When Jim and Irene Pierce married, they assumed their union would be especially good for each of their boys, John-Michael, 5, an only child, and Jason, 3, the youngest of three. But they ran into a common problem.
"Both boys had always been the center of attention, and neither wanted to give that up," says Jim. "They fought constantly and accused us of playing favorites."
When two families join forces, the kids' places in the family order can change. An only child may find himself having to share attention; a youngest or eldest child may suddenly be a middle one. When this happens, conflicts can arise.
An only child who acquires stepsiblings has to learn how to do two things: share and compromise. Because he's never had to compete for a parent's attention before, he may react by jealously guarding his relationship with his mom or dad.
Arguing with siblings, however, can actually benefit former only kids, say experts, because they learn how to resolve peer conflict and deal with situations in which things may not go completely their way.
Baby No More
When a toddler or a preschooler is suddenly ejected from the role of the baby of the family, it can shake her sense of security. "She may have to wait her turn for attention, or be told to act more like a 'big girl,'" says Dori Winchell, Ph.D., a clinical associate in the department of pediatrics at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine.
Kids in this situation need lots of cuddling and reassurance. Creating rituals, like reading a bedtime story every night, can help restore a child's feelings of being special. Older children, who may be ready to see themselves as a big brother or sister, can be encouraged to help a younger sibling.
When a parent is divorced or widowed, the eldest child—whether he's a preschooler or a teenager—frequently assumes the role of helper. But when someone older joins the family, he may feel a rivalry. "Make sure he doesn't feel replaced," says Barbara Edell Fisher, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Commack, NY. "If it was his job to take out the garbage at night or to help his younger sister with her homework, have that continue to be his responsibility." Parents can also divide up duties so that both older kids feel valued. For instance, if your child always helped in clearing the dishes, put your stepchild in charge of setting the table.
The key, says Fisher, is to let kids adjust at their own pace and to reassure them of your love. Eventually, they'll realize that anything they lost in the shifting of birth order is made up for by having gained new playmates and friends.