Rising divorce rates combined with advances in fertility treatment mean that families, made up of a jumble of ‘full’, ‘half’ and ‘step’ siblings are becoming more the norm than the exception. This creates conflicts and challenges unique to stepfamilies. When two families become one, children who barely know each other, who have no biological connection, no shared family history, who could have different temperaments (and support opposing footie teams) and possibly no similar interests, may all of a sudden have to share bedrooms and bathrooms (in addition to sharing their mother or father). This can cause fights over toys, space, the Playstation and iPad and even what to watch on television.
Conflicts and rivalries can arise because there are jealousies or feelings of not being treated fairly or because one person in the family feels left out. It is not always an easy adjustment. It also inevitably takes time to make those adjustments. Those parents and stepparents, with children, who repartner and have dreams of their children forming instant bonds and giggling and whispering back and forth in their bunk beds, just like the kids on the Brady Bunch used to do, are probably not only setting their stepfamily up to fail, but also entering a world of disappointment, frustration and stepfamily disharmony.
The task of maintaining or building supportive, or at least civil, sibling relationships is one of the significant challenges facing stepfamilies. It is a challenge made even more taxing by the general societal expectation of a level of fondness and affection existing between family members. Despite the psychological and emotional hurdles that children have to overcome in relation to their parents’ divorce and changed family circumstances, positive sibling bonds between children in stepfamilies can and do develop.
Mindfulness – The first step.
As the parent/stepparent and a grown up in the family (and probably only one of two people in the stepfamily who actually chose to be there), the first step is to take the time to stop and actually think about what is going on emotionally with the kids and to be mindful of potential conflicts.
- Birth order – No one likes to feel that they have lost their place in the family pecking order, a common worry and cause of resentment for kids in stepfamilies. Think about it – when stepfamilies are formed, a first born can become a middle child or possibly even the youngest; the youngest and the baby of the family can be usurped by an even younger child, an only child can become part of a larger siblings group. It is important that you take the time talk to your children about how they feel about their shifting places in the family line. You should also bear in mind that your child or your stepchild might be a part of more than one sibling group and that they might have a different place in each group e.g. the oldest child in one home, but a middle child in their other parent’s home. Eeck!
- Ages and Developmental stages –It is also essential to look at the individual members of the newly formed stepfamily and consider the ages and developmental stages of the children. Teenagers and twenty- something’s may not want to hang out with or bond with toddlers or primary school age children. Your teenage daughter may feel awkward having to interact with a similarly aged teenage boy.
- Equality first doesn’t work – First families tend to manage sibling rivalry through equality. Reminding and demonstrating to the children that parental affection and the symbols of such are divided equally amongst them all tends to ward off feelings of competition between siblings. Equality, however, isn’t enough for siblings in stepfamilies. Not only does it dismiss the significant attachments between a biological parent and their biological children causing loyalty conflicts, but the children themselves won’t accept it. Stepsiblings do not see each other having the same rights to a parent’s love and all the symbols of that go with that love within the family home. Each set of children will rightly believe that they have a stronger claim to their biological parent’s love and affection than their stepsiblings do. Even if both parents in the home are capable of equality of love and affection across all of the children in a stepfamily, it holds no legitimacy for the children and the stepsiblings rivalries will continue.
- Kids will be kids – Additionally, in a stepfamily, as in a first family, many things lead to arguments and fights between siblings, such as differences of opinion, misunderstandings, boredom and conflicting developmental needs. Sometimes the kids might just be arguing because they are kids and it actually has nothing to do with them being a part of a stepfamily!
Beyond mindfulness – next steps.
There are a number of things you, as a parent/stepparent, can do to best encourage and promote healthy sibling relationships in a stepfamily. Here are our top 10 suggestions and tips:
- As Dr Wednesday Martin, PhD and author of Primates of Park Avenue and Stepmonster, advises ‘drop any and all expectations of forced closeness’. Accept that stepfamilies don’t need to be as close as first families-as long as there is respect, civility, and warmth. Forcing closeness and bonding amongst the sibling group is likely to backfire. Shoot for evolving respect and maybe even friendship over time, and accept that if those don’t develop, no one is ‘wrong’ or ‘bad’.
- Start early – or as early as possible. The kids may, or may not, learn to like and trust each other over time, but adults should encourage respect among the sibling group from the get go. Don’t tolerate negative and harmful behaviours in the sibling relationships.
- Set some basic house rules that everyone is expected to follow such as no physical behaviours, definitely no hitting, no name calling, and an insistence on civility i.e. being respectful to others. Rules seem to work better when everyone in the house has a say about what rules should be included. They also work well when there aren’t too many rules – you could end up with an encyclopaedia set of books. If, after a while, the rules need changing, that’s OK too, just as long as you change them together.
- Don’t force your kids and the stepkids to spend all their time together. Provide your children (the original sibling group) with opportunities to share time and activities without the stepkids always being present.
- Whenever possible, every child in the home should have their own space, toys and other possessions to call their own. Do not force or expect children to turn all their things into community property. Promote the ideal that everyone needs to ‘respect other’s belongings’. This means asking before you borrow (or don’t borrow at all) and looking after other people’s things better than you do your own.
- Continue to set aside some time to spend with your own children. A common reason for resentment between your kids and your stepkids is that your kids may feel, on occasion, like they are no longer special to your or appreciated especially of your stepkids live with you full time and your own children do not. Let your children know that you continue to value them by making time just for them without the stepkids always being present.
- Set a time for family meetings (fortnightly or even monthly) and make it priority. Get together with all of the family to talk freely about grievances, issues, and celebrations. Give each person a chance to speak about what’s on his/her plate and then focus on finding solutions to the problems. Don’t dismiss a problem raised by a child, just because you think it trivial or unimportant.
- Encourage healthy communication between the children. If they have disagreements support and allow them to work it out in a healthy way. Teach them how to negotiate and compromise (give and take) and how to look for win-win solutions. You may have to help them establish the rules and guide them at first, but once they are able to do it on their own, stand back. Learning how to deal with conflict positively when you’re young can not only set the scene for a positive relationship with sibling but can also help kids learn valuable conflict resolutions skills and to get along with other people outside the family.
- It is likely to be confusing for kids to be told to be nice and polite to, and respectful of, their siblings/stepsiblings, if they are listening to their parents bicker and fuss with each other. If children can see how their co-parents and stepparents set and enforce personal boundaries and be respectful to one another they are more likely to model such behaviour.
- As children get older, encourage them to maintain a relationship or to do things together. This can become more of a task when they are teens and have independent lives, but a little family time built into each month is a great way to encourage this relationship.
Healthy sibling relationships can significantly benefit us later in life. People who experience positive sibling relationships report higher life satisfaction and lower rates of depression as adults. Also, in times of illness and traumatic events, siblings can provide emotional, social, and psychological support to each other, something that I know from personal experience to be absolutely correct. I mean with those types of benefits, who wouldn’t want as many siblings as possible?