Clash of the step-siblings
Sibling rivalry is an unavoidable component in many families, but the dynamics involved in blended families can intensify the conflict between step-siblings.
While most families have their pressure points and siblings who are experts at pushing each other’s buttons, there’s a different set of stressors involved when it comes to blending two already established families together.
Claudia Abelheim, educational psychologist and head of the Family Life Centre’s Youth Services, explains: ‘When two families blend together, each side comes with its own entrenched practices. Each side will have their own routines, rules, roles and responsibilities that were created separately from each other. When children are asked to change these practices and negotiate new ones, it’s often met with resentment – which easily turns into step-sibling rivalry.’
So how should you go about setting boundaries and helping the kids adjust to their new world order?
‘Make sure there are boundaries set for everyone and that everyone’s involved in setting them’, advises Claudia. Including everyone increases the chance of buy-in from all the children and helps minimise feelings of resentment. Also ensure that boundaries are appropriate to the children’s ages, so that while boundaries exist for all the children,
they aren’t necessarily the same ones.
Including all the children in important decision-making and boundary-setting also helps them feel more in control and empowered. ‘One of the hardest things for stepchildren is the loss of control they experience. Their worlds change in very drastic, often traumatic ways and they’re powerless to do anything about it. They first experience it when their family of origin breaks down (whether by divorce or death). If they’re then brought into a blended family, the same feelings could emerge. That’s why it’s important for parents to give their kids some say in how the new structure will be set up,’ explains Claudia.
She also suggests that the families spend a lot of time with each other before the parents move in together so that everyone can familiarise themselves with the new living arrangement before it begins.
Disciplinarian or wicked stepmother?
If you or your partner’s children step out of line and violate the boundaries you’ve all set together, the rules need to be reinforced. Disciplining step-siblings can be tricky, as you want to make all the kids feel equal, diffuse potential jealousy and avoid that ‘wicked stepmother’ crown. ‘The types of discipline you enforce would depend on the ages of the children, but in general, it’s important for parents to be on the same page. This can be hard, especially if some of the children only visit on weekends and their parent’s reluctant to discipline them in the little time they have together. However, if kids believe there are unfair standards being set, they’ll become jealous, resentful and angry,’ says Claudia.
There’s bound to be a somewhat shaky period of adjustment – and if there are teens involved, probably some door-slamming – but what’s most important to get right is choosing an approach that both you and your partner agree on – and sticking to it. This not only helps stabilise the kids and minimise rivalry between them, but will also strengthen your relationship with your partner.
‘The first step is being aware that these issues will come up and that they could take a toll on the relationship. This helps manage expectations so that no-one feels like a failure if things do become difficult. If there’s an issue that could divide the couple, it can be helpful for them to resolve it in private, away from the children, so that they can
show a united front once they address it with the kids,’ says Claudia. When step-siblings act out or their rivalry intensifies, it’s also important to remember that there may be underlying – and often painful – reasons for their behaviour.
Handling sensitive issues
Two families coming together is often the result of a traumatic experience for the children, such as divorce or the death of a parent. The pain felt by the children often sparks bitter rivalry with their new siblings and this needs to be handled sensitively.
‘These kinds of underlying issues are probably best dealt with in some kind of therapy or counselling. It can be very helpful for children to have their own space where they can talk to an objective person about their feelings’, advises Claudia.
Another stress point that often arises between step-siblings is a feeling of displacement. For instance, the youngest child of the family, who’s built an identity on being ‘the baby’, may now find that their role’s been usurped by an even younger new step-sibling.
‘Two things are important here. Firstly, you can make sure their previous “place” still exists in their heart (for example, by saying: “You’ll always be my baby.”) Secondly, try to encourage the child to identify the advantages and benefits of their new role: for instance, some of the chores previously assigned to the formerly youngest family member could now be given to the new youngest sibling, making their elder stepbrother or stepsister feel respected. This could
bring the kids closer together.
Encouraging a healthy step-sibling relationship
While you can set boundaries, instil discipline and try to help kids adjust to a new family structure, you can’t force step-siblings to get along. ‘The best thing to do is let the relationships grow and develop on their own. Children are very astute and may interpret parents’ efforts as manipulation, which would have the opposite effect. Letting their
relationships develop organically will ensure they’re genuine and longer-lasting,’ says Claudia. However, she adds that you can encourage and model open communication and create quality family time for everyone. Don’t make this a compulsory activity, but plan casual, fun times that appeal to all family members and provide an opportunity for step-siblings to be around each other in a relaxed, happy setting.
If the kids genuinely have nothing in common and seem not to be making friends at all, Claudia advises against pushing them. ‘You can’t force people to love, or even like, each other. This situation also occurs among blood siblings. You can insist that kids respect each other’s spaces, but you can’t demand that they be friends.’ Ensure the kids stay within the set boundaries of politeness, respect and consideration for each other, but don’t try to impose a false sense of closeness.
The festive season can be particularly difficult for step-siblings as they try adjust to new traditions and remember how it used to be. They’re also likely to be watchful for favouritism or unfairness as gifts are doled out. Claudia recommends respecting and upholding some of your and your partner’s old family traditions, as well as creating
some completely new ones. ‘Also ensure that all the children get some alone time with both their biological and step-parents,’ she adds. ‘In terms of gifting, perhaps setting a price limit and doing “secret Santa” is a good way to avoid squabbles about who got the better present.’ To set up an appointment with a counsellor at the Family Life Centre, tel: 011 788 4784 or visit: Familylife.co.za
FEATURE: CAITLIN GENG PHOTO: STOCK.ADOBE.COM