Stepfamilies have become an accepted part of our current society. Such families, when properly integrated have the ability to form an even more cohesive and supportive extended family base as opposed to the biological family. Through my research, I will shed light on the enigma that is the successful step family. I will show the clear relationship building patterns that exist between the child and step parent while also paying attention to the success or failure of the biological parent to remain as a significant parental figure in the child’s life. I will state the steps by which a step family eventually evolves into a real family. This analysis will also discuss the reasons as to why the step family sometimes succeeds where the biological family failed. I will then compare the factors that helped create a successful step family.
Stepfamilies have become a common aspect of society with the number of Stepfamilies in the United States, elevating sharply in the previous few years. Research confirms that numerous children living in America reside in Stepfamilies with a step parent (Jacobson, 1979). The formation of Stepfamilies due to dissolution of marriages and remarriage of either partner is not a novel phenomenon and has been prevalent in the western society since several centuries (Dupaquier et al., 1981). While the phenomenon is an ancient one, it has become more common and prevalent in the current times with a paradigm shift in the quantitative and qualitative occurrences with regard to the formation of Stepfamilies.
It is estimated that about one in six couple families, amounting to seventeen percent are step family households (Orleans, Palisi and Caddell, 1989) and one child in every six children is a step child (Burchardt, 1989). Studies and research on Stepfamilies and remarriage was initiated by family scholars in about the 1970s, with the advancement in the rate of remarriage and Stepfamilies in the United States of America. Remarriage and subsequent formations of Stepfamilies is not new and have been evident in society since decades (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988).
There is evidence to suggest that dissolution of marriage and remarriage were prevalent even in the pre-industrial societies of the western world and the rate at which remarriages occurred is similar to the current rate and occurrences of remarriage (Dupaduier, 1981). The reasons for marriage terminations were primarily death as compared to the current scenario where most remarriages end due to divorce (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). The rate and occurrences of remarriages was also dependant on other crucial factors such as the “marriage market”, the sex of the spouse who has been left alone due to the death of the other spouse, the age of the surviving spouse after the death of the other spouse and most importantly the number of dependant children (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988).
Of the many reasons for the increase in the number of Stepfamilies today, death of either spouse and high rates of divorce have escalated the rate of remarriage in the current Western society (Jacobson, 1979). The formation of stepfamilies is becoming a common and widespread phenomenon and stepfamilies are known to be the “fastest growing family in the last few decades (Smith, 2004).
While many marriages in the previous times were terminated due to death of either partner, the current scenario is particularly different with several marriages ending in divorces. If the marriage is dissolved through divorce or terminated through the death of wither partner, the survivor partner needs to be economically and personally more secure, hence the need for a new partner. This situation gives rise to Stepfamilies and henceforth cease to be biological families or first families.
The rate at which men remarried was significantly higher than that of women and remarriages were more likely if the age of the surviving spouse was less, especially in the case of women who were widows (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). The death rate was considerably high in American colonies where the health conditions were poor and resulted in the outbreak of deadly diseases like malaria, dysentery and influenza (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). As a result, many children were orphaned and this subsequently resulted in the remarriages of the surviving spouses resulting in the formation of Stepfamilies.
In a first family unit, the functioning of the family is dependant on the two contributing partners or adults, the mother and the father who look after the financial, emotional and personal needs of their biological children. In an ideal family unit, children of first marriages grow up in an atmosphere which is secure and filled with love and caring. However, in second marriages which give rise to Stepfamilies , the children may not be the biological offspring of the married couple, sue to which “partners also strive to protect their family boundaries by invoking norms of privacy and family autonomy” (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988).
The term stepfamily actually refers to the structure of a family in which “one partner has children from a former relationship who are not biologically related to their current partner (Nicholson et al., 2007). The couple living together may be legally wedded and may have children from their previous marriages living with them. Stepfamilies are “challenging environments” and can have a potential impact on the “health and wellbeing” of family members (Nicholson et al., 2007).
Children in these families, may have either parent as a step parent; for instance if the child is staying with the biological mother who has remarried, then the child has a step father, who is not the biological father of the child. Similarly, the child may also be living with a step mother. Stepfamilies may be termed as ‘stepfather families’ or stepmother families’. Stepfather families would imply those families win which the children reside with their “biological mother, her children and her partner”, whereas stepmother families are those in which children reside with their “biological father, his children and his partner” (Nicholson et al., 2007).
Stepfather families are the more common Stepfamilies and research confirms that about 82% of the resident step parents are step fathers (Glick, 1987), since in 90% of divorces, the custody of the children is awarded to mothers (Weitzman, 1985). Generally, the custody of male and older children is awarded to biological fathers and if the wives have remarried, there are greater chances of fathers obtaining custody of even the younger children (Spanier & Glick, 1981).
