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Blended families are common. Here are tips to help stepsiblings get along

Lily Padula for NPR

The Science of Siblings is a new series exploring the ways our siblings can influence us, from our money and our mental health all the way down to our very molecules. We'll besharing these stories over the next several weeks.

Stepsiblings get a distorted rap in popular culture. On the one hand, you've got Cinderella and her evil stepsisters. On the other, there's The Brady Bunch,where six stepsiblings get along almost ridiculously well.

"The Brady Bunch did not help us when it comes to what to do in stepfamilies. It really didn't," says Caroline Sanner, an assistant professor of family science at Virginia Tech who studies stepfamily relationships.

"It sets a lot of folks up for disappointment at best," she says.

Sanner and other researchers say that since The Brady Bunch aired in the 1970s, they've learned a lot about what works and what doesn't work to help stepsiblings get along. And while some of their advice might seem obvious, the rest might surprise you. Here are a few of their research-backed tips.

Take things slowly

"Becoming a stepfamily is a process. It is not an event. It takes time," says Patricia Papernow, a psychologist who has written three books about blended families and spent decades educating therapists and others on stepfamily research.

Papernow says when new couples fall in love, they can get wrapped up in the excitement. "They want to form a family," she says, "and oftentimes they charge ahead." But she says that can be too much change, too fast for the children from their prior unions.

"One of the dilemmas is that as the rate of change goes up, kids' well-being goes down. Kids need to go much more slowly," Papernow says.

Lisa Garrard and Kirsten Brandt James say their parents went the opposite of slowly when they fell in love in the early 1970s. Lisa's dad and Kirsten's mom were both widowed, with three children each (not unlike the Brady Bunch family). They started dating one summer when Kirsten's mom took her girls to visit family back in Texas. Within two short months, they were married.

"I was shocked," says Kirsten. For her, the marriage meant a move from her home in California to Texas, a new house with new stepsiblings and a new school.

"I cried," she says. "I was like, 'You're kidding me. You're ruining my life.' "

Lisa says that feeling was very much shared on the other side of the aisle.

"We weren't going anywhere, but it was still shocking to us," she recalls.

Despite that whirlwind start to their stepfamily, Lisa and Kirsten both agree that, some 50 years later, all six stepsiblings are as close as can be. They Zoom weekly to catch up.

"I love them all. They're all my siblings," says Kirsten — no "step" prefix needed.

And that lifelong bonding may have something to do with the fact that their parents did a lot of other things right.

Stepparents need to focus on what I call connection, not correction — building a new relationship, not setting rules.

Create new family rituals

Research has shown that it's important for parents to create new family rituals that encourage everyone in the stepfamily to bond. Kirsten and Lisa's parents took that seriously.

"We had to go to church on Sunday as a family. We [went] on vacation as a family. We're eating as a family. It was very family-oriented," Lisa says.

Papernow says spending time together, especially on fun activities, helps stepfamilies create "a sense of we."

For Lisa and Kirsten's family, most of this happened after their parents' marriage. But Sanner says ideally, the biological parents can start creating opportunities for their respective children to bond while they are still in the dating phase — once they are relatively sure that their new partner is going to stick around, of course. She says it's best to start off with low-stakes opportunities for the kids to get to know each other, like ice skating or going to the park together. That way, they can discover shared interests they might have — whether it's music or sports or video games — without the pressure of already being stepsiblings.

"Introducing them much earlier can allow that process to occur over a more natural timeline," the way friendships naturally do, Sanner says.

Preserve one-on-one time with your biological child

While it's important to foster new relationships within the stepfamily, it's just as vital for a parent to carve out one-on-one time with their biological child, Sanner says.

"From the kids' perspectives, so much is changing when stepfamilies are being formed. Their parent is developing relationships with their new partner and also with their partner's kids," she says.

And that can add to the stress and insecurity the biological kid may be feeling.

"That can create feelings of jealousy, but that often comes from something much deeper, which is a feeling of loss, or grief, or feeling really anxious about the ways in which your relationship with your parent is changing," Sanner says.

Larry Ganong, an emeritus professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri and longtime stepfamily researcher, notes that all siblings fight over resources, whether it's a parent's attention or who gets the bigger room or bigger slice of dessert. But he says in stepfamilies, there are often bigger issues at the root of these conflicts. "Issues like, 'Am I loved? Do I belong here? What's my place? Who am I in comparison to these other people?' Those sorts of big issues are there," Ganong says.

