Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Support children so stepmom's influence doesn't hold sway
Richmond: My sister passed away a few years ago, leaving behind two children and her husband. They were married for a long time, and he is a part of our family. He remarried in 2006 to a single mother of one. We support his decision, attended the wedding and have accepted her as a sister-in-law.
Our family and mutual friends have noted that the new bride does not treat the children equally. A recent example occurred while we were visiting them. My 14-year-old niece developed severe stomach cramps, which reduced her to tears. Her father, her brother, my wife and I offered solace, took her to bed and offered care, while the new mother stayed in her chair and watched TV.
Is there anything I can do to help the situation? Should I bring it up to the husband? Should I talk to the children and see how they feel? Should I ask the children questions when they sometimes make fleeting references to a disconnect with their new mom? Or should I leave it to them and stay out of it?
Carolyn: I would suggest showing all the kids equivalent attention (equal is almost its own insult) when you're around, so they get the message that their stepmother is just one person and not representative of a great big unfair world.
I would suggest, when they make their fleeting disconnect references, asking the kids how they feel about it, since being heard and validated is a powerful counterweight to invalidation in other areas.
And I would suggest being careful not to regard snapshots of your time with this family as the absolute truth of their home life. I look at the example you cite and think, your niece had her father and three other people tending to her — maybe the stepmother felt awkward joining in just to join in, and opted to let the girl's dad take care of it? Not to be an apologist for her, just to put in a general plug for truths that aren't readily apparent: Maybe the stepmother feels tense with all of you watching her, maybe she's trying, maybe your niece creates drama, maybe she and your nephew stonewall the stepmom.
The fact that there are other family and friends who are worried about this does suggest you're right about her emotional distance — but that also means there are more of you involved and in a position to help. If you alone model equivalent treatment to all three kids, that's a pointed message; if you all make that effort, that's a powerful message. Center your involvement with this family around the three children combined, and bring the stepmother into that center.
It doesn't even have to be that deliberate. Just being a collective, steady presence in these kids' lives can make a significant difference. It may be that the stepmother never treats your brother's kids as she does her own child; you can't make her feel more love than she has, or make her act with more character than she has. But you can diminish her emotional influence over these kids simply by proportion — more of you automatically means less of her.