Stepfamilies consist of at least one minor child who is living with a biological parent and that parent's spouse—a stepparent—who is not the child's other biological parent. According to Larry Bumpass, James Sweet, and Teresa Castro Martin (1990), approximately one-half of all marriages are a remarriage for at least one partner. In 1992, 15 percent of all children in the United States lived with a mother and a stepfather (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1995). An estimated one-third of U.S. children will live in a stepfamily household before they reach adulthood. Although the remarriage rates are lower, similar prevalence rates have been reported in Canada and Europe. The large number of parents and children who live in stepfamilies has prompted researchers to study how well family members adjust to living in a stepfamily.
A parenting role can be defined as a set of beliefs pertaining to how parents should behave. The beliefs included in a parenting role are reflected in how a parent behaves toward the children. Two types of parenting behaviors that are a part of the parenting role—control and warmth—have been identified as being particularly important for child development. Control refers to the degree to which parents set and enforce limits and monitor their children's activities. Warmth refers to the extent to which parents communicate with, show caring toward, and support their children. Empirical evidence has consistently shown that the more parents exhibit both control and warmth (referred to as an authoritative parenting style), the more positive is children's adjustment (Steinberg, El-men, and Mounts 1989). However, there is an important caveat to consider. Some evidence suggests that authoritative parenting may not be the ideal approach among certain ethnic groups, such as African- and Asian-Americans. For some children in these groups, an authoritarian parenting style (consisting of lower levels of warmth and high levels of control) may be most conducive to positive growth and development.
The Stepparent Role
Research has suggested that the stepparent role, according to the beliefs, reported behaviors, and observed behaviors of stepparents, is a less active one than is the role of the biological parent. Mark Fine and Lawrence Kurdek (1994) found that step-parents believe they are less active—and should be less active—as parents than are biological parents. These differences were present in both the warmth and control aspects of the parenting role, although they were strongest in the warmth dimension. However, there also appear to be differences among members of stepfamilies in how actively they believe the stepparent should parent. According to a study by Mark Fine, Marilyn Coleman, and Lawrence Ganong (1998), stepchildren reported that stepparents should be less active as parents than was reported by stepparents and parents in their stepfamilies. In addition, stepchildren were more likely than parents and stepparents to report that the stepparent should play the role of "friend" rather than "parent" or "stepparent." Based on these results and others, Fine, Coleman, and Ganong concluded that "stepparents generally believe that they should play a more active role in parenting than do their stepchildren and, on some dimensions, than their spouses" (1999, p. 290). Because most parents and stepparents report believing that stepparents should function as parents, these authors suggested that the adults in stepfamilies often attempt to recreate their families in the image of a first-marriage, intact family.
When stepparents are asked how they actually behave, not just what their beliefs are, they also report being less active as parents than do biological parents. In a sample of stepfamilies included in the National Survey of Families and Households (Fine, Voydanoff, and Donnelly 1993), stepfathers reported behaving less positively and less negatively toward their stepchildren than did fathers, indicating that they refrain from becoming involved with their stepchildren. However, stepmothers reported responding as positively to their stepchildren as did biological mothers in stepfamilies, although they responded less negatively. This suggests that stepfathers may be less active in demonstrating warmth to children than are fathers, but that stepmothers show as much warmth to children as biological mothers. Moreover, these findings suggest that stepmothers may be more active in parenting than stepfathers, which may partially explain the commonly noted observation that stepmothers have greater adjustment difficulties than stepfathers (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000; McBride 2001).
Finally, in some studies, observers have rated the actual parenting behaviors of stepparents and biological parents. Most of these studies have assessed stepfathers and not stepmothers. As is consistent with the previously discussed studies, these investigations indicate that stepfathers are less active as parents than are biological fathers. In these studies, stepfathers, compared with biological fathers, were less involved with, showed less awareness of, and exerted less discipline over their stepchildren (Hetherington and Clingempeel 1992). When stepfathers in newly formed stepfamilies tried to establish a positive relationship with the stepchild by talking and sharing activities, these efforts were often met with resistance, particularly when the stepchild was an adolescent. Despite this resistance, many stepfathers continued to try to remain involved in the lives of their stepchildren. Over time, however, because of continued resistance or distancing behaviors on the part of the stepchild, most of these stepfathers stopped trying to establish close stepfather-stepchild relationships. There is some evidence, however, that it pays off for stepfathers to be persistent. According to Ganong and his colleagues (1999), those stepfathers who made consistent and repeated attempts to elicit liking from their stepchildren were rewarded with more enriching and satisfying stepparent-stepchild relationships.
