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Suddenly Step Siblings: Challenges for Kids and Parents Handling Merged Families

Erin Mantz
May 19, 2011

Dad didn't just get re-married.  He got new kids.  Mom didn't just find a husband.  She doubled the seats at the dinner table. Finding love after a divorce might mean moving on, but it gets tricky when kids are involved.  How do they fit into this new family? How do you discipline a child that's not your own?  Seriously, how did Carol and Mike Brady do it? (Good thing they had Alice!) While there's no rulebook for handling a new stepfamily, here are some ways to keep the peace among stepsiblings, while getting everyone adjusted to a (hopefully) happy future together.

Create Comfort as You Go

Just because a perfect guide doesn't exist, parents are not excused from figuring out some answers.  From developing thoughtful responses to modifying house rules and routines, parents can help this new life make more sense for their kids.

Let's not sugar coat it: Living in a stepfamily can be incredibly hard, for the step kids and the step parents.  The "transition" can last a lifetime, not a brief phase, though it gets easier eventually, says Brenda Rodstrom, LCSW, who works with stepfamilies in Wilmington, NC.  "Members of a stepfamily can decide what they would like this family to look like, and define what they think is normal," Rodstrom says. 

Parents need to remind themselves to redefine "normal," to acknowledge to their kids it is a new kind of living situation and, together, talk about the new structure.  In today's world, there are all kinds of families.  In almost all cases, the kids know some other kids who are already living in different kinds of families, and it could be helpful to mention those, too.

Create New Family Rules

Consider the beginning, when each family has their own set ways of doing things, from favorite breakfast cereals and bedtime routines to discipline styles and TV time.  Even if you are in an intact family, these routines are often fraught with negotiation and effort.  Is Apple Jacks too much sugar to start the school day?  Or is it okay if the kids add milk?  Is taking the Wii away for a week too much punishment - or not enough?

First, the spouses should sit down to get on the same page and discuss parenting philosophies, says Dr. Robi Ludwig, Psy. D. "Discuss ground rules for the house and for the siblings.  One might be that everyone should speak respectfully to each other," she says.  "Without clear boundaries, children will have no sense of routine or structure, which is very important for their well being."

Discipline is also a sticky subject, but one the adults need to discuss in advance of difficult situations, urges Claudette L. Chenevert, a Stepfamily/Relationship Coach with Coaching Steps LLC who works with families in the Washington, DC area.  "Ideally, the stepparent should let the biological parent take care of the discipline because the child doesn't have a long history with this person.  The Know-Like-Trust factor is not yet in place in order for a stepparent to step in yet.  With time - and depending on the age of the kids - the stepparent may take a more active role in disciplining her step kids in the future.  For example, the biological parent should be the one requiring her biological child to get his homework done at a certain time, or set and enforce bedtime.

Remember: Communication is Key

At the heart of every blended family household is the reason they are together in the first place: divorce.  To many kids, stepsiblings serve as a reminder for what has been lost, and everything that doesn't make sense.  Stepkids may also miss having their parent all to themselves, and not know how to get some of that time back.  Parents can take the lead and remember that communication is key.

According to the National Stepfamily Resource Center, research suggests that well-functioning stepfamilies use a variety of communication tools and actions to build connections with one another.  They listen to each other; directly, but positively, address conflict; openly share information; participate in activities together; and nurture relationships by showing affection.  For example, it's a good idea for the entire stepfamily to attend each stepchild's activities together, whether it's a soccer game or school play.  And, at the dinner table, the stepparent can show interest in the stepchild by engaging him in everyday talk about a topic that child cares about, be it summer camp plans, the hometown baseball standings, the latest Wii game or an anticipated concert or event.   

The biological parent in the house should also find a way to spend some alone time with her child.  "For kids to feel safe and secure in their new environment, it's important for them to get some one on one time with the parent," emphasizes Dr. Ludwig.  Parents can do this and encourage kids to talk in whatever approach may be best for them - whether it's a casual check-in chat in the car on the way to basketball practice or a special night out at a favorite burger joint.

Get Together Out of the House

Heard of team building? The National Stepfamily Resource Center found that strong, well-functioning stepfamilies participate in activities together.  Time itself makes memories, whether it's sharing a favorite meal at the dinner table or taking a day trip snow tubing.  Doing some fun things together out of the house can do wonders, according to counselor Chenevert.  "Creating stepfamily time is really important, especially when children don't live in the house full time," she says.  This gives kids a sense that they belong in the household, rather than just visiting.  "Activities are great because the focus is on the activity and not on what or who the person is.  You learn a lot about a person by going for a hike or bike ride."

Knowing When to Seek Professional Help

Every stepfamily has growing pains, and some parents may watch their kids and wonder if their child's adjustment issues, mood or reactions are simply expected or cause for alarm.  Dr. Ludwig says there are some warning signs if the following behaviors last for two weeks or more.  "If a child is acting out at school, getting into fights, appears anxious or depressed, talks about wanting to kill himself, has grades going down or school absences going up, changes his eating habits or experiences weight loss or gain, it could be time to think about consulting a professional for your child."  School guidance counselors may also help.  Many even run support groups for kids experiencing family transitions or can liaison between parents and teachers.

Like most siblings, stepsiblings will have fights and have fun, depending on the moments.  They will struggle with sharing video games, and their parents' time, and spend a lot of time wishing things could be different.  Maybe it can't be ideal for them.  But, hopefully, it can be better.  With both stepparents on the same page, each being available to listen to their kids' concerns and not dismissing them, things will get better in baby steps.

Is there one secret solution to stepfamily success?  "Slowly, parents can help stepsiblings see the other side of what each set of kids brings to their world: an additional kind of family - not a replacement - with new perspectives and pastimes and likes and dislikes and laughter that will occasionally fill the rooms of the house they live in," promises Chenevert. 

Research shows it can take up to seven years for blended families to gel.  Resources are available to help along the way.  For additional tips, ideas and resources, visit Stepfamilies.info.

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