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How does my Stepchild Feel?
by Dr. Susan Bartell

Karen has just found out that she is pregnant. She is very excited and can't wait to break the news to everyone. Everyone, that is except her stepdaughter, Michelle. Karen and Michelle had a difficult time for the first two years of their relationship. When Karen first met her, Michelle was 6-years old. She clearly did not like the idea of her father being with someone else and did everything she could to sabotage the relationship. But by the time they were married, things were much better and weekend visits and vacations with Michelle were actually fun. Now Karen is afraid that hearing there is going to be a baby might upset Michelle and set back the relationship they have finally established.

Karen is not wrong to have some concern about how Michelle will feel. Stepchildren can have many different reactions to a new baby depending upon the circumstances. For example, a child who has had a difficult adjustment to his or her parent remarrying may have a harder time adjusting to a baby than one who was happy about the marriage. A child who lives with a stepparent full-time may feel differently than one who visits once in a while. A child's reaction may also differ depending on whether it's his or her mother rather than stepmother who is actually having the baby. No matter what the situation, most stepchildren will experience a certain amount of ambivalence when they hear there is going to be a new baby in the family.

Will you still love me?

One reason that stepchildren are concerned is that the new baby is going to be living with both of his or her biological parents, while the stepchild is living with only one of hers. Because of this, the child may worry that the baby will be more loved than they are. The implication, of course, is that the stepparent will love his or her own child more than they could love a stepchild. Children often feel this way, even in situations where they have a close and loving relationship with their stepparent. In fact this is such a common reaction that it is usually a good idea to confront it even before you see signs of concern from the child.

  • The parent and stepparent should break the news to the child together. This will help the child feel that both parents care enough about him to share the news.
  • Tell the child that he or she will be a big brother or sister. This will help the child feel connected to the baby right from the start, even if it is a stepmother who will be giving birth. Don't use the terms half-brother or half-sister because that tells the child you don't consider him or her, a "full" part of the baby's life or the family.
  • The biological parent should let the child know that he will continue to love the child just as much once the baby is born. If there is more than one child, you can remind them that you have always had enough love for all of them. This will still be true after the baby is born.
  • It may be necessary for a parent to tell the child that the love they have for their children has nothing to do with the love they have for the person to whom they are married. In other words, just because you don't love their mother or father anymore and you do love their stepparent doesn't mean that you will love the new baby more than you love them.
  • The stepparent has the most difficult job. Remember, stepchildren almost always worry that you will love a biological child more than you love them. You need to convey to the child that your feelings for them will not change once you have a baby. At the same time, you should acknowledge (to the child and yourself) that your feelings for your biological child will be somewhat different than your feelings for your stepchild. The important message that the child needs to hear from you is this: While the love you have for your biological child may be different, your love for your stepchild won't change and one kind of love is not better than another kind. This message may need to be reinforced many times before and after the baby is born because the fear of losing love or being second best is often very powerful for children and teenagers in this situation.

Will there still be space for me?

Children who don't live with the parent having the baby, often worry that their parent and stepparent are going to build a new family that will exclude them. Their concern is that they will be left out, and that there won't be a place for them when they visit. One 9-year old child told me that when her dad had a new baby she wouldn't be able to visit anymore because she had heard that newborn babies shouldn't be around older kids. No one had told her that the reason the baby shouldn't be around older children is because of potential exposure to illness, and that it was okay for him to be around his big sister. Stepchildren have gone through many losses in their lives before getting to this point and they are very vulnerable to feeling another loss or abandonment by a significant person. For this reason it is extremely important for parents and stepparents to provide ample reassurance that:

  • The baby is not going to replace them in any way.
  • They will maintain exactly the same visitation schedule they have always had.
  • There will still be plenty of time to do homework, attend activities and take care of their needs.

These reassurances may need to be made over and over again during different stages of the pregnancy and after the birth.

A bonding experience

Very often, a new baby in a stepfamily can be a really positive experience. The baby acts as a sort of permanent link between the parent and stepparent, which can be very reassuring for an older child who has already experienced the break-up of one set of parents. It can also somehow make the family seem more like a family and give the child a younger sibling to help nurture. As long as parents handle the tough emotional issues in an open-minded and caring way, parents and children alike can enjoy the rewards of a growing stepfamily.

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