Stepfamilies can be simple or complex structures on the basis of the relationships of the children to the parents. Simple structured stepfamilies are the ones in which only the children from one partner’s or spouse’s relationship live in the family while complex family structures are those units in which children from more than one relationship live with the couple, for instance, children of the earlier relationships of both parents may live with the couple (Nicholson et al., 2007).
It has been confirmed that Stepfamilies may pose problems to the parents, specifically the step mother (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). Evidence also suggests that the relationships of children with their step fathers could be complex due to the presence of step siblings (White et al., 1985). The relationships of girls with their step parents is also believed to be problematic, more specifically their step mothers (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). This could be due to several factors including the difficulty of girl children in accepting the new relationships of their parents.
Children in stepfamilies are believed to undergo several adjustment difficulties (Coleman, Ganong, & Leon, 2006). Research confirms the problematic relationships between the children and their stepparents which very often results in deteriorating relationships between the children and their biological parents as well (Cartwright, 2005; Cartwright & Seymour, 2002). It has also been reported that children living in stepfamilies are more likely to exhibit disruptive and delinquent behaviours (Nicholson et al., 2007). They also display low self esteem and psychological problems as compared to children from intact and first families. The academic performance of children from stepfamilies is also poor and they are reported to leave school at rather early ages as compared to those children who hail from first families or biological families.
Due to these and innumerable other reasons, the stepfamily atmosphere is taxing for children since the formation of the new stepfamily is an event to the children in which they were not involved in the decision of the parents to part ways or the decision of one parent to re-enter into a marriage with another new partner (Smith, 2004). There is also evidence to prove that relationships between the stepparents and children have a negative impact on the relationships between the mother and the child, more specifically in the early years of the formation of the stepfamily (Smith, 2004).
Couple and partners in stepfamilies are at higher risks of difficulties and problems arising out of their relationships which can have negative effects on the family atmosphere and the emotional stability of the children in the family (Nicholson et al., 2007). The parent child relationship in stepfamilies is also threatened since the children undergo several emotional losses due to the loss or absence of the biological parent and the innumerable adjustments which are obligatory for the child in such circumstances. Children may tend to experience displacement and alienation in the family as a result of their attachment to the first parent and the presence of the new stepparent.
These problems could be aggravated if the normal routine of the children is disrupted due to the residential changes or any other adjustments which were crucial for the formation of the new relationship, such as adapting to the new parent and in some cases even step brother and sisters. Stepfamilies also undergo several stages in development over the years which have the potential to change the familial relationships, for instance, children may be required to go to new schools due to changes in geographical locations or may have to experience the birth of a new child within the family.
Children who move from childhood to adolescence have to face the burden of psychological problems in addition to the physical hormonal changes which they are already undergoing as a result of their transition to adolescence. Additionally, prejudices may give rise to a different set of problems altogether. Since times immemorial, there have been several myths and prejudices regarding Stepfamilies and more specifically, step parents. There is a general view that biological mothers are “loving” and step mothers are “hating”, which is apparent not only through the perceptions of people but also through televisions, folklore and even through stories and plays (Jacobson, 1979). Labels such as “wicked” and “evil” have been used for step parents, which often affects the reactions of the step parents and step children towards each other. These negative attitudes often result in negative behaviours of parents and children in Stepfamilies.
Cultural stories and myths concerning Stepfamilies are extremely popular in literature, in which the step mother is believed to be the “one of the most universal and enduring cultural villains” (Jones, 2003). Negative perceptions pertaining to step mothers in Stepfamilies have been induced through classical stories such as Cinderella, Snow White and Hansel and Gretel, where step mothers treat their step children in cruel and abusive manners. With the rapid penetration of media and the advancements of technology, these folk tales and stories are available to children in the United States as a result of which Stepfamilies have negative associations and are considered to be abusive and dangerous.
Over the previous three to four decades, greater number of children have experienced parental separation and these altering patterns have been visible not only in the united states of America but across other countries including Australia, Europe and new Zealand (Pryor & Rodgers, 2001). The changes in the family structures due to tehse changing demographics ahs resulted in drastic efefcts on children with regrad to social and financial changes occurring in tehir lves following the seperation of their parents.
Similar to the American family structure, Australian families have also undergone several structural changes. Families are now becoming smaller and blended families with stepparents and children are becoming more common and popular. Sole parenting demographics have risen sharply due to termination of marriages and rising divorce cases in the country. Familial norms and structures which were earlier “regarded as marginal” are now described as “mainstreaming of family forms” (Hayes, In; de Vaus, 2004).
