In any family with more than one child, conflicts can certainly arise. Take into consideration the complexities that can occur within stepfamilies, and these conflicts will likely amplify. Kids often respond to a new stepfamily by acting out, according to Rosa Maria Mulser, Ph.D., a post-doctoral resident in child psychology at Kreinbrook Psychological Services in Greensburg, Pennsylvania.
Your biological children may be filled with trepidation over living with a new stepparent. Your kiddos may fear what will happen if they’re asked to share a room or their beloved toys with a new stepbrother. Similarly, your stepchild may be wary of communicating with you, may not respond to your requests to talk and may even withhold affection until you’ve established a trusting bond with him. Despite these concerns, Dr. Mulser offers a number of ways that parents can help children adjust to their new stepfamily’s dynamics.
Until now, your children have been your primary focus. As a single mom, they have become used to having you all to themselves. Now, they are being asked to join a new family. Their new stepdad has kids of his own, and the entire family dynamic changes, including that of your sweet kids, who suddenly seem angry at the world.
While their behavior probably makes you want to curl up in a fetal position and cry, it may help to realize that it’s not unusual. “Children and adolescents do not yet have the cognitive ability, self-awareness and verbal skills to express their feelings like adults have. Instead of expressing their feelings verbally like adults, children and adolescents are more likely to act out when changes occur,” says Dr. Mulser.
Therefore, she explains, parents may start to notice more outward defiance, yelling and general disrespect. “Adjusting to one or more new individuals in the household and establishing a close relationship with them can be a long process with many ups and downs, limit testing and emotional roller coasters,” she says. “Children often worry about the new siblings in the home and about competing for their parents' love.”
Parents and stepparents can work together to promote family harmony. The key is to talk to your children in advance of the change. “When children and adolescents know what to expect, it is easier for them to adjust to changes. Otherwise, children feel that they live in an unsafe and unpredictable world where any change could happen at any time,” explains Dr. Mulser. She suggests that parents and children spend time together reading books about adjusting to step siblings. “It is imperative for parents to have an open line of communication with their children and adolescents,” she states. “This way, children and adolescents know that they can approach their parents about their fears and often irrational thoughts and ideas about this particular change.”
Overall, be sure to manage your expectations – don’t tell your child to “get used to it” or that he’s being “silly.” Allow him the time to navigate the intricacies of his new family at his own pace, and hopefully, eventually, he’ll be able to build relationships with his new siblings. To facilitate family communication, Dr. Mulser recommends that parents implement a weekly family meeting, during which children can share their feelings and parents can help them find solutions to problems.
Very young children will likely have quite a different reaction to their step siblings than school-aged children or teenagers. In fact, toddlers and preschoolers may welcome the change, especially if their step siblings are in the same age range. Older children may have an altogether opposite reaction. “Middle school children and preteens have a more difficult time accepting a new living situation and due to their stage of moral development they may focus most on how ‘fair’ parents treat each individual child, which may create some conflict among siblings,” says Dr. Mulser.
Don’t be surprised if you find your teenager brooding, sulking or talking back more than usual, or if you find your teenager trying to act as if he’s “in charge” of the younger children. “Older siblings may feel the need to take on the role of a parent for younger siblings, which often creates more conflict between siblings,” said Dr. Mulser. To ensure a healthy family dynamic, it’s important for parents to do the parenting so the older kids know they are not to boss the younger kids around.
Establishing rules and consequences can be particularly challenging in a blended family, especially if parenting styles differ. For instance, if you’re somewhat lenient but your partner is much stricter – or vice versa – your children might not know how to react if and when conflicts inevitably arise. At first, a biological parent should handle the bulk of her child’s discipline, at least until a bond forms between the child and stepparent.
According to Dr. Mulser, consistency is the key. “Parents create safety for their children by being consistent. When children know what to expect, what rules to follow and what consequences await them for defying these rules, children feel safe. When they don't have structure and rules, children feel unsafe,” she says. “Therefore, the first thing parents should do is talk about their parenting philosophy and come to an agreement about rules and privileges that pertain to all children in the household. At the same time, a set of consequences needs to be established.”
After these rules and consequences have been established, Dr. Mulser suggests that the parents post the rules on a large sheet of poster board so that they are visible to all family members. “When rules, consequences and privileges are visible in the household and are part of the family, disciplining becomes more automatic, more consistent and easier for both parents as well as for the child,” she says.