How to Protect Your Stepfamily from Favoritism

How to Protect Your Stepfamily from Favoritism

Do you secretly have a favorite child in your stepfamily?  You know…the one that's easy to connect with and just melts your heart with that adorable smile.

It's common for us to gravitate more easily toward one particular child — this is true even in first family dynamics.  But in a stepfamily it's the biological connections that more naturally hold a special place in our hearts.  But what does that say about the step-relationships?  How does this play out in our daily lives of juggling responsibilities, disciplining and prioritizing our time?

Mine and Ours 

I'll never forget how proud Mike was when our daughter Phoebe was born.  It was his first biological child and he was over the moon. 

I wondered how my 7 year old daughter Annika (his step-daughter) was feeling as Mike showed off Phoebe to family and friends, delighting in every little detail of her being.  Did she feel displaced or jealous…did she feel like she had to compete for his love and favor

Only 17 months later our son Jacob was born.  How would these two "ours" kids impact Annika and her relationship with Mike?  I wondered if he would favor our mutual children or if he would treat all the kids in the same way.

Love vs Favor

The question we wrestle with is this:  Should step-parents be expected to love a step-child the same way they love their bio-child? 

We really can't expect love to magically happen in step relationships - it takes time for connection to grow.  You may love your spouse madly and therefore 'love' their child because they're a part of your spouse…but that doesn't guarantee that genuine affection for a step-child will automatically become a reality.  There really is no such thing as 'instant love' when it comes to blending two families.

The truth is, showing favor is different than love…and favor is a double-edged sword.  It can be relatively easy for a step-parent to favor a step-child — behave friendly, supportive and kind toward them.  But when bio-children are part of the dynamic, this can become something else altogether.  Favor tends to look more like preferential treatment or favoritism toward those with biological ties.

While love is an emotion that grows over time, showing favor is a behavior that we choose.

Honest Communication

Soon after our mutual children arrived, Mike honestly shared his conflicting emotions with me.  He'd grown to love Annika, but his love for her was different than his love for Phoebe and Jacob. 

I understood this, but it also hurt my heart a little bit.  I didn't want his unique connection to our mutual kids to hinder his growing affection for Annika.  I also felt protective and concerned for her — I didn't want her to feel 'less than' or 'left out' if Mike showed favoritism toward the other kids.

This was a touchy topic, but the more we communicated about the realities of our dynamic and expressed our feelings and fears, the easier it became.  Continual communication helped us to make better decisions when those awkward situations came along.   This wasn't always easy, but it was well worth the effort. 

I'm grateful Mike realized that the difference he felt in his affection for Annika compared to the younger kids should not translate into inequity in the way he treated all of them.  We stayed connected and worked as a team to openly consider how our decisions and behaviors were impacting all the kids.

We took notice of how each child responded to certain situations where favoritism might become an issue.  Sibling rivalry is a predictable outcome of parental favoritism, so we were vigilant in watching for signs that there could be a problem.  We didn't always get it perfect, but we did our best to show equality for all the kids. 

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Favoritism Traps

In his article Playing Favorites Can Wreak Havoc in a Stepfamily, expert Ron Deal reveals four areas where stepfamilies tend to struggle with favoritism.  Here are some helpful tips to help all of us avoid favoritism traps:

1. Gift Giving -  From You or Others 

You don't have to spend the exact same amount of money on each child for birthdays or special occasions.  How much you spend will be influenced by the age of the child, their likes, interests and developmental maturity.  Regardless of the dollar amount, you can still be equitable in your giving.

If you've purposed in your heart to treat all the kids fairly, then over time it will all balance out because you aren't overtly favoring one child over another.  If necessary, you can even request that grandparents or extended family to generally spend the same amount of money on all the children.

2. Prioritizing Your Time 

One-on-one time between bio-parents and their kids is important; however, it should be balanced with focused time for everyone in the family.  You need to communicate your commitment to your kids and step-kids.  So, adjust your schedule and look for opportunities to make a personal connection with every child in your stepfamily — even if it's something small.

3. Disciplining or Extending Leniency

Strive to be objective and fair.  You'll need to discuss and agree how behavioral issues in your home will be handled so that disciplinary decisions are balanced and consistent for all.  Also be careful about positioning parental authority — this is a common challenge for step-couples.  

4. Chores and Responsibilities

Don't burden some children more than others.  Make the expectations clear to all the kids and follow through when they aren't met.  Even kids who are only in your home part-time need to learn life skills and responsibility, so everyone should be given age appropriate jobs around the house.

Take Action

The complex dynamics in stepfamilies often lead to certain vulnerabilities.  Favoritism is one that can wreak havoc and cause a lot of pain.  But you don't have to fall into these traps.  

I encourage you to talk openly as a couple — even if it's hard to admit you've got a "favorite".  The different feelings you may have for each child doesn't mean those feelings are about 'better' or 'worse'.  It just means the emotions you're experiencing are different — and that's okay. 

Choose to communicate with each other and make wise decisions that are equitable for everyone.

QUESTION:  Which of the 4 Favoritism Traps might your stepfamily be experiencing? Leave a comment below…

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