does my Stepchild Feel?
Dr. Susan Bartell
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.
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.
you still love me?
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
- 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
there still be space for me?
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
- There will
still be plenty of time to do homework, attend activities and
take care of their needs.
reassurances may need to be made over and over again during different
stages of the pregnancy and after the birth.
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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