School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.
To accompany Chapter 7
The 2000 census did not gather information on how many stepfamilies there are in the U.S.  However, according to the 1990 census, there were over 5,000,000 stepfamily households in the U.S.  Most of these consisted of a mother, her children and a stepfather (this is accounted for by the fact that women most often receive custody of their children in a divorce).  It is estimated that the number of stepfamilies in the U.S. today is significantly higher than what was found in the 1990 census.
At this time one in three Americans is a stepparent, a stepsibling or some other member of a stepfamily.  About 50% of children under the age of 13 in the U.S. will live in a stepfamily at some time.  The rate of divorce for stepfamilies in the U.S. is 65%, which makes it very likely for many children to be involved in a second divorce of their parents (and for some a third or fourth).  It can be overwhelming for children to experience so many changes in family composition over their childhoods.
While parenting is not an easy task when the biological parents are married to each, it becomes more difficult when stepparents come into the mix.  Some families handle step-parenting very well, and these notes will examine some of the ways they make this successful.  Most stepfamilies require quite a bit of adjustment on the part of all family members, and it can sometimes take years for the stepfamily to develop a comfortable "fit."  Some stepfamilies never do completely adjust.  The following information deals with some of the issues that affect stepfamilies and some of the things stepfamilies
can do to make the transition and adjustment easier.
Stepparenting is more challenging for several reasons.  First, a stepparent does not have long-standing emotional bonds with the children to help all of them overcome feelings of frustration and stress that occur during the changes the family undergoes.
Second, stepfamilies include more people than a nuclear family and all have different needs and interests to consider.  Think for a moment about all the new relationships that must be developed when a couple who each have children from a previous marriage marry one another:
     New husband and wife
     New husband and stepchildren
     New wife and stepchildren
     Grandparents and stepchildren
     Husband's parents and new spouse
     Wife's parents and new spouse
     Ongoing relationship between wife's children and their father
     Ongoing relationship between husband's children and their mother
There are many more permutations to this; if the non-custodial parent also gets remarried, there is a new set of people for the children to develop relationships with.  Personal note here - my husband had two kids and I had three when we got married - all teenagers.  In the beginning, our kids didn't know each other very well.  My stepson, Evan, lived with us, but my stepdaughter, Emily, who lived with her mom, only came to visit from Texas occasionally.  Because my kids and Evan lived together, they knew each other pretty well and developed a relationship.  But with Emily it was much harder, and she definitely had the most difficult position in the family.  Every time she came for a visit the kids had to get reacquainted all over again.  My husband and I tried to subtly set up situations where the kids would have to interact (having them discuss and pick a video for all of us to watch; family meals where everyone had some cooking or preparation to do; setting up the volleyball net in the backyard and starting a game).  But even with all our good intentions, there never was a very close relationship between my kids and Emily. They got along fine, just didn't become close to one another.   My ex-husband remarried a woman with two sons, one grown and one who lived with them for a short time.  One of her sons married a woman with young children, making sort of step-cousins for my kids.   With that situation, one of my sons has a fairly good relationship with his stepbrothers, but my other son and daughter aren't particularly close to them.  Again, it isn't a case of not getting along, just not having a close relationship.
My kids' situation with this was fairly typical for many blended families.  They had whole new family situations to become part of.  Imagine the situation for a child whose parents both remarry people with children, perhaps have another child of their own, then divorce and remarry other people with children, etc.  Keeping track of everyone can become unwieldy at best and confusing too.  Parents have the multiple tasks of solidifying and maintaining marital ties at the same time they sustain relationships with their biological children and promote positive sibling relationships.
Third, members of blended families may have deep feelings of jealousy and ambivalence.  Because so many more people are involved and the newly married parents want to devote time to their relationship, stepparents may have less time to give to individual children.  Children may feel that the new marriage is depriving them of the parent.  Parents should accept those feelings as realistic - there is less time for each child.  Parents may even feel that the children are intruding on the marriage (usually they feel that it's the other spouse's children who are intruding on the marriage!).
Fourth, both parents and children are haunted by the earlier marriage.  Stepparents may feel insecure as they live with children who are constant proof that the spouse once loved another person.  In addition, the biological parent continues to have contact with the former spouse because of the children.
