All in the family: becoming part of a stepfamily can be an exciting experience

For many people, the idea of a stepfamily brings two scenarios to mind: corny 1970s TV show The Brady Bunch and the fairy tale “Cinderella.” For the Brady family, it was love at first sight. The boys got a new morn, the girls got a new dad, and everyone lived happily ever after. As we all know, the relationship between Cinderella and her stepmother and stepsisters didn’t go quite as well. Both stepfamily stories are make-believe; what happens in real life usually falls somewhere in between.

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It Takes All Kinds

There are many types of families. After a divorce or a parent’s death, some teens live with just oneparent. Others live with a bigger family: a biological parent, a stepparent, and maybe even stepsiblings (children of the stepparent) or half siblings (the offspring of a person’s biological parentand new stepparent). In fact, at least one-third of all American children will become part of a stepfamily before they turn 18.

Some people like to call such families blended families. Elizabeth Einstein, a member of the National Stepfamily Resource Center expert council–and a stepmom herself–prefers the term stepfamily. No matter what you call it, though, the prospect of rearranging your family members can cause many confusing feelings.

Chaos Is Normal

Teens often feel sadness and anger when their parents divorce. Those feelings may still be present when a parent decides to remarry, Einstein says. “There may also be a sense of betrayal,” she adds, “because many of those kids are still carrying the fantasy that their parents might get back together.”

Many times, those teens realize that their parents are better off apart. Eventually, they’ll probably appreciate seeing their parents in happy, healthy relationships. That was certainly the case for Paige R. Although she was nervous when she heard her morn had met a special man, Paige was also excited. “I was glad my morn was starting to date again and get happy,” says the 13-year-old from Groton, N.Y. “I was happy that she found someone she could really connect with.”

Accepting a stepparent can be difficult, though. Einstein says she’s been to many second weddings where kids are crying. They’re happy that one parent is starting a new life, but they’re still grieving for the parent who is gone, whether through divorce, separation, or death. “It’s OK to cry,” Einstein says. “Look around–maybe Grandma’s crying too.” Teens also might be reluctant to get close to new stepparents out of fear of being disloyal to absent parents. “All those feelings are real,” Einstein explains. “You should not try to keep them in.” But she is quick to point out that there is nothing wrong with accepting–even welcoming–the affection and support of a parent’s new spouse.

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Instant Siblings

When single parents blend their broods, things can get interesting. Teens might wonder how they’ll fit into the new family–especially when new siblings are part of the package. That involves adjusting to sharing the parent with the new spouse and any children he or she has.

At first, Sophia * felt a little resentful toward her new stepsister, Cheryl* “I couldn’t understand why my room had to spend so much time with Cheryl,” Sophia, 16, from Santa Cruz, Calif., says. “After all, [Cheryl] did have a morn of her own.” Sophia talked about her feelings with her morn but realized the situation just needed time to work itself out.

Sophia’s new stepbrother, Mark, * also believes in giving it time. The 15-year-old remembers a few rough patches when his dad, Bill, * and Sophia’s mom, Carol, * first got married. Mark already had a brother and a sister, and Sophia already had a sister. Bringing the two families together under one roof caused more than a little chaos.

Mark says some of the kids argued about typical stuff–such as whose turn it was to wash the dishes. But the fights could quickly get out of hand, probably because everyone was feeling tense and unsure about the new family dynamic. “It was a pretty weird situation,” Mark remembers, “but it pretty much smoothed itself out once everyone really got to know each other.”

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