Having your stepchild in your home only part-time can be a challenging situation. It can be particularly difficult when one group of children primarily lives with you, but their step-siblings are there only part of the time. How do you meld the two groups into one family? These complex blended families pose a unique challenge to stepparents.
As I mentioned in my last post, I learned a lot from my time as an emergency and respite foster care provider. A couple of times, I had overlapping placements, and I have watched friends and extended family deal with complex bonus families. It is not unusual for both spouses to have children, but only one to have primary custody of his/her biological children. The other step-sibling lives most of the time with the ex-spouse and only visits for part of the week. So, ironically, the non-custodial parent spends more time with stepchildren than with biological children. It is a difficult situation and can lead to a lot of highly emotional conflict. As with most situations, there are no simple answers, but a couple of important principles can make life easier for everyone.
Keep the Rules the Same
It can be hard for your part-time child to blend into the full-time family life. It is tempting to shift the rules to make it easier on them. Sometimes, we do need to be flexible in the short term because of bigger issues. In general, though, shifting rules will simply buy you short-term gain and long-term problems. Kids need structure and need to know where their boundaries are. Unfortunately for us, they figure that out by testing them. But once they figure out where the boundaries don’t move, they will adjust.
It’s also important to keep the rules the same because the consistency will make it easier for the siblings to meld into a single family. Children, whether foster or biological, keep score and won’t hesitate to accuse you of playing favorites. Children in different sibling groups will be particularly sensitive and may see differences that you don’t intend. Avoid the issue as much as you can by keeping the rules the same no matter which child is there for the weekend.
Focus on the Team
The only way I know to help all of the sibling groups to think of themselves as one family is to spend time together as a family. Sibling rivalry is a real phenomenon, and it can be exhausting for you. But allowing them to separate into different factions will not solve the problem. You have to find things for them to do together. It can be fun, such as a picnic or a camping trip, or it can be working together on a chore. The point is to find projects where they can share experiences. It is those shared experiences and shared memories that build family.
Of course, children need special one-on-one time as well. Not everything has to be a group project. But to the extent that you can make group events the default, the better you will be able to form shared memories among the kids.
Complex bonus families are, well, complex. It is never easy to blend children with different histories into a single family team. In some cases, the animosity may be so high that it is simply not possible. But when you can get them to visualize the entire family as one team, even if some members are there only part-time, you will have given them a gift of relationships that can last them the rest of their lives.