One of the most challenging aspects of a blended family is for the children of each parent to become comfortable living together as brothers and sisters. Children who are brought into the same household with minimal preparation and are expected to function as a congenial, loving family are unlikely to succeed. Storybook relationships may appear to be developing in those first few weeks of getting to know one another, but this is generally only a honeymoon period until the children feel comfortable enough to express their disagreements and conflicts with one another.
In some cases, the remarried couple will have one or more babies of their own, who will become the existing children's half-siblings. While most school-age children generally like having a baby around, they may also complain about the drawbacks. A newborn is often the center of attention of family and friends, and that means a loss of focus on the older children. More important, the older children may feel jealous that their father or mother is starting a new family, and that the baby gets to live with both of her parents, while their own parents are divorced. Even so, most new additions to the family are treated with love by the other children.
With time, stepsiblings tend to become good friends and companions, and their relationships are enriching and rewarding.
Rivalry among Stepsiblings
As with any siblings, there will probably be some competition between the children in stepfamilies, much of it for their parents' attention. Stepsiblings should not be expected to spend all of their time together, and in fact, each child will need some time spent just with his or her own parent.
Stepfamilies may produce other situations that can create antagonism among children. The 12-year-old daughter of one spouse may feel real anger if she is frequently burdened with the responsibility of babysitting for the 3-year-old child of the other marriage partner. Also, when there are conflicts within the new family - for instance, disagreements over whom to visit during holidays - youngsters often band together with their own parent, forming camps and aggravating any rivalries that may already exist.
This is particularly important for the youngster who may live with her mother and whose father remarries. The child may recognize that her dad is now spending less time with her than with the stepchildren who live with him. She may think, "Why do they get to live with Dad and I don't? Does he like them better? I don't get to do as much with my dad anymore because of them."
Children in this situation should have some special time with their fathers on a regular basis. Parents must acknowledge and respect this need, finding afternoons or entire weekends that they can devote solely to their own children, who may live across town or in another part of the state.
Privacy and Personal Space
Sometimes a child is asked to share a room with a stepbrother or stepsister when, in the past, that same room was hers alone. Or when her stepfather's children come to visit him on the weekend, they may move into her room for a couple of days, sometimes creating anger and jealousy.
Privacy and personal space become important issues in blended families. Whenever possible, children should have their own rooms. Even if they share a room, however, each youngster should have her own toys and other possessions; she should not be forced to turn them all into community property.
Who Will Handle the Discipline?
All children need discipline. But in stepfamilies, parents often are unsure of who should administer it. Should a stepfather, for example, discipline his wife's children, or should she be the only one to handle it?
Too often, stepfathers attempt to assert authority and directly discipline their stepchildren, rather than letting their wives take the lead with their own youngsters. Particularly in the initial few months, stepparents should play a supportive role in discipline but allow their new spouse to continue being the primary disciplinarian. They should avoid sweeping statements like "From now on, we're going to do things this way!" The new couple should gradually make a transition to shared authority. This transition can be accomplished by a delegation of authority from the biological parent to the stepparent, saying something like "While you're with him, you need to mind what he says - or answer to me."
After years of single parenting, many mothers may welcome having a male authority figure in the house. However, his presence does not relieve her from the responsibility of being the primary caretaker of her own youngsters. If her new husband becomes too assertive in parenting his wife's children, the children may resent him and complain to their mother about their mean stepfather. She may find herself caught in the middle between her husband and her children as conflicts escalate. And if she takes her spouse's side, her youngsters may feel betrayed. It is a position that can and should be avoided.
Also, if the new husband and wife disagree on disciplinary issues, the child may begin undermining and challenging the stepparent's authority, which is not good either for the child or for the marital relationship. When parents disagree this way, they need to negotiate their differences or problems will escalate.
Over time, stepfathers will develop a closer relationship with the children of their spouses, and they can eventually begin to assert more of their own influence. But at least initially, it is not appropriate for them to become the primary disciplinarian of someone else's children.