Clarity of the Stepparent Role
There is considerable evidence that the parenting role of the stepparent is ambiguous or unclear (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000). The lack of clarity of the stepparent role is reflected in the notion that there are several plausible ways that the role of the stepparent can be filled. The following are some, but not all, of these possible ways to fill the stepparent role: to act "just like" a parent to the stepchild; to act like a supportive friend to the stepchild; to support the disciplinary policies of the biological parent without independently establishing and enforcing rules of one's own; and to not become involved in the stepchild's life. In the absence of clear social norms, stepparents may not know which of these ways, or others, is the most desirable way for them to fill the stepparent role. In fact, although stepparents understandably experience the most ambiguity about the role of the stepparent (Fine, Coleman, and Ganong 1998), biological parents and stepchildren also may not be sure how they think the stepparent should act. Further, as noted earlier, there often are also disagreements within stepfamilies about the appropriate stepparent role, as parents and stepparents believe that the stepparent should serve as a parenting figure, whereas stepchildren are more likely to believe that the stepparent should try to be a "friend" to them (Fine, Coleman, and Ganong 1998).
Adjustment in Stepfamilies
There has been a great deal of scholarly attention devoted to the issue of how well family members adjust to living in a stepfamily. Most of this research has focused on stepchildren. Children living in stepfamilies, on average, do more poorly than children living in first-marriage families (and similarly to children in single-parent families) in the areas of academic achievement (e.g., grades), psychological well-being (e.g., depression), and behavior problems (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000). However, as Coleman and her colleagues suggest, the differences in adjustment between children in stepfamilies and those in first-marriage families are relatively small and it is possible that the differences are due to a variety of factors in addition to or instead of living in a stepfamily. For example, stepchildren tend to leave home earlier than do children from first marriage families, which may explain their higher school drop-out rate. Further, despite group differences between stepchildren and children living in first-marriage families, most stepchildren do well in school, are psychologically well-adjusted, and have few behavior problems.
How well do stepchildren fare as adults? Recent research has yielded somewhat mixed findings, but most studies, including a major one conducted in the United Kingdom (Rodgers 1994), have found that having parents who remarried is not related to adjustment and the development of emotional problems in adulthood (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000).
Remarriage does not appear to have clear and straightforward effects on the adjustment of adults. There is some evidence that remarried adults have higher levels of depression than adults in first marriages, but other studies have reported that remarried individuals are less distressed than those who are divorced and that remarriage is not related to psychological well-being, including a study in the United Kingdom (Richards, Hardy, and Wadsworth 1997). These mixed results suggest that a variety of factors appear to have more influence on adults' well-being and psychological adjustment than does remarriage per se.
There has been very little research into how well members of ethnic and racial minority families adjust to living in a stepfamily; the limited evidence suggests that African-American members of stepfather families may be slightly, but significantly, more depressed than their white counterparts, perhaps because stepfamilies are relatively less common in the African-American community and because extensive kin networks may complicate the successful integration of a new adult into African-American families (Fine, McKenry, Donnelly, and Voydanoff 1992).
Stepparent Role and Adjustment
There is evidence that the stepparent role and the extent to which the role is clear are related to the adjustment of members of stepfamilies. In terms of the nature of the stepparent role, children's adjustment is facilitated when stepparents, at least initially, do not take an active role in discipline. James H. Bray (1999) found that stepparent-stepchild relations and child adjustment were most positive when stepfathers did not actively discipline their stepchildren, but rather supported the disciplinary practices of the child's biological parent. However, over time, stepparents may assume a more active and a more effective parenting role. In Bray's study, after two and one-half years in the stepfamily, stepparents were able to play key parental roles and authoritative parenting behaviors were related to positive child adjustment.
