Several Christmases ago I was flying back East and struck up a conversation with a 12 year old boy, who sat next to me on the plane. He told me that he lived alone in Arizona with his mom and had just celebrated an early Christmas with her and his grandparents, and was on his way to Pennsylvania to celebrate another Christmas with his dad. His “Pennsylvania Family” included a new stepmother, three stepsiblings, his paternal grandparents, step-grandparents, a number of uncles, aunts and cousins, step-uncles, aunts, and cousins and an Irish Setter “step-dog”.
“You know,” he said, hoping to confuse me, “my former best friend is now my brother, and I have two brothers I haven’t met.” He went on to explain how his dad had married his next door neighbor after his parents divorced, and how his mother was planning to marry a man with two children younger than he, and that his future stepsiblings lived in New York. He proudly pointed out that this would make him the oldest child in his Arizona family when his stepsiblings visited, an only child when they were back in New York, and a middle child in his Pennsylvania family.
Sounds confusing? Well, it is not atypical of the structure of a number of remarried families in which both spouses have children from previous marriages. It illustrates a disruption in family structure that has the potential of causing problems in the stepfamily if not sensitively handled. Sibling rivalry has become a familiar term. It refers to the competition between brothers and sisters and in this case stepbrothers and sisters as well. The fear that one brother or sister is receiving more physical or emotional care is often magnified in stepfamilies. Instead of being “dethroned” by a new baby, the child fears being “dethroned” by two or three stepsiblings.
Furthermore, the child often finds that a parent, who up to this time has focused his or her attention on him or her, now turns attention not only to a new mate, but to stepsiblings.
I remember a new stepfather who brought with him two “perfect” teenagers. They always said “thank you” and “please”; never chewed with their mouths open; never played the stereo too loud; kept their rooms neat and clean without reminders. Their stepmother came with three “normal” teenagers. Imagine asking one of his and one of hers to share the same room. This has the potential for either a perpetual pajama party or World War III.
There is a telling scene in the Berger and Hechling photo essay, “stepchild,” in which the once only child, David, is pictured with his new, older stepsister Alice. The dialogue David has with himself, reads: “Sometimes when the ‘steps’ come, Alice bosses me around. She thinks she knows everything. She’s not even my real sister. Before I was the only child. Now there are three of us. I don’t like sharing my things with others.”
On the positive side there is research that indicates that 62 percent of stepfamilies rated the relationships between siblings as good to excellent and only 38 percent as poor. Stepsiblings have been known to be very proud of one another’s accomplishments. Older stepchildren often become very protective of younger ones and younger ones often idolize their older stepsiblings. Learning to share with others who are not part of immediate family can give stepsiblings an advantage over their peers who are not in step.
Here are some specific do’s and don’ts for parents:
- Give children time to know one another before the marriage, if possible.
- Do not make comparisons across sibling lines. “Why can’t you be as neat as your stepbrother.”
- Teach respect and consideration for others space and belongings by modeling it yourself.
- Treat all children fairly, including noncustodial children when they visit.
- Do not referee children’s arguments or take sides unless ~here is danger of physical harm.
- Spend quality time with each child.
- Do not tolerate tattling.
- Do not compete with your mate for either the loyalty or affection from your own or your stepchildren.