The below paper was written as an assignment for FS468 Parenting in Contemporary Societies at Mississippi University for Women in Spring 2019.
Bidirectional Relationships in Stepfamilies: Mutual Impact Between Stepparents and Stepchildren
Mississippi University for Women
April 10, 2019
In the United States, approximately 9% of married couple households, and 12% of cohabiting households contain resident stepchildren (Cartwright & Gibson, 2012). Rising divorce and remarriage rates mean that stepfamilies are continuously becoming a common family structure in the United States (DeGreeff & Platt, 2016). The loss of contact with the non-residential parent is on average related to lower parental involvement and a worsened parent-child relationship (Havermans, Vanassche, & Matthijs, 2017). When these relationships remain emotionally close, however, parents continue to be valuable resources for their children (King & Boyd, 2016). Parent-child relationships also serve as templates for a child’s future relationships and have an impact on his or her psychological adjustment as an adult (Campbell & Winn, 2018).
Early tension between adolescents and stepfathers can spill over and disrupt stepfamily functioning more generally, yet relatively little is known about the factors that affect whether adolescents accept or reject stepfathers during the first critical year of stepfamily life (King, Amato, & Lindstrom, 2015). Studies on family relations have mainly focused on biological families (Ripoll-Núñez & Carrillo, 2016). With that being said, there is not enough research on the positive aspects of stepfamilies and I hope to shed some light on the more positive aspects while addressing the emotional and psychological impacts of adolescent stepchildren and their stepparents and how they could potentially develop their relationship.
For this research, I focused on three questions. These three questions target areas that are lacking positive research and may increase understanding which will further impact the bidirectional relationships in stepfamilies. I used these questions to guide my research process in a way that allowed me to find previous studies that helped shed light on the focus areas.
- How are adolescent stepchildren emotionally and psychologically impacted by stepparent’s parenting?
- How are stepparents emotionally and psychologically impacted when raising stepchildren?
- What are the steps a stepfamily could take to develop a positive relationship between stepparents and stepchildren?
Effects of Step-Parenting on Emotional and Psychological Outcomes
Effect of step parenting on adolescent stepchildren. Compared with adults, children might experience even greater levels of stress because they are often unable to exert power or influence in ways that produce their preferred family outcomes (Jensen, Shafer, & Holmes, 2017). Jensen, et al. (2017), determined that stepparent closeness has a stronger influence on the stress experienced by children in a stepfamily than resident biological parent closeness. It is sometimes assumed that most stepchildren blame themselves for their parent’s divorce; however, that is not always the case. In some situations, the adolescent stepchildren are aware of the toxic environment they may have been placed in while their biological parents were married and may blame one parent for the divorce. Without having opportunities to discuss their feelings, they may display inappropriate behaviors or act out. It is also important to note that children in shared residences with a stepparent combine two stressful factors in their living arrangements, namely moving between two parental households and the presence of a new partner in the maternal household (Havermans, et al., 2017).
Not only is the relationship between the parent and child extremely important but the relationship between the biological parents and stepparents is also important for the child. Disturbances in the parental relationship have a detrimental impact on the social and cognitive development of the child, as early as in the first years of life, and promoting family cohesiveness is important in stepfamilies (Favez, et al. 2015). Close, supportive parent-child relationships are thought to be especially important for adolescents in stepfamilies because these adolescents are more vulnerable to peer influence and at greater risk for poor outcomes (King & Lindstrom, 2016). Jensen, et al. (2017), completed a study that determined a one-point increase in stepparent closeness was associated with a 0.443-point decrease in stepfamily stress while a one-point increase in biological parent closeness was associated with only a 0.368-point decrease in stepfamily stress. In addition, a positive home environment and feelings of family belonging can promote positive adolescent development (King & Boyd, 2016).
Effect of step parenting on stepparents. DeGreeff and Platt (2016), did research on jealousy in stepfamilies and they concluded:
“the experiences and perceptions of participants revealed several key issues, including the strategic framing of jealousy to preserve self-esteem, the relationship between uncertainty about the future and fear of loss, anger that can lead to possessiveness, and the central role that children play in jealousy-related stepfamily conflicts.”
Cartwright and Gibson (2013) also conducted a study regarding the co-parenting relationship and noted that often times there is a disturbance when an ex-partner remarries. This disturbance could be related to jealousy, as DeGreeff and Platt (2016) noted, but also to other issues such as the biological parent being difficult and irrational. If a biological parent is not accepting of the step-parent, the children could be impacted. The step-parent may have a difficult time connecting with the children and may have added stressors to the new relationship.