When kids feel loved and secure in their relationship with their biological parent, "it allows kids to relax a little bit, and they're maybe less in a competitive mode with their stepsiblings and more open to bonding," says Ganong, who is currently writing a book with Sanner and professor emerita Marilyn Coleman of the University of Missouri on successful strategies for stepfamily relationships.

Don't force the bonding

While it's important to create the opportunities for stepsiblings to bond, Sanner says kids should be given some choice in whether and how to participate.

"There's so much in this transition that they're not in control of, and feeling kind of forced to bond with these new family members can be really overwhelming" for kids, Sanner says. "Allowing them to go at their own pace, really honoring their feelings and the speed at which they want to bond, allows them to be much more receptive to bonding with their stepsiblings. Whereas if it feels forced, no one wants to be in a relationship with someone where it feels forced."

Stepmom Kiley Thompson took this to heart when one of her two soon-to-be stepsons, Finlay, refused to attend her wedding to his dad, Mark Mitchell.

"It was about two weeks before the wedding that I said to Mark, "Let him make the choice. This is his choice. He is adamant about it. We cannot force him. And if we do force him, it will set the stage for more resentment further on down the line."

Finlay was 11 at the time and didn't attend. Now, seven years later, Thompson says they've grown close.

"Stepparenting is not a short game," Thompson says. "This is a long game. If you're in for the long term with your new husband or wife, you have to be even longer in there for your stepkids."

Ganong says parents in a stepfamily often want everyone to bond and for things to "normalize" quickly. But the reality is that close relationships take time to develop — sometimes years. He says adolescents will often take longer to adjust than younger children.

Leave the discipline to the biological parent

Being there for your stepchild means building a healthy relationship with them. But research is clear that the relationship can turn toxic if a stepparent is allowed to discipline their stepchild before they've had time to develop a caring, trusting relationship, Papernow says.

"In fact, what works is the parent retains the disciplinary role," she says. "The stepparent has lots of input to the parent outside of the kids' earshot."

That's very different from the advice that is often given to what Papernow calls "first-time families," where you want the parents to back each other up. But she says it's important to understand that stepfamilies are fundamentally different structures than first-time families, and what works in first-time families can backfire in stepfamilies.

Another example? While biological parents are used to hearing that you're not your child's friend, research suggests a friendly support system is what stepparents should try to be.

"Stepparents need to focus on what I call connection, not correction — building a new relationship, not setting rules," Papernow says.

Kirsten and Lisa's parents didn't have this research on discipline to guide them, yet they took this approach. Lisa says their respective biological parent would be in charge of handing out any "super heavy-handed" discipline. "Like being five minutes past curfew one night got me a month grounded — that came from my father," she says.

It's a big change. Validate the child's feelings about it

Lisa and Kirsten's parents were both widowed. Things can get more complicated when the stepfamily forms as a result of divorce, which is now more common.

Sanner says it's important for the stepparent to reassure their stepchild that they're not trying to replace their other parent, by saying explicitly: "I know that all of this change might be really hard. And I just want you to know that I'm on your side, and I'm not here to parent you or be some kind of parent figure."

She says creating a more positive relationship between a stepparent and stepchild is vital, because it makes it more likely that stepsiblings will get along too.

It's also important for the biological parent to validate their kid's feelings of loss and displacement in a stepfamily, because oftentimes, this is at the root of conflict with their stepsiblings, Sanner says.

For example, Sanner's research with Ganong has found that shared physical space — whether it's bedroom space or who gets to hang out in the basement — is one of the biggest sources of conflict among stepsiblings. Acknowledging what your child is feeling can be really powerful, even if you don't have all the answers, she says.

Sanner says when stepsiblings and stepfamilies are given the time and space "to really find their own pattern of development, instead of forcing a mold upon them, that's where we see positive outcomes."

She says the end result might not look like a traditional relationship between biological siblings, and that's OK, too.

Ganong agrees. He advises families not to assume they have to re-create the nuclear family experience of a first marriage. "I would like them to approach their new family thinking creatively, asking, 'What works for us? Who are we? What do we need?'"

He says stepfamilies are different, but that difference can also be a strength.

More from the Science of Siblings series:

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.