With respect to clarity regarding the stepparent role, there is evidence that greater stepparent role clarity is associated with some dimensions of adjustment. For example, Kurdek and Fine (1991) found that high levels of stepparent role clarity were related to mothers' reports of family/marital/personal life satisfaction and stepfathers' reports of parenting satisfaction. This may indicate that parenting is a more vulnerable and less comfortable area than personal life satisfaction for step-fathers, and the reverse may be true for mothers. Similarly, Fine, Kurdek, and Lorraine Hennigen (1992) found that adolescents who were not clear about their stepmother's role tended to see themselves as low in self-competence. Finally, Fine, Coleman, and Ganong (1998) extended these earlier findings by showing that, when the parent and stepparent were more confident in their views about how the stepparent should behave, their marital, (step)parent-(step)child, and family relationships were more satisfying. How confident stepchildren were about how the stepparent should behave was not related to how satisfied they were with their family relationships or to their individual adjustment.
Interactions Within Stepfamilies
Because the differences in adjustment between members of stepfamilies and members of other types of families are generally small in magnitude, researchers have turned their attention to factors that are associated with positive adjustment in stepfamilies. Several researchers have found that interaction patterns in stepfamilies are similar to those in first-marriage families. In particular, many long-term stepfamilies function quite similarly to first-marriage families (Coleman, Ganong, and Fine 2000). In contrast, several studies have found that members of stepfamilies report that their families are more stressful, less cohesive and adaptable, and have less positive relations between stepparents and stepchildren. These contrasting findings may be explained by the length of time that the stepfamily has been in existence. Newly formed stepfamilies may have more problematic interaction patterns than do first-marriage families; however, if the stepfamily remains intact for several years, interaction patterns may become similar to those in first-marriage families.
In what ways are interactions within stepfamilies related to the adjustment of stepfamily members? Most studies have found that the same types of family interaction patterns that are conducive to positive adjustment in first-marriage families also facilitate well-being in stepfamilies. For example, Fine and Kurdek (1992) found that the adjustment of young adolescents in stepfamilies was more positive to the extent that they characterized their families (and not just their parents) as providing high levels of supervision, warmth, and order, and low levels of conflict. However, there is also some indication that, particularly in recently formed step-families, family members' adjustment is facilitated by somewhat less cohesiveness than is the case in first-marriage families (Waldren et al. 1990), indicating that the lower levels of cohesiveness in step-families relative to first-marriage families may be adaptive.
Stepfamilies and the Law
Although there has been very little study of this issue, it is possible that interaction patterns in step-families are affected by the legal circumstances facing them. Unfortunately, stepparents and stepchildren have an ambiguous legal relationship to one another, because existing laws do not dictate what a stepparent's responsibilities and rights are with respect to his or her stepchild. The only way that a stepparent can be guaranteed to have the rights and responsibilities associated with being a parent is to adopt the stepchild, but this usually requires that the child's biological parent relinquish parental rights. Thus, U.S. law assumes that a child should only have concurrent legal relationships with two adults. By contrast, in the United Kingdom, according to the Children Act 1989, a stepparent (and selected other third parties) has the option of applying for a "residence order," which gives him or her almost the same rights as a parent. Thus, within this system, a stepchild can have legal relationships with three adults (or even more) at one time. Very little research has examined the impact of this British law, but it seems plausible that stepchildren and stepparents, particularly those who have a close relationship, might have an advantage with a secure and clear legal tie to one another.
Stepfamilies have become an increasingly common feature of the family landscape. Stepparents seem to be less involved with their stepchildren than biological parents are with their children, and the role of the stepparent seems to be less clear than the role of the biological parent. In addition, there is evidence that stepchildren fare somewhat more poorly on most adjustment dimensions than do their counterparts from first-marriage families, although the small magnitude of the differences suggests that a host of other factors play a more prominent role in determining children's wellbeing than the type of family the child lives in. Furthermore, there is growing evidence that the adjustment of stepfamily members is related to beliefs about the stepparent role and the extent to which the stepparent role is clear. However, to be most helpful to stepfamily members, a great deal of additional research is needed on the roles that stepparents play, how these roles affect the wellbeing of stepfamily members, and how a variety of family-related factors (such as family interaction patterns and not just the type of family the child lives in) are related to the adjustment of stepfamily members.
