Return to site

Conflict in a Blended Family

By Elisabeth Seaman, Coauthor of "Conflict-The Unexpected Gift"

Seventeen-year-old Jessie and nineteen-year-old Alicia are stepsisters, who have lived in the same household for six years. The two of them have had many differences of opinion and outright arguments during those six years. Jessie feels that Alicia is always telling her what to do or how to do things, whereas Alicia feels she is looking out for and helping Jessie.

Recently, Jessie was planning a weekend camping trip with some of her friends and their parents. After overhearing some of Jessie’s phone conversations with her friends, Alicia gave Jessie all kinds of unsolicited advice about not getting caught up in possible questionable behavior by her friends during the outing. She cautioned Jessie that some of her friends might use pot and she might get sexual overtures from other kids.

Jessie was outraged at Alicia’s remarks and innuendos regarding the possible behavior of some of her friends. Jessie scolded Alicia, telling her in no uncertain terms that Alicia had met only a few of her friends and didn’t really know any of them. Jessie got so upset with Alicia that she yelled at her, even calling her names.

Here are Alicia’s and Jessie’s respective Ladders of Assumption that they raced up about each other.

The first place to begin in resolving a conflict is with the Ladder of Assumptions.

Alicia's Ladder of Assumptions

Setting. My home.

Facts. Jessie spoke with her friends about the plans they were making about a

future camping trip. I spoke to Jessie following several of her conversations with her friends.

Interpretations. Jessie is an innocent, inexperienced young girl who has no idea of what 17-year-old girls and boys might get swept up in doing in the heat of the moment on a camping trip.

Motives. Jessie wants me to stop butting into her life, and quit trying to run it as if she couldn’t think for herself. She is convinced her own judgments are sound. She likes her friends and can’t imagine them doing anything wrong on the trip.

Generalizations. Younger sisters are ingénues, who need to be protected from situations that they think are perfectly safe but in truth are often fraught with peril. They are stubborn and unwilling to take advice from older sisters.

Actions. I told Jessie exactly what she needed to do to avoid getting entrapped

Jessie's Ladder of Assumptions

Setting. My home.

Facts. I was speaking with my friends in private about the plans we were making to go on a camping trip. Alicia heard my conversations with them.

Interpretations. Alicia is a mean know-it-all, who talks condescendingly to me as if I know nothing about how to plan a camping trip with my friends.

Motives. Alicia tries to undermine my judgment about planning a camping trip, and convince me that she knows best how I should make decisions about the trip.

Generalizations. Older sisters constantly lord it over their younger sisters, in order to maintain their self-image as the wisest and most knowledgeable daughter in the family.

Actions. I got so mad at Alicia that I yelled at her and called her names.


Martha, Alicia’s mother and Jessie’s stepmother, heard the argument and asked what was going on. Jessie said that Alicia was always butting into her life and trying to run it as if she couldn’t think for herself. Alicia said she was only trying to protect Jessie.

Martha asked Jessie whether she thought there was any validity to what Alicia was warning her about. Jessie agreed that some kids take the liberty of doing things away from home that they wouldn’t do with their parents around, but she knew her particular friends wouldn’t do any of the things Alicia was warning her about. She also said she felt angry and hurt that Alicia would even hint that her friends might “misbehave”. She felt that Alicia didn’t trust her judgment and felt that she couldn’t handle herself in an unexpected situation.

Martha asked Alicia how she felt about Jessie and her capacity for taking care of herself. Alicia admitted that she thought Jessie was not only smart, but responsible and generally a good judge of character. However she thought Jessie had some things to learn about handling unexpected situations. Alicia added that she only wanted to help Jessie learn these things, because she loved her sister.

Alicia told Jessie she was sorry she had offended and hurt her, and asked Jessie to forgive her. She added that in the future she would try to respect Jessie’s views and feelings and if she had any concerns about anything regarding Jessie, she’d like to discuss them with her in a friendly way.

Jessie was touched by Alicia’s acknowledgment of her feelings and her declaration of love. She agreed that in the future she’d like to discuss her own questions and concerns with Alicia. She forgave Alicia. The sisters hugged each other and began talking about how they could treat each other better in the future.

One sister asking for forgiveness and the other accepting it exemplifies three principles of good apologies:

  • Express regret for what was done that was hurtful to another.
  • Be honest and sincere in expressing a genuine apology to the person offended.
  • Make a sincere effort to make things right in the future.

What conflict would you like to resolve? 


To resolve conflicts, begin with the Ladder of Assumptions.

What do you think? We'd love to hear from you!

Conflict Resolution Handbook by Jack Hamilton and Elisabeth Seaman