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 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.