Q&A: Coping with Stepsibling Rivalry
Q. I had a good relationship with my stepdaughters, who are 3 1/2 and 5 -- until their dad and I had a baby. Now the girls are plain difficult, and my husband lets them get away with it. He says it's just a phase as they adjust to the new baby. I feel they're playing their dad and that he, in trying to assure them that he loves them just as much as ever, is giving in. How can we assure the girls that there's enough love to go around -- and put an end to this bad behavior?
A. Let's look at this from the girls' perspective for a sec. Remember, they are just little girls. Sure, they liked you -- you're probably an ace stepmom. What's not to like? You're another adult female to play princess dolls with. But along comes a baby, and everything changes. Now you're not just this nice woman who lives with Dad. Now you're the mother of a little bundle who takes Dad further away from them. They'd probably feel jealous if they had a new sibling in an intact household; a stepsibling is just another reminder of their separated, segmented lives, and kids in those situations tend to hang on to whatever is theirs even more aggressively than they might otherwise.
I honestly don't think the problem is the girls; they're just being, well, little girls, and given time, plenty of attention, and -- this is key -- consistency in their schedule and discipline, they'll be fine. The problem seems to be your husband, who (in fairness to him) is probably reluctant to be the heavy; we all know how much easier it is to give in to bad behavior than it is to step up. You need to help him see that giving in is not a good way to show his daughters he still loves them. In fact, letting them get away with things they didn't before the baby arrived gives them the message that he cares less. The girls don't see this, but they feel it. Kids crave security and familiarity. They push against parents to test where the limits are, and if you remove the limits, they go a little nuts. Try to explain to your husband that he can find better ways to show his love. For instance, he can take them out for cupcakes, maybe with the new baby in a stroller, which is a way to give them a treat while also showing them that the baby is part of their lives too. He can mix that up with time he spends just with them. Persuade him, when the girls are at your house, to handle their bedtime while you deal with the baby. These girls need to know that their dad still loves them -- but they also need to know their dad is still very much in charge.
Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the February 2008 issue of American Baby magazine.