Fifth, former spouses may use the children and their needs to attack the biological parent and the stepparent.  They can get into situations, for example, where the father and stepmother say that the mother never buy the kids clothes.  When the father buys them clothes in addition to paying child support, he says that the mother never washes or cares for them.  On the other hand, the mother in this situation may say that the father and stepmother, rather than providing money for clothes for the kids, instead buys them fancy clothes that are appropriate for the lifestyle of the father and stepmother, but not for the children's needs at school or play.  These kinds of disagreements can go on and on.
Sixth, there are no clear guidelines for being a stepparent.  There are few enough for biological parents, but the role of stepparent remains even more vague.  The stepparent must create this role depending on his or her individual personality, the ages and genders of the children, and their living arrangements.  It is difficult to know how much parenting a stepparent should do and how much should be left to the child's biological parent.  It is difficult for a child to go from having two parents trying to control him/her to having perhaps four people telling him/her what to do, nagging about chores, controlling behavior, etc.  The age of the children makes a difference in how much parenting the stepparent takes on also.  In our situation, since the kids were all teenagers and had close contact with both biological parents, my husband and I decided that we would each handle the discipline of our own biological children.  We also tried to be pretty flexible with this, and if one of us had a problem with the other person's child, we would discuss it and decide how to proceed.  The actual disciplining, though, came from the biological
parent.  By and large, this worked pretty well for us.  However, each stepfamily is unique and has to decide how to handle this issue for themselves.
Another issue for stepparents deals with money.  One of the primary reasons that second marriages fail has to do with the children.  Closely related to this is money.  There are all sorts of pitfalls for stepfamilies regarding finances.  For example, the new husband is paying child support to his ex-spouse.  She keeps coming up with additional things that the kids need, he feels guilty because he doesn't see them enough and sends additional money.  His new wife is resentful of  this, it leads to disagreements, etc., etc.  Or the new wife only gets sporadic child support payments from her ex-husband.  Because she has custody of her children and because they have needs, her new husband helps support them financially.  This can also lead to disagreements between the couple.  Kids tend to get caught in the middle of these family squabbles and it can be a negative situation all around.
According to the research, remarried custodial mothers' behavior changes at the time of a remarriage.  These moms become more negative and less controlling, and there is much more conflict between mother and children, particularly with daughters.  If children are eight or younger when parents remarry, improvements occur with time.  Conflicts increase in early adolescence and relationships are more conflicted than in intact families.  Even in mid-adolescence, children remain more distant from their custodial remarried mothers.
When children live with custodial fathers and stepmothers, it is again girls who have greater difficulty.  Frequent contact with their biological mothers seems to increase the difficulty - this might be because the biological mothers had special problems that argued against their having custody.  However, the longer girls live in such stepfamilies, the more positive the relationship grows between the daughter and the stepmother.
Stepfathers initially feel less close to their stepchildren than to their biological children and they do not monitor behavior as well as fathers in intact families.  When children are younger at the time of the remarriage, stepfathers may be able to build relationships with stepchildren by taking on the role of a warm and supportive figure and foregoing the role of disciplinarian until a relationship is established.  Preadolescent boys may settle down in a relationship with a stepfather, but preadolescent girls usually resist the stepfather's overtures and direct angry, negative behavior to the custodial mother.
When children are early adolescents at the time of the remarriage, there appears to be little adaptation to the new family over a two-year period.  Children are negative and resistant even when stepfathers attempt to spend time with them and establish a relationship.  As a result, stepfathers remain disengaged, critical and distanced from the day-to-day monitoring of the children.  The negative behavior of the children shapes stepparents' behavior more than stepparents are able to shape children's behavior.  However, when stepparents are able to be authoritative parenting figures - warm, positive, and appropriate in monitoring - then children's adjustment improves.  With adolescents, stepparents do better when they are authoritative from the start.
Adolescents are often resistant, withdrawn and unwilling to become involved with stepparents.  They often retreat from the families and establish strong relationships with families of friends.  At the same time, they become more argumentative with the biological parents, both the custodial and noncustodial parent.  Their emotional attachment to the parent is shown in a negative rather than a positive way.  Adolescents feel closer to noncustodial mothers than noncustodial fathers.
