Ask Amy: Advice for the Real World

DEAR AMY: My mother was a single mom for most of my childhood. I was an only child. When I was 18, my mama got remarried. My step-dad and I get along really well, so no problems there.

I don’t call my stepfather “Dad.” I call him by his name, “Jack.”

This has never been an issue, but my little sister, “Anna,” seems to have a problem with it.

My little sister was born two years after our mom and Jack got married. I am 28 and she is 8 years old.

She has commented several times on the fact that I call my stepdad by his name instead of calling him “Daddy,” and it’s clear that this really bothers her.

We don’t want to just ignore the issue, but at the same time, we’re not really sure how to deal with it without accidentally making it worse.

She’s a smart kid, but she’s also a bit developmentally behind, and so explaining to her the idea of stepparents and half-siblings is a little bit daunting.

How do you tell a kid, “Well, your dad is not related to me the same way he is to you” without making her think there’s something wrong, when she still has trouble identifying that our cousins (who are very close in age to her) are our cousins, and not her aunts?

We tried telling her that I call him by his first name because I’m a grown-up, but it wasn’t very effective in putting her mind to rest. Do you have any suggestions for how I can handle this?

— Big Sister Brenda

Dear Big Sister: Telling your sister that you call your stepfather by his first name because you are a “grown-up” is just not true, and this might continue to be an issue for the girl because she wonders why her family members aren’t being truthful about something so important to her.

Eight-year-olds are naturally curious about family relationships. This is completely appropriate. You and your family members need to stop acting like this is some strange, scandalous or unfathomable mystery, and simply explain the family tree to someone who deserves to understand it.

Get out two pieces of paper. Cut out headshots of all of the pertinent parties (including your sister), and tape them to the papers. Label one “Brenda’s family tree” and the other “Anna’s family tree.” Include both your father and stepfather in your family tree, and also include her.

Your mother needs to be transparent about her previous marriage and explain that she was divorced for many years before Anna was born.

Tell Anna about meeting her for the first time when she was a baby, and how tiny and cute she was, and how happy you were to finally have a sister.

While you’re at it, you could build this family tree outward so that your sister understands the distinction between aunts and cousins. This is the essence of the “teachable moment.”

Contact Amy Dickinson at: askamy@amydickinson.com