Relationships in blended/stepfamilies are new, untested, and not a given as they are in traditional families. Even when everyone is in tune, what is missing is the comfort of knowing that there is a bond taken for granted, a biological bond of caring and love. Now, outward signals and signs are continuously needed to show that caring and loving, or respect, really exist. Children in blended/stepfamilies also have at least one extra set of grandparents and extended family which can leave everyone on both sides confused about what to do.
These children become siblings, residential stepsiblings, nonresidential stepsiblings, residential half-siblings, and nonresidential half-siblings. There are even two subtypes of half-sibling roles: those of children related by blood to only one of the adults, and the half-sibling role of the mutual child. Children also have step-grandparents and ex-step-grandparents. Even though blended/stepfamilies are a large segment of the American families today, our language has not yet caught up with the proliferation of new family roles. As family members separate and join new families, the new kin do not so much replace as add to kin from the first marriage. What are the new relatives to be called? There may be stepparents, step-grandparents, and stepsiblings, but what, for instance does a child call the new wife that her or his non-custodial father has married? Or, if a child alternates between the two households in a joint-custody arrangement, where does he or she call “home,” and where is his or her “family”? It takes the entire family working together to make the adjustment easier for everyone. Stepfamilies look pretty much like biological families. They have many common characteristics. And, they also differ in about 60 important ways. There are commonsense things that work in an average biological family that will not work, or will even backfire, in a normal multi-home stepfamily. For example, an earnest stepfamily adult (or co-grandparent) believing they must quickly love their young step-kin just like their own blood will usually stress everyone out, starting with themselves.
The reality? Shoot for initial mutual respect. This stepfamily identity-formation involves members gradually clarifying and melding ideas on who has what “jobs” in their multi-home family, including non-custodial biological parents, their new spouses, step-grandparents, ex in-laws, and half-siblings. The reality is that grandparents can see a new child as altering their estate bequests, or as an exciting blessing and joy. Therapists, clergy, doctors, and teachers can often cause unintended confusion by using labels that do not emotionally fit for a given stepfamily. As authority figures, their choice of title can carry more weight (especially with kids) than a non-professional’s. Most stepfamilies find it best not to force names or titles on members, but to experiment over time and consider the comfort levels of all key people involved, including both biological parents and all grandparents. Each family will evolve its own titles—there is no absolute right way to label here.
Gloria Lintermans is the author of THE SECRETS TO STEPFAMILY SUCCESS.