See also:Child Custody; Communication: Family Relationships; Conflict: Couple Relationships; Conflict: Family Relationships; Conflict: Parent-Child Relationships; Discipline; Divorce: Effects on Children; Parenting Styles; Remarriage
bray, j. h. (1999). "from marriage to remarriage and beyond: findings from the developmental issues in stepfamilies research project." in coping with divorce, single parenting, and remarriage: a risk andresiliency perspective, ed. e. m. hetherington. mahwah, nj: erlbaum.
bumpass, l. l.; sweet, j. a.; and cherlin, a. (1991). "the role of cohabitation in declining rates of marriage." journal of marriage and the family 52:747–756.
coleman, m.; ganong, l.; and fine, m. (2000). "reinvestigating remarriage: another decade of progress." journal of marriage and the family 62:1288–1307.
fine, m. a.; coleman, m.; and ganong, l. h. (1998). "consistency in perceptions of the step-parent role among stepparents, parents, and stepchildren." journal of social and personal relationships 15:811–829.
fine, m. a.; ganong, l. h.; and coleman, m. (1999). "a social constructionist multi-method approach to understanding the stepparent role." in coping with divorce, single-parenthood and remarriage: a risk and resiliency perspective, ed. e. m. hetherington. mahwah, nj: erlbaum.
fine, m. a., and kurdek, l. a. (1992). "the adjustment of adolescents in stepfather and stepmother families." journal of marriage and the family 54:725–736.
fine, m. a., and kurdek, l. a. (1994). "parenting cognitions in stepfamilies: differences between parents and stepparents and relations to parenting satisfaction." journal of social and personal relationships 11:95–112.
fine, m. a.; kurdek, l. a.; and hennigen, l. (1992). "perceived self-competence and its relations to stepfamily myths and (step)parent role ambiguity in adolescents from stepfather and stepmother families." journal of family psychology 6:69–76.
fine, m. a.; mckenry, p. c.; donnelly, b. w.; and voydanoff, p. (1992). "perceived adjustment of parents and children: variations by family structure, race, and gender." journal of marriage and the family 54:118–127.
fine, m. a.; voydanoff, p.; and donnelly, b. w. (1993). "relations between parental control and warmth and child well-being in stepfamilies." journal of family psychology 7:222–232.
ganong, l. h.; coleman, m.; fine, m. a.; and martin, p. (1999). "stepparents' affinity-seeking and affinity-maintaining strategies in stepfamilies." journal of family issues 20:299–327.
hetherington, e. m., and clingempeel, w. g. (1992). "coping with marital transitions: a family systems perspective." monographs of the society for research in child development 57(2–3):serial no. 227.
kurdek, l. a., and fine, m. a. (1991). "cognitive correlates of adjustment for mothers and stepfathers instepfather families." journal of marriage and the family 53:565–572.
mcbride, j. (2001). encouraging words for new stepmothers. ft. collins, co: cdr press.
richards, m.; hardy, r.; and wadsworth, m. (1997). "the effects of divorce and separation on mental health in a national uk birth cohort." psychological medicine 27:1121–1128.
rodgers, b. (1994). "pathways between parental divorce and adult depression." journal of child psychology and psychiatry 35:1289–1294.
steinberg, l.; el-men, j. d.; and mounts, n. s. (1989). "authoritative parenting, psychological maturity, and academic success among adolescents." child development 60:1424–1436.
u. s. bureau of the census (1995). statistical abstract of the united states: 1995. 115th edition. washington, dc: u. s. government printing office.
waldren, t.; bell, n.; peek, c.; and sorell, g. (1990). "cohesion and adaptability in post-divorce remarried and first-married families: relationships with family stress and coping styles." journal of divorce and remarriage 14:13–28.
MARK A. FINE
JEAN A. MCBRIDE
A stepfamily is formed by the marriage or long-term cohabitation of two individuals, when one or both have at least one child from a previous relationship living part-time or full-time in the household. The individual who is not the biological parent of the child or children is referred to as the stepparent. Stepfamilies are also called blended families.
