Stepchildren and biological children will always be rivals for their parents’ attention and love. Adults should try to understand what kids in a new stepfamily are going through and attempt to be fair but firm. It takes a while for bonding to take place between new stepsiblings.
Emotional Issues in Stepfamilies
While there is always some form of sibling rivalry in a biological, nuclear family, the dynamics of a stepfamily and the corresponding rivalries among children, are much more complicated. Most siblings come to the table a little bit shell-shocked because stepfamilies are the result of a loss, such as:
Death of a parent
End of a parent’s long-term relationship with a live-in partner
All of these losses have an enormous impact on both adults and children, and this carries over into sibling rivalry with stepsiblings. Remarriage can be a traumatic event for many children, who now may have to accept a new placement in birth order, share their room, and share their parent.
Fairness and Sibling Rivalry
Most parents bend over backwards while trying to be fair, using the same standards for praise and punishment for stepchildren and biological children. However, it is impossible for anything in life to be truly fair. In addition, it is natural for any parent to have a special love and bond with his or her biological child. Yet, children are always on the lookout for any sign of inequality from their parents.
There are common changes in family dynamics, like:
A mom who punishes her biological daughter for staying out late, but “walks on eggshells”, while appearing to let her stepdaughter get away with this same infraction.
A father who spends more time with his biological son and stepsons than with his biological daughter, because he now has enough boys to start an impromptu basketball game.
A mother who spends less time with her biological sons because she has a new daughter who likes to do “girl” things like baking cookies.
Kids are quick to notice any action where they feel they are being shortchanged. With more siblings, there will be more rivalry.
Sharing a Room Between Stepsiblings
Many times an only child (or an only son or daughter) will be required to share a bedroom for the first time in his or her life. It’s not just the lack of privacy; it’s the fact that there is now a new stepsibling who will be getting into toys, clothes, games, and other stuff that was once secure. Consider it from the viewpoint of a boy sharing his room with a younger stepbrother:
“What if that brat breaks my model airplanes or wrecks my video games?”
“What if he wets his bed and cries and wakes me up?”
“Now, I can’t have my best friend over to hang out with me, because that little kid will want to come in and bug us.”
Tips for Stepfamilies
Many children assume that the new stepfamily will be much like their old family. It will not. However, there are things that parents can do to create a cohesive new family:
Hobbies and family interests can encourage bonding. Try hiking adventures, family vacations (even just to a nearby motel with a pool), special Sunday dinners, movie night where each child has a turn picking the show.
Parents should model proper behavior by never making disrespectful comments about family members.
The biological parent should discipline a child. When the biological parent isn’t around, the stepparent takes the role of “babysitter” in charge.
New spouses need to put up a united front on “house rules”.
Biological parents will want to carve out special time in each day to spend alone with each biological child. This is a good time for mom or dad to find out how his or her child is doing and if that kid is having problems.
Sibling Rivalry in Blended Families can be a Challenging Problem
Sibling rivalry in primary families needs careful handling but rivalry in blended families and step-children can spill over into the marriage, forcing parents to take sides and escalating animosity not only in the marriage, but between parents and children and between step-siblings too.
Are Blended Families the New Norm for Family Structure?
Dan Snell, CEO and Founder of the American Blended Family Association (ABFA) wrote an open letter in Aug. 2008, to the 2008 Elective Office Candidates. In this letter, Snell wrote that “Research studies confirm that by the year 2010, blended families will become the most common family structure in America.”
Snell’s letter continued to say that, “more people are part of a ‘blended family’ in America today than the number of people who voted in the 2004 Presidential Election.”
Unfortunately statistics into blended families are few and far between and several blended family support groups, such as Winningstepfamilies.com, believe that statistics are not represented accurately because they grossly underestimate the actual number of blended families in the U.S.
Linda Berlin of Psy.D. & Psychological Associates posts on her company website that estimates suggest that about 65% of remarriages involve children from the prior marriage to form stepfamilies. Of these remarriages, an estimated 60% end in legal divorce. Why?
Barbra Warsetsky, LCSW, says that a blending of families is more than just living in the same household. It means a blending of personalities, differences and of course loyalties. Initially the honeymoon period will allow for a measure of compromise all round, but as things settle down, cracks often appear as step-siblings test loyalties and test each other.
Step-Siblings and Testing Boundaries
In any situation, even in traditional families, it is natural for children to test boundaries to see how far they can be pushed. It is how blended families react to the testing that is the key. If consistency and fairness is not applied across the board, resentment and anger can escalate between siblings and step-sibling rivalry can rapidly develop.
Parents often try to be fair but it is a natural instinct for a parent to protect a child, especially when there is a sea of change. Kids are resilient and will adapt but initially the changes might just be too much too soon. Experts suggest that it is easier to deal with it immediately, than to actually let it fester and grow into a huge negativity issue.
Lawrence Kutner Ph.D believes that parents of newly blended families acknowledge several areas where problems may arise. In his article, “Insights for Parents: Stepsibling Rivalry,” on his website DrKutner.com, he mentions four keys areas where sibling rivalry tends to pose a problem. These are:
Private space issues
Children being asked to now share a room can resent the invasion of privacy especially if the child was already resident in the home. Teenagers like to have private space and can become extremely territorial. Teens also seem to have a harder time adapting to changes than younger kids and if playing host to a younger sibling, can resent the intrusion.
Kutner also believes that holidays can be a factor for dissent, as the traditions of one family might clash with the traditions of another. So how can parents prevent these issues from becoming a permanent and exhausting part of everyday life?
Kutner says that it is important to recognize that some parts of sibling rivalry can be healthy and act as a teaching role in social skills. The worst thing parents can do, Kutner says, is to try and force things and make children get along.
Kids will rebel and the hate and rivalry will only grow. The best ally that parents have Kutner says, is time. “Give your children and yourselves a chance to stumble about a bit as you sort through the new relationships.”
Communication is also a key factor for blended families. By allowing children to express sore points or opinions on family decisions, kids will feel like a valuable family member whose input matters. Parents who listen and address children’s concerns will have a better functionally blended family than those parents who prefer to insist that all is sweetness and roses.
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