Family Life

Blended Families: Dealing with Biological Favoritism

Preparing for your very first marriage, for both parties, takes a lot of time and planning. You want to work cohesively on your future together, and maybe, some day, have children. But then there’s a whole other group of newlyweds–those who are marrying for the second or (possibly) third time, many bringing in children from their previous relationship. “Blending” families together takes an extra special amount of cooperation from all involved.

“Managing a newly-blended family will always require a period of adjustment,” says Cheryl Brodnax, a Provisional Licensed Professional Counselor with Crossroads Professional Counseling. “Couples entering a new marriage will have to navigate a myriad of new experiences, and much more when there are children that enter the new family 
with them.”

One of many issues that may arise within the new family unit is something referred to as “biological favoritism.” Biological favoritism is defined as situations where the mother or father will show more leniency towards their own biological children than they do towards their stepchildren. Or, they may shower their biological children with many gifts on their birthday, but they might not do the same when it is their stepchildren’s birthdays. These unfortunate scenarios can even occur to the biological half-siblings who are the products of second marriages.

Natasha Stewart and her young son are currently experiencing biological favoritism in their new family unit. 

“My husband bought my stepson a $1,000 dirt bike for his birthday, but he doesn’t want to do anything for my son’s birthday,” she begins. “Another example, he bought himself and his son a drone at the store, and took my son with them. He didn’t buy my son anything and then he got mad when my son touched the drone later that night. My son was excited that it was left unattended and felt it was his turn to play with it.”

Instances like Stewart’s aren’t uncommon. Brodnax shares, “I have worked with families that have struggled with lack of parity in terms of discipline between biological and stepchildren. In these cases, stepparents have wanted stricter consequences for infractions than biological parents were willing to give.”

Parents and stepparents are not the only ones who may give preferential treatment to biological children. Cases have shown many instances where grandparents, aunts, uncles and other non-immediate family members may do the same. They may shower pricey gifts on the biological grandkids, and leave the stepchildren out.

Kristina Dezendorf is in her second marriage and has two sons, one from her previous marriage who is 15, and a son from her current marriage, who is 7. She says her current in-laws have always treated her older son with kindness and respect, and would often have him over for sleepovers when he was younger

However, biological favoritism is something that Dezendorf is very aware of. She grew up in a blended family with one biological brother, four step siblings and a half-brother, Michael, who is the product of her mother’s and stepfather’s marriage. Michael was the “victim” of biological favoritism on his father’s side. Although he was their full biological grandson, he did not receive the same kind of attention from his paternal grandparents that his older half siblings received, making it feel as if he were in the role of a stepchild as well.

“When Michael came along, my mother-in-law would maybe bring him something like a shirt, but she would give hundreds of dollars of items to the four older biological grandchildren,” Dezendorf explains. This even continued on as Michael grew older. “When these grandparents passed away, the four grandchildren received inheritances, but Michael wasn’t included at all.”

In addressing a situation such as this, Brodnax says it’s reasonable for biological parents to ask the grandparents to respect the blended family as a whole, without ostracizing the stepchildren. “It’s for the overall good of the family unit,” she says.

Alex P. is also in her second marriage. She did not have any children from her first marriage, but her husband has twin boys who are now 21, and she and her husband have a 4-year-old son together. “We have a blended family that is sweet and wonderful and I wouldn’t change it for anything,” she says. 

Alex explains that there have not been any signs of biological favoritism from family members. However, her friends have given their unsolicited advice and opinions when it comes to her stepsons and her relationship with them.

“I’ve had friends say to me, ‘They’re not your children; you’re not supposed to correct them’ and ‘You don’t need to spend your money on them’,” she says. “Their mom has not really been in the picture and my husband has raised them from the time they were six, and then I came in as the maternal figure a few years later.”

Alex shares that one day, while having a conversation about the boys with her now former friend regarding discipline, buying cars, and an issue she had with one of the stepsons, her friend said, “I don’t even understand why you’re having this conversation with him! He’s not your son.” Her “friend” also told her that she didn’t understand why Alex was weighing in on what her husband and she were going to buy the boys for vehicles. She said, “That’s not your decision; it’s their dad’s decision.”

Communication, like with most relationships, is crucial in successfully navigating through biological favoritism and the dynamics of blended families. Having those important conversations will help parents in the long run 

“Knowing what you’re getting into is important for parents to talk about,” advises Dr. Christine Belaire, a Clinical Mental Health Counselor. “The danger is throwing kids into situations they’re not prepared for, and then all of a sudden, trying to make it work. Communicating early, communicating ahead of time helps. Discuss things like, ‘What do our households look like? How are they different? What are our values? What do we want to be important for our family?,’ and really defining what the family structure is going to look like.”

Brodnax also adds that the “divide and conquer” approach does not do much to create a unified household, which is key in this situation. “The [divide and conquer approach] will bring about an uneven application of house rules,” she adds. “The integrity of the husband-wife relationship sets the tone for the rest of the household.”

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