Stepfamilies merge unrelated parents and children into a family unit that, with time and emotional work, can function as effectively as a traditional nuclear family. For children previously living in a single-parent family, a stepfamily can provide a more structured family environment with positive influences from two parental figures. For parents, a stepfamily can provide social support for new couples and new, emotionally rewarding relationships with biological and stepchildren.
A stepfamily is a family unit in which one or both adult partners have children from a previous relationship. Stepfamilies can be formed after a divorce or death of a parent in a nuclear family or when a single parent chooses a long-term partner. Although in the past, marriage was usually required to define a stepfamily, marriage is not always a prerequisite for parents and children living together in the same household. Many adult partners choose to live together (cohabitation) on a long-term basis rather than marry. Children can be full-time or part-time members of a stepfamily, depending on the custody arrangement between the biological parents. Children may also be part of two stepfamilies if both parents remarry. The following terms are used to define members of a stepfamily:
- stepparent: a non-biological parent
- stepchild: a non-biological child brought into the family by marriage or cohabitation with the biological parent
- stepsiblings (stepbrother, stepsister): siblings who are not related biologically, whose parents are married to each other or cohabiting long-term
- custodial parent: the biological parent awarded primary custody by a court during divorce proceedings
- non-custodial parent: the biological parent awarded part-time custody or visitation rights by a court during divorce proceedings
- half-siblings: children who share biologically one parent
- stepgrandparents: non-biological grandparents
- mutual child: a biological child of the remarried or cohabiting couple
There are key differences between the dynamics in a stepfamily and the dynamics of a first-time nuclear family:
- Stepfamilies ultimately result from a loss, death of a parent/spouse, divorce, end of a long-term relationship, changes in lifestyle (e.g., moving, loss of job), and, therefore, involve grief on the part of both parents and children. This grief may remain unresolved and affect stepfamily relationships.
- Children in stepfamilies are members of two households and, as a result, may experience confusion, discipline issues, loss of stability, and conflicting feelings of loyalty.
- The role of the stepparent and status in the family is often unclear with regard to authority, level of involvement with the stepchild, and discipline. In addition, no legal relationship exists between stepparents and stepchildren.
- Stepparents must assume parental roles before there is an emotional bond with the stepchild and are often required to make instant adjustments to a parental role. In contrast, biological parents bond with their child as the child grows.
- Stepfamilies must cope with outside influences and ongoing change due to issues with the other biological parent and family members.
According to statistics from the United States Census Bureau and the Stepfamily Foundation, one in three Americans is involved in a stepfamily situation, and 1,300 new stepfamilies form each day. In addition, 50 percent of children under age 13 as of 2004 lived with one biological parent and the parent's partner. As of 2004, it is estimated that there are more stepfamilies than traditional nuclear families in the United States. The number of stepfamilies is underestimated because the U.S. Census Bureau did not as of 2004 recognize that a child can be a member of two stepfamilies; only the household where the child lives the majority of the time is counted. Because in most divorces, primary custody is awarded to the biological mother, most stepfamilies involve stepfathers who become the full-time stepparent. In rare cases, a biological father is awarded primary custody, and a stepmother can become a full-time stepparent.
Stepfamilies are increasingly referred to as blended families, by the media and others. Stepfamily researchers, family therapists, and the Stepfamily Association of America (SAA) view this term as inaccurate because it infers that members of a stepfamily blend into an entirely new family unit, losing their individuality and attachment to other outside family members. The term stepfamily is preferred because the derivation of the prefix "step-" originates from the Old English word "steop-" which means "bereave." The term stepchild used to refer to orphans who lost their parents, and stepfather/stepmother used to refer to individuals who became parents to an orphan. Because other family types (biological, single-parent, foster, adoptive) are defined by the parent-child relationship, the SAA believes that the term stepfamily more accurately reflects that relationship and is consistent with other family definitions. Viewing the stepfamily as a blended family can lead to unrealistic expectations, confused and conflicted children, difficult adjustment, and in many cases, failure of the marriage and family.
Divorce, remarriage, and the formation of a stepfamily are traumatic events for children. Transition can be eased by including children in discussions and preparations for the stepfamily's future. For example, for couples getting remarried, children can be included in the actual wedding ceremony (not just as ringbearers and flower girls) and given tokens, like a piece of jewelry or special gift (like the wedding rings that their parents exchange), that symbolize the joining of the new family.