In stepfamilies, marital happiness has a different relationship with children's behavior than it has in intact families.  In non-divorced families, marital happiness is related to children's competent functioning and positive relationships with parents.  In stepfamilies, marital happiness is related to children's negativistic and resistant behavior with parents.  Girls may be especially resentful of the loss of the close relationship with the custodial mother.  Boys, having less to lose, may settle more easily into a relationship with a stepfather.  Adolescent daughters do, though, respond positively to the satisfying marital relationship.
Relationships with siblings are less positive and more negative in remarried than they are in non-divorced families.  Although girls are more empathic than boys, they are almost equally aggressive.  As siblings become adolescents they become more separated from each other.  Interestingly, relationships with stepsiblings appear less negative than relationships with their own siblings. (Much of the above information came from: Heatherington & Jodl, "Stepfamilies as Settings for Child Development";Hetherington, "An Overview of the Virginia Longitudinal Study"; Hetherington & Clingempeel, "Coping with
Marital Transitions")
Children's adjustment in stepfamiles varies.  There are often initial declines in cognitive and social competence after the remarriage, but when boys are younger and stepparents are warm and authoritative, problem behaviors improve and boys in these stepfamilies have levels of adjustment similar to those of boys in nondivorced families.  Young girls continue to have more acting-out and defiant behavior problems than girls in intact or divorced families. 
Most gender differences in adjustment disappear at early adolescence when both boys and girls have more problems.  At all ages, children in remarried families, like children in divorced families, have poorer school performance, problems in social responsibility, and more rule breaking behaviors than children in intact families.  Parenting by the same sex parent, whether it is the custodial or non-custodial parent, is positively related to the child's adjustment.
Although some children in remarried families have adjustment problems, the majority are doing well.  Between two-thirds and three-quarters score within the average range on assessment instruments.  This is below the comparable figure of 90% for children of non-divorced parents, but it does indicate that most children in remarried families are doing well.
Children of remarried families are more likely to leave home at an early age, less likely to go on to school, and more likely to leave home as a result of conflict.  As adults, they feel they can rely less on their families than do children of intact families.  However, there are many children of remarried families who, as adults, feel close and supported in stepfamilies.
Emily Visher has developed a program called "The Stepping Ahead Program" which can be beneficial for families making the transition to a stepfamily.  The steps of this program are listed below:
Step 1) Nurturing Couple Relationship
a. Plan something you like away from home once a week.
b. Arrange 20 minutes of relaxed time alone each day.
c. Talk together about the running of the household at least 30 minutes each week.
Step 2) Finding Personal Space and Time
a. Parents make a special "private" place for themselves and for each child    who lives or visits there.
b. Each person takes at least 2 hours a week to engage in personally    enriching activities - reading, TV, hobby, sport.
Step 3) Nourishing Family Relationships
a. Share with one another something you appreciate each day about each family member - perhaps at dinner, where each person shares, or in less formal settings.
b. Do not link discussion of problems with what is liked.
Step 4) Maintaining Close Parent-Child Relationships
a. Parent and child do something fun together for at least 20 minutes once or twice a week.
b. These times are given no matter what and do not depend on good behavior.
Step 5) Developing Stepparent-Stepchild Relationship
a. Do something fun together 15 or 20 minutes a week - if child only comes occasionally, make this a longer time, less often.
b. If child refuses, accept that and offer to do something at a later time.
Step 6) Building Family Trust
a. Schedule a family event once a month and give each person a chance to choose what to do.
b. Begin special traditions in your remarried family.
c. Do not always schedule events when nonresident children are there because resident children may believe they are less important.
Step 7) Strengthen Stepfamily Ties with Regular Family Meetings
Step 8) Work with Child's Other Household
a. Give adults in the other household positive feedback once a month.
b. Give positive message without expectation of return.
Though life in stepfamilies is sometimes difficult, special pleasures come with seeing children biologically unrelated to you flourish and grow and in taking part in that growth.  Such close and warm and sometimes conflicted relationships can serve as examples that people do not need to be either biologically related or romantically connected to produce profound and positive effects on each other's lives.  The essential ingredients for both biological and stepparents are to feel comfortable with themselves and free of inflexible views of the other parents, so all can help children become "more like themselves".  When adults relate to their own or other people's children this way, there is no distinction between a biological parent and a stepparent.
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