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Experts weigh in on how to foster healthy stepsibling relationships


Stepsiblings get a distorted rap in popular culture. On the one hand, you have got Cinderella and her evil stepsisters. On the other, there's "The Brady Bunch," where six stepsiblings get along ridiculously well, immortalized by that earworm of a theme song.


PEPPERMINT TROLLEY COMPANY: (Singing) The Brady Bunch. The Brady Bunch.

CAROLINE SANNER: "The Brady Bunch" did not help us when it comes to what to do in stepfamilies. It really didn't. It sets a lot of folks up for disappointment at best.

KELLY: That is Caroline Sanner, a researcher at Virginia Tech who studies stepfamily relationships. She and other researchers say that, since "The Brady Bunch" aired in the 1970s, they have learned a lot about what works and what doesn't to help stepsiblings get along. As part of our series on the science of siblings, NPR's Maria Godoy reports some of the advice for stepparents may be surprising.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: When it comes to the dos and don'ts of blending a family, I want to introduce you to two stepsisters.

LISA GIRAD: My name is Lisa Girard (ph).

KIRSTEN BRANDT JAMES: I am Kirsten Brandt James (ph).

GODOY: In the early 1970s, Lisa's dad and Kirsten's mom were both widowed, with three children each, kind of like "The Brady Bunch." The parents were old friends from school who started dating one summer. Within two short months, they were married.

BRANDT JAMES: I was shocked.

GIRAD: It was shocking to us as well.

GODOY: For Kirsten, the marriage meant a move from her home in California to Texas, a new house with new siblings and a new school.

BRANDT JAMES: I cried. I think we were upset. Yeah, it was like, you're kidding me. You're ruining my life (laughter).

GIRAD: We weren't going anywhere, but it was still shocking to us.

GODOY: Now, some 50 years later, these stepsiblings are as close as can be. All six of them Zoom weekly to catch up. They consider each other siblings - no step prefix needed.

GIRAD: When people ask me, are you close to your siblings, I say yes. I consider us close.

BRANDT JAMES: Love them all. Yeah, they're all my siblings. Yeah, absolutely.

GODOY: So how can parents set the stage for stepsiblings to truly bond? Research says take it slowly.

PATRICIA PAPERNOW: Becoming a stepfamily is a process. It is not an event. It takes time.

GODOY: That's Patricia Papernow. She's a psychologist who's been focusing on stepfamilies for more than 40 years. And she says rushing into a new family is usually not a good idea for kids.

PAPERNOW: The couple's in love. They want to form a family. And oftentimes, they charge ahead. And one of the dilemmas is, as the rate of change goes up, kids' well-being goes down. Kids need to go much more slowly.

GODOY: Of course, Lisa and Kirsten's parents did rush in. But even so, they did a lot of other things right. For example, one thing research has shown is that it's important for parents to create new family rituals that encourage everyone in the stepfamily to bond. Kirsten and Lisa's parents took that seriously. Here's Lisa.

GIRAD: We had to go to church on Sunday as a family. You know, we're going on vacation as a family. We're eating as a family. So it was very family-oriented.

GODOY: While creating new family rituals is important, stepfamily researcher Caroline Sanner says it's also vital to preserve one-on-one time between a parent and their biological child.

SANNER: It's so important for the maintenance of that relationship. I mean, from kids' perspectives, so much is changing when stepfamilies are being formed. Their parent is developing relationships with their new partner and also with their partner's kids.

GODOY: Sanner says that can add to the stress and insecurity the biological kid may be feeling.

SANNER: And that can create feelings of jealousy. But that often comes from something much deeper, which is a feeling of loss or grief or feeling really anxious about the ways in which your relationship with your parent is changing.

GODOY: She says when kids feel secure in their relationship with their biological parent, they're less likely to feel negative towards their stepsiblings, and that helps them be more open to bonding. But she says don't force it.

SANNER: There's so much in this transition that they're not in control of, and so feeling kind of forced to bond with these new family members can be really overwhelming. So allowing them to go at their own pace, really honoring their feelings and the speed at which they want to bond, allows them, I think, to be much more receptive to bonding with their stepsiblings. Whereas, if it feels forced, no one wants to be, you know, in a relationship with someone where it feels forced.

GODOY: Stepmom Kiley Thompson took this to heart when her soon-to-be stepson, Finlay, refused to attend her wedding to his dad, Mark.

KILEY THOMPSON: And it was about two weeks before the wedding that I said to Mark, let him make the choice. This is his choice. He is adamant about it. We cannot force him. And if we do force him, it will set the stage for more resentment further on down the line.

GODOY: Finlay was 11 at the time and didn't end up going. But now, seven years later, she says they've grown close.

THOMPSON: Stepparenting is not a short game. This is a long game. If you're in for the long-term with your new husband or wife, you have to be even longer in there for your stepkids.

GODOY: Instead of forcing the relationship, all the researchers I talked to advised creating opportunities for stepsiblings to bond, whether it's over a shared love of music or sports or video games. And here's another really important tip. When it comes to discipline, Patricia Papernow says the stepparent should stay out of it. She says the research is clear that when stepparents get involved in discipline, their budding relationship with their stepchild can turn toxic.

PAPERNOW: In fact, what works is the parent retains the disciplinary role. The stepparent has lots of input to the parent outside of kids' earshot.

GODOY: And while biological parents are used to hearing that you're not your child's friend, research suggests a friendly support system is what stepparents should try to be.

PAPERNOW: Stepparents need to focus on what I call connection, not correction - building a new relationship, not setting rules.

GODOY: Kirsten and Lisa's parents didn't have this research to guide them, yet they seemed to sense it intuitively.

GIRAD: Anything super heavy-handed probably came from the biological parent. Like, being five minutes past curfew one night got me a month's grounded. That came from my father.

GODOY: Now, Lisa and Kirsten's parents were both widowed. Things can get more complicated when the stepfamily forms as a result of divorce, which is now more common. Sanner says it's important for the stepparent to reassure their stepchild that they are not trying to replace their other parent.

SANNER: So saying explicitly, I know that all of this change might be really hard, and I just want you to know that, you know, I'm on your side, and I'm not here to parent you or be some kind of parent figure.

GODOY: She says creating a more positive relationship between a stepparent and stepchild is vital because it makes it more likely that stepsiblings will get along, too. She says, just remember - like all close relationships, these things take time.

SANNER: When you give stepsiblings, when you give stepfamilies space to really find their own pattern of development instead of forcing a mold upon them, that's where we see positive outcomes.

GODOY: She says the end result might not look like a traditional relationship between biological siblings, and that's OK, too.

Maria Godoy, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST SONG, "CAN I KICK IT?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.