Individual therapy for children whose parents are going through a divorce and remarriage can be helpful. Group family therapy with all members of the stepfamily can help identify issues that may undermine successful family functioning. Because grandparents can influence stepfamily dynamics, educating stepgrandparents about stepfamily issues can also help. Roles of the non-custodial parent and stepparent must be clearly defined to avoid unnecessary conflicts. Reading information on stepfamilies and joining a stepfamily support group can help ensure future success. With cooperation and understanding among stepfamily members, a stepfamily can function successfully and even heal emotional scars of past divorce.
A National Institutes of Health (NIH) study of stepfamilies found that a stepfamily has a unique natural life cycle, takes several years to develop into a family unit, and is at greatest risk for failure during its first two years. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the average marriage in the United States only lasts seven years, and one of every two marriages ends in divorce. Stepfamilies are at greater risk for failure and broken marriage due to the increased stresses of stepfamily life. These stresses include the unclear role and authority of the stepparent, financial responsibility for stepchildren, conflict between custodial and noncustodial parents, and emotional tensions.
A study by British and Canadian researchers found that children in stepfamilies and single-parent families had more behavioral and emotional problems compared with children in intact biological families and that stresses within the family were more influential than family type in contributing to children's psychological problems. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to psychological and emotional problems resulting from a combination of puberty and family stresses. Medical professionals, such as pediatricians, psychologists, and therapists, can provide resources and referrals for adolescents requiring treatment and/or therapy for depression, oppositional defiance disorder, and unresolved feelings of anger, resentment, and loss.
While stepmothers face some of the same issues that stepfathers face, both part-time and full-time stepmothers have a more difficult role in the stepfamily and are often expected to be more involved with their stepchild due to socialization pressures (being a mother), societal expectations, and expectations from their husband. Joining a stepmother support group can be helpful in working out frustrations and problems in the stepmother role.
Children in stepfamilies are subject to multiple parental influences and may become confused and conflicted about how they fit into each family and which parent is responsible for discipline. All parents—biological and stepparents—should strive to work out such issues for the benefit of their children. Minimizing conflicts between all parents can help children adjust to stepfamily life.
For various reasons, society does not always view stepparents as having the same responsibilities as biological parents. Employers, other family members, friends, and neighbors may have difficulty understanding and relating to stepfamily issues. One workplace psychologist estimates that businesses in the United States lose more than $10 billion annually due to problems related to stepfamily issues, working parents, and other marital stresses. Although many employers do offer employee assistance programs with substance abuse counseling, child care, and family/marriage counseling, divorced parents, working stepparents, and working live-in partners rarely seek counseling.
Parents and stepparents should be concerned during the first two years after the stepfamily is formed, since this has been identified as a crucial time period for stepfamily success. To help strengthen the stepfamily, parents can establish new and enjoyable family traditions, recognize that children need to stay in touch with non-custodial parents, and focus on being open with family communication. Organizations such as the Stepfamily Association of America offer resources and ideas for building stepfamily bonds, such as celebrating National Stepfamily Day every September and engaging in pleasurable family activities, like movie and pizza night.
Cohabitation —Sexual partners living together outside of marriage.
Nuclear family —The basic family unit, consisting of a father, a mother, and their biological children.
Kelley, Patricia. Developing Healthy Stepfamilies: Twenty Families Tell Their Stories. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press, 2003.
Lipman-Bluementhal, Jean, et al. Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004.
Lofas, Jeanette. Stepparenting. New York: Citadel Press Books, 2004.
Cohen, G. J. "Helping Children and Families Deal with Divorce and Separation." Pediatrics. 110 (November 2002):1019–1023.
Cohn, L. "Workin' Out: Feeling the Burn as Stepfamilies Help You Stretch—Emotionally." Your Stepfamily Magazine (March-April 2003).
O'Connor, T. G., et al. "Family Settings and Children's Adjustment: Differential Adjustment within and across Families." British Journal of Psychiatry 179 (2001): 110–15.