As stated by Favez, et al. (2015), co-parenting is active in all of its dimensions in stepfamilies, but with different determinants depending on the partner involved and when compared with first-marriage families. The participants in the study by DeGreeff and Platt (2016) stated they tended toward the avoidance side of the dialectic because they feared that being too confrontational or too submissive would cause resentment or a “breaking point” for the co-parenting relationship.
Develop a Positive Relationship Between Stepparent and Stepchildren
A good childhood is the foundation for appropriate adult development. As Campbell and Winn (2018) noted, the findings suggest that stepfather–stepdaughter relationships reflect similar interpersonal dynamics as father-daughter relationships but that establishing and maintaining these relationships through meaningful communication may be particularly important for stepfathers and stepdaughters. Involvement, communication, and closeness were all moderately and positively correlated in the study performed by Campbell and Winn (2018), and the results indicated no statistical difference between father types on availability with resident fathers and stepfathers showing nearly equal levels of availability. Also, the findings from the study done by King and Boyd (2016) suggest both a number of similarities and a few differences between adolescents living with two biological parents and those living with biological mothers and married stepfathers regarding the factors associated with adolescent perceptions of family belonging. Boys and girls tend to have more conflicts with mothers than with fathers and these conflicts frequently revolve around daily routines, friends, and ways of behaving and dressing (Ripoll-Núñez & Carrillo, 2016).
Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory focuses on developmental change as a process that continues throughout the life span between birth and death. Erickson believed that individuals experience different crisis situations, or “a challenge to attain a healthy rather than unhealthy attitude or generalized feeling” (p.104), throughout each age group, with adolescence at the identity versus role confusion stage and adults at the generativity versus self-absorption stage (Bigner & Gerhardt, 2019). The intertwining of developmental stages being experienced by parents and children is what helps the children and parents reach the next developmental stage but that is not always an easy task when stepparents and stepchildren are not at the levels of expectations for each other.
Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental theory applies to adolescent stepchildren and their stepparents because children of blended families are continuously going through changes and the parents (biological and step) must focus on the foundation for the children in order to assure a positive environment. This will allow a positive relationship between the stepchild and the stepparent to develop. The study performed by King and Boyd (2016) concluded closeness is much more “built-in” and less dependent on discrete shared activities for biological father-child relationships than with stepparent-child relationships. It is important to note that the stepparent-child relationship will take much more intentional work than a biological parent-child relationship and if the stepparent is able to understand the stepchild’s stage, according to Erikson, they may be able to walk through the crisis situation in a much more pleasant way.
The family, as we know it, is a system. As described by Binger and Gerhardt (2019), a family system is composed of several individuals of differing ages and developmental levels, each involved in resolving the challenges of their own particular psychosocial stage. As stated by Bigner and Gerhardt (2019), a system is not supposed to be fixed at a static point. If a stepchild is not in the developmental stage expected by the stepparent, or the stepparent is not in the developmental stage expected by the stepchild, the stepfamily may face stressors. A family system is structured so that a person faces the challenges and trials of life with the support of others, based on the developmental stages the individuals in (Bigner & Gerhardt, 2019). Stepfamilies go through changes continuously and as the stepparent and stepchildren learn their new roles within their new family, their relationship will change. With the right guidance and boundaries, their relationship will change for the better.
As stated in the introduction, there is not enough positive research regarding stepfamilies and Cartwright and Gibson (2013) also noted that by pointing out, “around a third of the participants appeared to have non-problematic relationships with former spouses, but little data were collected about these relationships because of the focus on the step-couples’ challenges and the experiences they regarded as important to them” (p. 26). It would benefit current and future stepfamilies if there were more positive research available. Positive research would not only provide encouragement for stepfamilies but also potentially provide instruction and advice on overcoming challenges.
In conclusion, in order to have a successful bidirectional relationship between stepparents and stepchildren, the parents (biological and step) must focus on the foundation for the children, be intentional with building the relationship between the stepparents and stepchildren, be flexible while new boundaries and rules are made and learned, and include meaningful communication.
Bigner, J. J., & Gerhardt, C. (2019). Parent-child relations: An introduction to parenting. (10th ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
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Cartwright, C., & Gibson, K. (2012). The effects of co-parenting relationships with ex-spouses on couples in step-families. 12th Australian Institute of Family Studies Conference (pp. 18-28). Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
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