to bring some organization and calm to situations that can feel out of control for stepparents.
Do yourself and your stepchildren a favor and establish clear expectations. House rules for stepfamilies help create structure and clarity for all family members.
What Makes House Rules for Stepfamilies Unique
As a stepfamily, you have the added task of implementing your rules with an extra dose of patience. Remember that your stepkids live in two homes. They likely have different rules and expectations in their other home.
When they enter our home, we often expect them to remember our house norms, routines, and rules. But it’s not always that simple for them to flip the switch from one house to the other.
Just a couple of weeks ago, my stepdaughter, Krista, came back to our home after a week at her Mom’s home and asked me where we keep the forks because she couldn’t remember.
House rules are incredibly important, but so is empathy.
Start with Transition Days
Want to make transition days happier and a smoother experience for all? Create consistent traditions so your stepkids know what to expect. When kids know what to expect, they are calmer and happier.
As part of your transition day ritual, take a moment to check-in with your stepkids and review your house rules. You can do this over your first meal with the kids or in the car after pick up.
Be prepared to remind them of the rules throughout your custody period. It is important to remember the kids likely have different rules when they are with their other parent.
Post Your House Rules on the Fridge (or another community area)
Everyone in the home should know, understand, and follow the rules.
Keeping in mind that we all lead busy lives with work, school, errands, and other responsibilities, make remembering the house rules easy and accessible. Posting your rules somewhere ensures that this isn’t a “discuss it once and forget about it 2 days later” conversation.
Bonus points if you write the rules down together as a family! One of my coaching clients made a big deal out of this process. Everyone got to pick out their favorite color and write one of the rules down on a poster. So fun!
And once they’re posted, they need to be strictly enforced… for everyone!
If you have no screens at dinner in your house, parents should be following that rule as well. Children will be confused if their parent doesn’t respect the rules and checks their phone during dinner.
They likely will not understand the exception if we’re allowed to cheer the Packers on during Monday Night Football while we eat, but a TV show that’s important to them has to wait until after dinner on Tuesday.
In response, your children may have a similar disregard—or disdain—for the house rules. As stepmoms, we know how much it sucks when there’s a double standard. These are “house rules” and not “just kid rules” after all!
Alternatives to House Rules
In some families, rules are too narrow or punitive, and parents prefer an alternative to that structure.
In these instances, I recommend general house expectations and/or family values.
For example, instead of a house rule prohibiting phones at the table, our family value may be respect.
This structure is helpful because it gives parents the opportunity to show a variety of ways that we can be respectful of others. A word of caution though: too much ambiguity will cause confusion.
If you prefer family values over house rules, get crystal clear with examples and expectations when you communicate to the family.
Pro Tip: if you are blending families (you are bringing kids to the relationship and so is your partner), a great family value to include is inclusivity.
Enforcement via Consequences
As a rule of thumb, consequences should either take away something the child likes or add something the child doesn’t like.
Examples of the latter are: adding chores, increasing reading time, or having the child watch their younger sibling while you prepare dinner.
I advise setting aside time with your partner one day to brainstorm various consequences for your children. Then, when a rule is broken, you’ll have a prepared list to pull from.
I do not recommend having a set punishment for each infraction. A reliable, consistent punishment gives the child the opportunity to weigh the value of breaking the rule against the punishment they know they’ll receive.
For example, a teenager may decide the advantage of sneaking their phone into their room and breaking your house rules is worth the risk of getting caught and getting stuck with laundry duty for a week.
In addition to punishments, there are also natural consequences. Let’s say a child kicks a chair and hurts their foot. That’s a natural consequence. A logical consequence would be that they have to help the parent fix the chair or clean off scuff marks.
Set Your Stepfamily Up for Success
Here is a step-by-step list for creating house rules for your stepfamily:
1. The parents should discuss the rules they desire ahead of time.
Keep the list fairly short, no more than 7 rules. Consider your core values, your nonnegotiables, and set rules to protect them.
One thing you shouldn’t consider: the other parents’ rules in their home. How the other parent chooses to run their home should have no bearing on how you choose to run yours.
I know what you’re thinking, “But Kristen! You told me it’s like they’re flipping a switch between the two homes… Shouldn’t I try to make that easier for them by aligning rules?” Nope! You should set the rules that mean the most to you and your partner.
Yes, it’s difficult for kids to adjust sometimes. But, it’s absolutely possible for them to switch between different rules and norms in different places. For example, even kids in nuclear families follow different rules at school than they do at home.
2. Get your kids’ input on the rules.
Your children don’t get to veto rules you have set, but they may want to give feedback on the rules you’ve presented, or propose others.
For example, when we first started setting our house rules, Krista asked if we could set a one-hour period where no one was on their devices. We helped her feel heard and set a rule about screen-free time for the household.
3. Post the rules somewhere everyone can see them.
I already told you why this is important, but let’s brainstorm some places you can post your rules once they’re established. The mud room, the kitchen fridge, the back of the laundry room door, in the kids’ rooms…
Where you post your list matters less than the fact that everyone knows where to locate it.
4. Review your rules on transition days.
Reiterating your house rules every time the kids come home may feel unnecessary, but it helps remind them of the goal post when they are with you.
If they know the expectations and aren’t hearing “Do this, not that” every five minutes, it will be a much more enjoyable time for everyone.
Follow the house rules yourself to set a good example for the kids, and to set the right tone for the house. The kids will follow your lead.
And part of the responsibility in setting the tone as the leader is enforcing the rules, which leads me to my final point…
6. Be prepared to enforce the rules.
Have patience and exercise empathy, but issue consequences when necessary.
House rules for stepfamilies have many benefits, including, but not limited to: getting the parents on the same page and providing stability and security to the kids.
I hope this has given you a great starting point for creating and managing house rules for your stepfamily. If you want to discuss your personal situation more in-depth, apply for our stepmom support services below!
P.S. If you want a quick win for improving family communication, start implementing family meetings.