Stepfamily Association of America. Web site: <www.saafamilies.org>.
Stepfamily Foundation. Web site: <www.stepfamily.org>.
"Stepfamily Facts." Stepfamily Association of America. Available online at <www.saafamilies.org/faqs/index.htm> (accessed October 30, 2004).
"Stepfamily Law and Policy." Stepfamily Association of America. Available online at <www.saafamilies.org/advocacy/issues.htm> (accessed October 30, 2004).
Jennifer E. Sisk, M.A.
Each year approximately one million American children and adolescents will experience their parents' divorce. Most of their parents (70-75%) will remarry or begin living with a new partner within three to five years. These new families are labeled stepfamilies or blended families. The 1996 United States census indicated that 32 percent of African-American, 16 percent of Hispanic, and 15 percent of Caucasian children live in stepfamilies. Approximately one-fourth of all American children will live in a stepfamily before they reach adulthood. Most children and adolescents who live in stepfamilies live with their biological mother—17 percent of children are in the father's custody after the divorce. More than half of second marriages end in divorce within the first five years. Consequently, children in stepfamilies may experience a second divorce. Research indicates that the more divorces children experience, the more they are negatively affected.
Children's and Adolescents' Adjustment in Stepfamilies
Children and adolescents in stepfamilies tend to develop more problems than children and adolescents in intact families. Children in stepfamilies are more likely than children in intact families to have academic problems, to have externalizing or internalizing disorders, to be less socially competent, and to have problems with parents, siblings, and peers. About a third of adolescents become disengaged from their stepfamilies and consequently may be more likely to become sexually active at an early age, to be involved in delinquent activities, to be involved with drugs or alcohol, and to drop out of high school. When children or adolescents raised in stepfamilies reach adulthood, they are more likely to divorce than children raised in intact families. But it is important to note that although children in stepfamilies are more likely to have problems than children in intact families, the majority of children in stepfamilies are normally adjusted.
One would expect that children and adolescents in stepfamilies would be better adjusted than children and adolescents in single-parent divorced families. Stepfamilies have more resources than single-parent divorced families, including two parents to share child rearing and more financial resources. Surprisingly, a large body of research indicates that children and adolescents in stepfamilies have the same level of adjustment problems as children and adolescents in divorced single-parent families. One reason for this similarity between the adjustment of children in step-families and single-parent divorced families may be that stepfamilies experience significant stresses within their family interactions. It may take five to seven years for a new stepfamily to stabilize and begin to function smoothly. From a family systems perspective, stepfamilies begin with a weak family system. Instead of a healthy family system (a strong, well-established marital bond, strong child bonds to both parents, and little outside interference), stepfamilies typically begin with a new and relatively weak marital coalition, a strong parent-child relationship, a weak or conflicted stepparent-child relationship, and with the outside involvement of the noncustodial parent. In addition, children in stepfamilies may have to adjust to less attention from their biological parent, to parenting from a new stepparent, and to new sibling relationships.
What Affects Children's and Adolescents' Adjustment to Stepfamilies?
Several factors may affect how well a child adjusts to a stepfamily. First, the child's gender is a factor. Girls have more difficulty than boys adjusting to step-family life. In stepfamilies that include the child's biological mother and a stepfather, girls are more likely than boys to be resistant to the stepfather. In single-parent divorced families, mother-daughter relationships often are exceptionally close; consequently, when mothers remarry, girls may view new stepfathers as threats to their previously close relationships with their mothers. In contrast, boys' overall adjustment is likely to improve after their mothers' remarriage. Mother-son relationships in single-parent divorced families typically are conflicted and coercive; consequently, boys may appreciate new stepfathers as alternative supportive parents and masculine role models. In stepfamilies that include the child's biological father and a stepmother, the stepmother may be seen as an intruder in the previously close father-child relationship. Girls may have trouble adjusting to the new stepmother, particularly because most girls maintain a close relationship with their noncustodial mother, but girls generally adjust to the new stepmother and benefit from the new relationship.
