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The "Normal" Stepfamily: Helping Kids Adjust

The "Normal" Stepfamily: Helping Kids Adjust

Recently, while in an airport I overheard two women discussing someone they know who is part of a stepfamily. I wasn’t trying to listen, but they were right next to me so it was inevitable. Their conversation went like this:

“The kids refuse to introduce Eric’s sons their brothers,” Woman #1 stated. “They insist on referring to them as stepbrothers.” 

“That’s ridiculous,” Woman #2 protested. “Eric and Judy have been married for over 5 years. I could understand if the kids were adults when the remarriage took place. But they were young, and grew up in the same house. Judy’s kids should be adjusted to all of this by now. And she should insist that they call Eric’s kids their brothers.”  

“I know, but they won’t. They absolutely refuse,” Woman #1 replied.

“Well, that’s ridiculous. They are just being little brats.” Woman #2 huffed. 

It took every ounce of self-control that I possess to keep my mouth shut and not interject an opinion into their conversation. (Since I was born talking I think a little applause is due.)

What I wanted to do was to turn around and say, “I know if you aren’t involved with a stepfamily it seems odd that the kids would resist bonding. But it’s perfectly normal for children in a stepfamily to refuse to accept stepbrothers and stepsisters as their own siblings.”

I’ve learned the hard way to keep my mouth shut about stepfamily living. Especially around those who have preconceived ideas about what is “normal.” The truth is that many people, like these two ladies, don’t understand the complexities associated with stepfamilies.  

This overheard conversation caused me to ponder, why do people think that after a death or divorce of a parent a child is going to automatically embrace “Eric’s children?” Why don’t they understand that kids in a stepfamily often view the “stepparent’s children” as intruders and interlopers—not brothers and sisters?

And why are these women blaming the children for the fear, anger, resentment, and/or sorrow (the root causes of their reaction) in this stepsibling rejection?

If these women had asked for my opinion, (to be fair they didn’t know they were sitting next to The Smart Stepmom), I would have said, “Let’s take a deeper look into why the kids refuse to view their stepbrothers as siblings. And why they might not like having stepbrothers.”

There are a plethora of reasons for this; a few popular ones include: They may view the stepdad as the person who took Mom away. If biological Dad is absent they may resent that Eric’s sons have an active dad. They may fear that accepting Eric’s sons as brothers will make Dad angry or sad.  There is a whole host of reasons why they are refusing to accept the boys as brothers.

Finding resources that can help the kids learn why they feel the way they do is a great way to help.  Two of my favorites are DivorceCare for Kids ages K through 5th grade and Life Hurts God Heals for adolescents and teens. 

When kids or adults don’t want to embrace a stepfamily setting the wise response from the parents, family members and friends should be to take a deeper look at underlying reasons. And then help them find a support group that addresses those issues.

Copyright © 2012 Laura Petherbridge. All rights reserved

Laura Petherbridge is an international author and speaker who serves couples and single adults with topics on relationships, divorce prevention, singleness, and divorce recovery. She is the author of When “I Do” Becomes “I Don’t”—Practical Steps for Healing During Separation and Divorce, and a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series. Her newest book The Smart Stepmom is coauthored with Ron Deal. Her website is

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Publication date: November 8, 2012