It’s pretty normal — make that extremely normal — for siblings to squabble, argue, disagree, and fight with each other from time to time.
And when two families merge to create a blended family, those newly created stepsibling relationships may find themselves put to the test at times, too.
If stepsibling rivalry is stressing you — and your other family members — out, you might want to contemplate some of the possible causes and then develop some solutions to try.
Good old sibling rivalry. In a nonblended family, sibling rivalry can rear its head from time to time for a variety of reasons.
It can be as simple as a child being jealous that a new sibling has arrived — suddenly, they’re no longer the sole focus of their parents’ attention. And they start acting out in ways that are completely new or surprising to their parents (and maybe even to themselves).
Or it can show up as bickering and squabbling. Kids fight because they disagree about something trivial or something more serious. Sometimes kids are just trying to define themselves and show how they’re different from their siblings.
They struggle over who’s getting the most attention from their parents or who has to do the most chores.
They get outraged because they feel a parent is giving preferential treatment to a sibling.
They resent having to spend time with siblings, rather than their friends, and they take it out on their brothers or sisters.
Kids also take cues from their parents. They may sense that their parents are stressed, and that stress may influence their own feelings — and how they let those feelings influence their own behavior.
And because they’re young, they may just not have the maturity to handle conflict well yet, so their siblings bear the brunt.
In a blended family, you can still have all of those factors at work. But you may have additional factors that complicate matters.
In a blended family, everyone is still getting to know each other. You may not have an underlying sense of love or loyalty that’s buried under the bickering and jostling for position.
So, what causes sibling rivalry between people who are new to being in the same family? Maybe a better question is what doesn’t contribute to sibling rivalry? There are a number of potential causes, including:
- the stress of blending two families with their varying personalities
- unresolved feelings of hurt from the breakup of their other family unit
- jealousy when their parent treats their stepsibling with love or care
- jealousy when one child feels slighted
- insecurity about their own role in this newly blended family
Your blended family may experience some or all of these factors at various times. And different kids may react to their new siblings and new family situation in completely different ways, so you may be managing different reactions from each child.
You may find yourself muttering, “Can’t we all just get along?” Short of not blending your family with your partner’s family, you may be wondering what can you do to help smooth out those tricky relationships.
Fortunately, you do have some strategies available to you to help facilitate better relationships — and hopefully dial down the sibling rivalry. However, nothing’s a quick fix.
You may have to dedicate yourself over the long term to building and maintaining good relationships — and being willing to work on problems when they arise.
1. Acknowledge the challenge of adjustment
It can be really hard on some kids when their family merges with another one, and suddenly they have these new siblings whom they don’t really know — and they’re not sure they like.
Be honest with every family member that blending families can be tricky. And there will inevitably be some bumps and hurt feelings along the way.
2. Don’t expect everyone to become best friends
It’s fun to daydream about new stepsiblings (especially those close in age) who become fast friends right away, but it’s pretty unrealistic.
Adjust your expectations. Make it clear to your children and stepchildren that you don’t expect them to love each other immediately (or possibly ever), but you do expect them to respect each other and be courteous. They may eventually become quite close, but they might not.
3. Acknowledge that parents may be closer to their children than their stepchildren
Kids are smarter than adults often give them credit for. If you, as a parent, immediately insist that you’re as close to your new stepchildren as you are to the children you’ve raised, it’s probably going to cause a few eyes to roll. It might even cause some hurt feelings.
Be honest about your feelings, and acknowledge that it’s natural for parents to be closer to their own kids, at least at first.
4. Watch out for signs of jealousy
It’s easy for bad feelings to develop when one child feels they’re getting slighted. Maybe they’re hurt because they got the smaller bedroom. Maybe they’re upset that another sibling gets to participate in a particular activity.
Keep an eye out for jealousy that can develop and intervene before it can get out of hand. But it’s crucial to be gentle in your approach, so the child doesn’t feel attacked, which can make things worse.
5. Don’t lose sight of birth order
When you blend families with someone who also has children, you’re merging families of children who are accustomed to holding certain ranks by virtue of birth order.
Suddenly, your own oldest child may no longer be the eldest child in the family. The baby of one family may find themselves in the unfamiliar and possibly even uncomfortable role of an older sibling.
It’s important for parents to be aware of these shifts and how they can make children feel unsettled and maybe even resentful toward each other.
6. Hold family meetings regularly
It might be monthly, or it might be weekly. Set aside a time for your family to gather and share opinions. Encourage everyone to really listen to each other. This may give everyone a chance to see and be seen and hear and be heard.
7. Ask your kids for suggestions
Kids often feel like no one is listening to them. So, show them that you want to hear from them. Ask for their opinions and suggestions for how to improve the situation. This gives each child the chance to be heard and the chance to make recommendations about how to improve relationships.
8. Spend time alone with each child
Schedule some alone time with every child in your family, including your stepchildren. You can let them pick the activity.
And if you don’t have time for a lengthy excursion every time, that’s OK. Just find some one-on-one to chat on a regular basis. This will let the child know they’re important to you.
9. Celebrate each child
No one wants to feel like they don’t matter. Go out of your way to celebrate the unique characteristics of each child. Highlight their best qualities. Or celebrate a recent accomplishment, no matter how small, and praise the child.
Just let them know what you appreciate about them, so they don’t feel they have to work to prove something.
10. Don’t compare
One of the quickest ways to spark bad feelings between siblings or stepsiblings is by comparing them to each other. Resist the temptation to say things like “But your brother did this…” or “Your stepsister did that…”
11. Revisit your approach
You may try one approach, only to discard it when it doesn’t work. And that’s OK, too. It’s better to keep looking than to stick with something that’s obviously not working.
Additionally, you may need to revisit your approach as your children and stepchildren age. An approach that works well when children are young may be less effective when the children are older.
Establishing good relationships can take time. It may take a while for stepsiblings to get used to each other and their new roles in their blended family.
They may also need time to adjust to their new place in the birth order ranking, and they may need time to adjust to having new and different personalities around.
The bottom line: Figuring out what works for your family is rarely immediate. And what works for another family might not work for yours. Every family is a little bit different. Don’t give up as you work through the issues.