The second area that may affect a child's adjustment to a stepfamily is the age of the child. Young children adapt most easily, whereas early adolescents have the most difficulty adjusting to new stepfamilies. The adjustment is particularly difficult for early adolescents because, in addition to the new stepfamily, they are adjusting to puberty and new sexual feelings, becoming more independent from the family, experiencing egocentrism and self-consciousness, and being exposed to new peer pressures to experiment with sexuality and drugs or alcohol. These multiple stressors make it more likely that the adolescent may react negatively to the new stepparent, making it difficult to build a relationship. In addition, stepparents may be hesitant to monitor adolescents for fear of threatening the stepparent-adolescent relationship; consequently, these adolescents may be more likely to get into trouble.
Individual differences in temperament, intelligence, and behavioral patterns also may affect how well children adjust to stepfamilies. Children with easygoing temperaments, high intelligence, and good behavior are more likely to evoke positive responses from their parents and stepparents, making it more likely that these children will receive the support needed to adjust. In contrast, the stresses of living in a stepfamily are likely to magnify children's and adolescents' preexisting problems. Consequently, children with difficult temperaments or with preexisting behavior problems are likely to evoke negative reactions from their parents and new step-parents, thereby reducing the amount of support these children receive.
Parenting factors also may affect children's adjustment to stepfamilies. Children are more likely to have problems adjusting to stepfamilies if both adults bring children into the new stepfamily because parents tend to have closer relationships with their biological children. Stepchildren perceive the closer relationships between stepparents and their biological children as differential or nonequal treatment and resent their stepsiblings.
In addition, because of the stresses of adjusting to a new marriage, mothers (during the first year of the remarriage) are likely to provide less control and monitoring and to be more negative toward their children. Mothers' parenting tends to improve after the first year and eventually becomes similar to mothers in intact families. Adolescents in stepfamilies are still more likely than adolescents in intact families to experience mother-adolescent disagreements and low levels of supervision.
Stepfathers typically initially assume a polite, nondisciplinarian role in stepfamilies partly because stepchildren (especially stepdaughters) tend to reject stepfathers' attempts at discipline. Eventually, stepfathers and stepdaughters may become involved in conflict focused on the stepfathers' authority. Consequently, stepfathers often become less supportive, less positive, and less involved in discipline than fathers in intact families. Stepfathers' disengagement from parenting is associated with poor child and adolescent adjustment. The most positive outcomes occur with younger children (especially boys) when the stepfather initially forms a warm relationship with the child and supports the mother's discipline, and later begins to provide authoritative discipline (warmth with moderate control). Early adolescents adjust best when stepfathers begin immediately to establish a warm, supportive relationship with moderate amounts of control.
In contrast, stepmothers often immediately become more involved in discipline. If the biological father supports the stepmother's discipline attempts, children generally receive more effective parenting from both parents. Stepmothers perceive parenting as more challenging than mothers in intact families, although research suggests that stepmothers are actually less negative and coercive in their interactions with their stepchildren than mothers in intact families. Stepmothers who provide authoritative parenting, providing warmth and moderate control, have stepchildren who are better adjusted than the step-children of stepmothers who provide authoritarian or neglectful parenting.
Suggestions for Parents in Stepfamilies
Children's and adolescents' adjustment in step-families can be encouraged several ways. First, parents can help children and adolescents adjust to stepfamilies by taking into account issues related to gender and age. The most successful stepfamilies have parents who are flexible and able to adjust to the varying demands that children's gender, age, and individual differences place on parents. Parents should have realistic expectations of new family relationships and should not expect close bonds immediately. Parents also should be aware that fathers and mothers in stepfamilies face different challenges and try to provide support for their partner's parenting. A strong marriage is the foundation of a successful new step-family. Finally, parents should work together to create warm, supportive relationships with their children and stepchildren. One technique for doing so is to create new family traditions to add to the traditions of the original families. In conclusion, although children's and adolescents' development in stepfamilies can be adversely affected by many factors, with parental support, most children and adolescents in step-families do not develop significant problems.
Booth, Alan, and Judith Dunn. Stepfamilies: Who Benefits? Who Does Not? Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1994.
Ganong, Lawrence, and Marilyn Coleman. Remarried Family Relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1996.
Hetherington, E. Mavis. Coping with Divorce, Single Parenting, and Remarriage: A Risk and Resilience Perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1999.