As reality TV star Jesse James makes plans to tie the knot for the fourth time -- with reality show tattoo artist Kat Von D -- his 6-year-old daughter, Sunny, is getting acquainted with the second stepmom she's had in five years, while James' two older sons are getting to know their third.
Sunny's first stepmom, Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, famously helped James fight for custody against his second wife -- and Sunny's biological mother -- porn star Janine Lindemulder. Since James and Bullock's divorce last year and James' stints in rehab to tame his personal demons, all three children have been parented by both Bullock and James' first wife, the boys' biological mother, Karla James.
Confused? Experts say the children probably are too. Some express concern that such "serial parenting" could become a source of long-term emotional pain for the children, especially for little Sunny.
Managing stepfamily dynamics has become an issue not just for James and his children. According to a recently released report from the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of adult Americans have some sort of "step" relationship with either a sibling, parent or child -- that's nearly 100 million Americans, not including children. Nearly 17 million men are stepdads, and 14 million women are stepmoms. Fortunately, seven in 10 adults who have at least one step relative say they are very satisfied with their family lives.
"Though not all kids are negatively affected by serial step parenting, we do know it can carry an emotional residue that can impact them both now and in the future," said Ron L. Deal, co-author of "The Remarriage Checkup" and a family therapist in Amarillo, Texas. "Studies show that kids who've had multiple parents tend to have a harder time emotionally, psychologically and academically."
One of the biggest initial adjustments for any child is learning each new parent's personality and style. When a stable and consistent caregiver like Bullock, with whom the children have formed a deep, emotional bond, is removed from the day to day picture and Von D steps in, the kids may wonder how best to please her. They'll have to learn a whole new set of rules and preferences.
Bobbi McDonald, a family therapist in Newport Beach, Calif., who has worked with celebrity families, said that dealing with multiple parental personalities can sometimes create a lack of consistency and skew children's expectations of unconditional love.
"They can respond by either becoming accommodators or closing themselves off," said McDonald. "Either way, this has implications for how they approach all of their relationships as they move forward in life."
Learning a New Order
Learning a new order can be highly upsetting at first, especially for younger children, but Deal of "The Remarriage Checkup" said that if the adults stay tuned in to the children's needs and everyone is invested in having it work out, things can settle down within a few years. But sometimes not everyone is as invested as they might be.
Lesley Hoenig of Michigan recalled what happened when she was 14 and her father remarried. "My stepmom seemed intent on shutting us kids out ... and was incapable of being civil to my mother," she said.
Hoenig, who got along with her stepfather just fine, said she only had to endure living with her stepmother for two years before she left for college. But even now, she said, the four parents find it difficult to get along when all four are in a room together.
Serial parenting, however, isn't always a bad thing for children. Mariesa Stokes, an account executive in Alabama, had two stepmothers and two stepfathers growing up, and said that though she was confused at first, she came to view it as an advantage.
"They always put my needs first in the relationships and were first and foremost always there for me. I could go to different ones for different things, which gave me a lot more options than kids who had just two parents."
As a stepmother herself now, Stokes said the experience of multiple stepparents gave her a lot of valuable insight. "My many role models taught me that my commitment is to my two stepsons and not only to their father," she said.
Jeff Brown, a Harvard psychologist and author of "The Competitive Edge," said this sort of collaborative serial parenting is essential if children are to feel safe and secure, and to reduce the stress of so much change.
"Some parents get caught up in conflict and can be self-centered, but you must make an effort to be civil no matter what. You don't want your kids caught in the middle," he said.
It's also important to pay attention to the stealthier psychological effects a "stepmob" can have on children. For example, many adults fail to notice the accumulated sense of small losses some children may experiencel.
"Each transition can mean a new school, new house and a new extended family, which often means leaving the old ones behind," Deal said. "Parents can underestimate how significant these losses are for the child because they are busy getting on with their own lives.
Preserve Ties to Departing StepparentA lot of thought must be given to the reshuffling of relationships as well. Unless there is a clear reason to break the connection with an exiting stepparent, Brown advises preserving ties to allow children some consistency. "If the parent suddenly up and departs, it can potentially create abandonment issues."
Brown said that integrating a new parental relationship into the mix should be done as gradually as possible to allow all parties to become comfortable and familiar with one another.
That means Von D should take some time to ease into the James' family dynamics long before she and Jesse walk down the aisle. "The plan must be thoughtful, planned and strategic," said Brown, "to let kids sort out their allegiances."