With a dramatic increase in the breakdown of marital relationships, the number of affected children has also augmented charply (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007; Divorces, Australia, 2006). Following the termination of a marital relationship, there is a transitional phase of sole parenting which often leads to the formation of a new relationship, resulting in complex familial structures and norms, commonly termed as Stepfamilies. It is however clear that children living in Stepfamilies , whether in the united states of australia, face similar problems.
Most of these chidlren have to undergo emotional disturbances related to the separation form the biologicla parent and adjusting to the new step parent or in some cases even step brotehr and sisters. Myths and stereotypes within the cultures and traditions have a serious impact on the prejudices of the family members, and tend to affect the manner in which Stepfamilies are viewed as opposed to “intact’ families (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988). While remarriage has little or almost no impact on the feelings of children towards their mothers, the emotions are variable with respect to their separated fathers (Ihinger-Tallman, 1988).
Creation of a stepfamily into an intact family with little problems is a difficult and long process and often leads to emotional and psychological disturbances of the family members including the step parents and their children. Since, all the members undergo alterations in their lives including changes in their geographical setting and other emotional adjustments, Stepfamilies often experience major hurdles and breakdown of relationships between the members. In order to improve the relationships between parents and step children, it is essential to take children into confidence before attempting such important decisions like divorce and separation and remarriage, which have a considerable impact on the lives of the concerned children.
Another important aspect of chidlrens adjustment and succesful Stepfamilies is the issue of conatct between the children and their seperated parents, which research proves, is a useful and crucial factor in the adjustments of children to tehir new family surroundings (Whiteside & Becker, 2000). Communication plays a key role in the development of these positive relationships and research indicates that allowing children to make decisions regarding their visits to their separated parents enabled them to cope better with their altered lives (Dunn & Deater-Deckard, 2001).
Stepfamilies are becoming an increasingly common family structure within Australia and most western countries. Stepfamilies are challenging environments that can threaten the health and wellbeing of family members. However, with appropriate interventions, stepfamilies can evolve as true or intact families and become pleasant for not only the children but also the adults of the family.
- Australian Social Trends, catalogue no. 4102.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Canberra, 2007
- Cartwright, C. (2005). Stepfamily living and parent-child relationships: An exploratory investigation. Journal of Family Studies, 11(2), 267-283.
- Cartwright, C., & Seymour, F. (2002). Young adults’ perceptions of parents’ response in stepfamilies: What hurts? What helps? Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 37, 123-141.
- Coleman, M., Ganong, L. H., & Leon, K. (2006). Divorce and post divorce relationships. In A. L. Vangelisti & D. Perlman (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Personal Relationships (pp. 157-173). New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Divorces, Australia, 2006, catalogue no. 3307.0.55.001, ABS, Canberra, 2007
- DUNN, I, & DEATER-DECKARD, K. (2001). Children’s views of their changing families. York: York Publishing Services/Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
- Dupaquier, J,, Helin, E., Laslett, P., LiviBacci, M. Sogner, S., eds. (1981). Marriage and Remarriage in populations of the Past. London/New York: Academic
- Foreword by A. Hayes, Director, Australian Institute of Family Studies in D. de Vaus, Diversity and Change in Australian Families, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, 2004.
- Glick, Paul, (1976). Living Arrangements of Children and Adults. Journal of Comparative studies, 7, Pg. 325.
- Jacobson, D. (1979). Stepfamilies: myths and realities. Social Work, 24(3), 202-207.
- Jones, Anne C. (2003). Reconstructing the stepfamily: old myths, new stories. Ocial Work 48.2 : 228 (9).
- Ihinger-Tallman, Marilyn. (1988). Research on stepfamilies. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 25- 48
- Nicholson, Jan M. ; Phillips, Maddy ; Whitton, Sarah W. ; Halford, W. Kim ; Sanders, Matthew R. 2007. Promoting healthy stepfamilies: couples’ reasons for seeking help and perceived benefits from intervention.(Research on programs to help- Stepfamilies and pre-marriage education)(Report). Family Matters. Australian Institute of Family Studies
- Smith, Marjorie. (2004). Relationships of children in stepfamilies with their non-resident fathers. Article of Family Matters, 67, 28-35 (Document ID: 13615113)
- Sweeney, Megan M. (2007). Stepfather families and the emotional well-being of adolescents. Journal Of Health And Social Behavior, 48(1), 33-49 (Document ID: 1253539201)
- WHITESIDE, M. R, & BECKER, B. J. (2000). Parental factors and the young child’s postdivorce adjustment: A meta-analysis with implications for parenting arrangements. Journal of Family Psychology, 14, 5-26.
- William R., (1989). Strangers in the House: The World of Stepsiblings and Half-Siblings (Book). Social Forces, 69(3), 977.