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My Daughter Acts Out When Step-Sister Visits

With time, and plenty of opportunity to move through difficult feelings, your children should find their way toward building lifelong bonds. Meanwhile, slow things down, expect hiccups, and make room for the big feelings that come as tender hearts adjust to changes in life's routines.
07/16/2015 11:17am ET | Updated July 16, 2016
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I have an amazing stepdaughter (8) who lives in another state so we don't see her as often as we would like. When we do, they are the best weeks of the year. However, our oldest daughter (5 1/2) instantly becomes a "middle child." She is normally a very outgoing, happy, easy child, but when her half-sister is around, she begins craving attention and acting out. How can we as a family do better to integrate my stepdaughter into our home for short periods of time without being too disruptive to my daughter and son who live at home full time with my husband and me?

You are already doing what is most important for your blended family -- embracing your stepdaughter's presence in your family's life. Here are my thoughts:

Recognize the inevitability of your 5 year old's outbursts. Having a sibling who visits infrequently stirs up all kinds of feelings, from jealousy and resentment to longing and adoration.You are wise to recognize that some of your daughter's misbehavior may come from temporarily losing her position as the oldest in the family, but regardless of the reason, accepting that your 5 year old is likely to regress when her big sister comes around will make it less stressful when she does.

Help your 5-year old feel sad. Our children are going to encounter many, many situations that we cannot fix to their liking. In fact, accommodating change can help kids become more flexible and resilient. The key is in helping your 5 year old feel her sadness. "You were wanting more of mommy's attention, and I was playing with Caroline. This week, you're having to share me with a brother and a sister. Do you want to have a cuddle and a little cry, sweetheart?" By helping her find her tears, she'll more readily move through frustration to adapt to life as it is.

Acknowledge the truth. Some parents bend over backwards to create a happy family out of the children from previous marriages. While that's a wonderful goal, kids need time to get to know one another, particularly when siblings come and go. Don't force your five year old to spend hours with her big sister, or try to convince her that she "should" love her visiting sibling and eagerly share her toys. And be sure to give your eight year old the chance to express what she's going through -- no doubt missing her mom and the rhythm of her familiar life, in addition to getting in touch with feelings about her dad with his new children.

Set special time aside for each child to be alone with you. Your 5 year old is watching your husband suddenly become the object of another child's adoration. Moreover, she is watching him dote on yet another child. That's a lot to take in. Make sure she has plenty of time with you and your husband so she doesn't resent her sister for stealing the affection and attention of mommy and daddy.

Plan plenty of down time. Sometimes non-custodial parents try to cram as much as possible into a week or two. Your 5-year old may have extra trouble adjusting to her sister's presence if life is too full, or moving too fast. Remember that the most precious memories are formed when families just relax and enjoy one another while doing simple things like playing hide and seek or goofing around the dinner table.

With time, and plenty of opportunity to move through difficult feelings, your children should find their way toward building lifelong bonds. Meanwhile, slow things down, expect hiccups, and make room for the big feelings that come as tender hearts adjust to changes in life's routines.

Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected and the brand new Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids (An Eckhart Tolle Edition). She is a family therapist, parent coach and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting.

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