I am late recognizing that Saturday, April 10, was National Siblings Day. It reminded me that one of the most difficult parts of blending families is helping our kids get along with each other. I didn’t have biological children when I married, so at first we didn’t have any unusual challenges getting the children to get along. After about a decade, however, through a number of unusual circumstances, we ended up with a household of a teenage son, an adult son and his child, and a child of one of my former foster children. Looking back, I made several mistakes, starting with assuming that the older sons would be fine and that we could concentrate on the grandchildren. It’s true that our sons didn’t need as much from us as younger children, but we should have checked in with them more often.
I have since found several other tips that I wish I had paid attention to back then. It’s a complex area, starting with the fact that bonus families come in many different permutations. The research that I have found refers to families like mine, where only parent is the step-parent, as “simple stepfamilies.” Families where both parents bring biological children and become stepparents to the other set of children, like the Brady Bunch, are “complex.” Unlike the Brady Bunch, these complex families have a much more difficult time adjusting, even when parents do all the right things. One book from 2000 studying adolescents in stepfamilies concluded that there were few differences between intact biological families and simple stepfamilies, but more differences in adjustment and family relationships in complex stepfamilies.
Communication is Key
A more recent study interviewed adults who had grown up as “shared children,” i.e. those born into a stepfamily who live with both their parents and older half-siblings. The children described several different issues, but the overriding need they expressed was for more communication. This was the main mistake we made, and I completely understand the problem that parents face. We both had (and still have) time-intensive jobs. Even when we have downtime, both my husband and I tend to use it to start a new project. (Have I mentioned my new book recently?) It was all too easy to assume that, because no one was complaining, there were no big problems. What we needed to do was find the time to check in regularly with everyone and listen to how they were doing.
Take Care of Your Marriage First
It’s worth repeating that your marriage needs to be strong and keeping it strong needs to be your top priority. Your marriage is the foundation of your family, and it will provide the structure for all other relationships. This principle doesn’t mean that you should ignore your children. Just recognize that, if we do our job, they will be self-sufficient adults leaving us with an empty nest. Our children need to see our marriages outlast their time in the family.
Give Them Space
I’ve said before that we as parents need to treat all of our kids as part of the family. But our children may not see each other that way. For example, if you have custody of one set of children and not the other, your children may see themselves as part of two separate families. If both biological parents have remarried, then your children will inevitably have other stepparents and extended families that they don’t share with their stepsiblings. Those separate experiences will be hard to overcome. Recognize the reality and give children space to form whatever relationships they can or wish to create.
Your children may or may not become friends, but you can insist on civility and respect between them. Children are not born with these traits, and it can be hard teaching them in non-stepfamilies. Stepsiblings give our children a whole new set of people they have to learn to live with. Learning how to be civil to people they may or may not like is an essential life skill, and blended families is a great opportunity for our children to learn those skills. Establish the ground rules early and reinforce them often.
Create Shared Experiences
Friendships are forged in shared experiences. All of us have experienced working on a project and becoming friends with the other people involved. It’s a phenomenon we can see in team sports, religious activities, and nonprofit groups. Working together toward a shared goal, or at least having shared experiences, is one of the best ways to build a network of friendships. The dynamic holds true for blended families as well. If our children have to cooperate in putting up a tent on a camping trip, they are more likely to learn how to get along. The experiences don’t have to be grand. In fact, the closer to real life the projects are, the stronger the relationships will be. Going to a theme park will be fun but working together in a volunteer project will build more lasting friendships.
There is no single checklist for helping your children think of their stepsiblings as family. If the situation is too complex, it might not ever happen, and that’s OK, too. As long as your marriage provides your children a strong foundation to look back to, and they learn how to be civil and respectful to each other, you will have given them all the tools that they need to decide what they want to do.