Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Stepfamilies Face Rough Adjustments

July 20, 1998

How successful do you think this couple will be in raising children? They don't understand each other or cooperate well when it comes to parenting. One parent has formed an alliance with the children while the other has only a marginal relationship. Finally, parenting in the family is frequently subject to the interference of an outsider.

Obviously, this situation is not good. However, this is the starting point for a typical stepfamily. They are at the beginning of a long and arduous process that takes years and hard adjustments for everyone concerned.

The biological parent has a history of parenting through a first marriage and a period of single parenting. Parent/child bonds are well formed. A stepparent brings a distinct set of expectations about parenting and their own parenting history - or of not being a parent. The new couple will be challenged in their flexibility and mutual problem-solving abilities.

Remarried couples who have children from previous marriages have a 50 percent higher divorce rate than other remarried couples. Their number one cause for divorce is disagreement about parenting.

To succeed, expect less. Forming an effective parenting team is tough enough in nuclear families. To expect parenting in a stepfamily to mirror that of a traditional nuclear family is a recipe for disappointment.

Ideal stepfamily functioning may need to be different from the nuclear family. Sometimes it is better when it is less integrated and has more tolerance and openness. The ages and resistance of the children are also factors.

Being a stepfather. In the early stages of a remarriage, stepfathers act like polite strangers and try to win over the stepchildren by reducing conflict and negative reactions. They don't exert as much control, monitor less and give less affection than do fathers in non-divorced families.

Even after a few years, stepfathers usually remain distant, disengaged parents. However, conflict and negative interactions between stepparents and stepdaughters increases during the teenage years.

Unfortunately, the lack of a biological bond between the stepfather and stepchildren makes for more intense conflict and loss of control. The rates of physical abuse are seven times higher than that of fathers with their biological children. Homicide rates for stepfathers are 100 times higher than for biological fathers.

This is a two-way street. Negative and rejecting behavior by stepchildren often cause conflict in stepfamilies. Even stepparents with unusual patience and resolve may give up when confronted with unrelenting hostile behavior by stepchildren.

Being a stepmother. If you think stepfathers have it tough, stepmothers have it worse. Remarried fathers want their wives to step into an active parenting role. Stepmothers also have cultural expectations about motherhood based on strong affectionate bonds and active parenting.

Stepmothers choose or are forced into an active, less distant and more confrontational role than stepfathers. When this happens too quickly in the remarriage, the results are predictably negative. Being a stepmother is made easier when the couple agrees on child rearing practices and she has the father’s support in what she does.

Stepparenting and discipline. It takes considerable time and trust to form an executive parenting team between a remarried couple. It may take years for a stepparent to fill a disciplinary role with their stepchildren.

Becoming the dominate disciplinarian is a landmine for stepparents. Sometimes, this can work out well between stepfathers and stepsons. Children do best when the custodial parent is the dominate authority figure and the stepparent is warm, involved and supports the custodial parent's discipline.

Stepparents who have strong ideas about parenting and try to take matters into their own hands cause trouble. Their discipline should be less harsh than that of the biological parent or they will end up the "bad guy" in everyone's eyes. When stepsiblings live together, an uninvolved and harsh parenting style produces more rivalry, aggression and lack of support among stepsiblings.

Stepfamilies can work. The transition to a viable stepfamily takes time and commitment. Most children from remarried families go through normal, painful adjustments and develop into competent adults. Children can and do cope with life in stepfamilies.

A stepfamily can be a blessing both to the remarried parents who benefit from a happy marriage and to the children who are well served by the new family arrangement.

The ideas presented in this column were taken from a review article on children's adjustments to divorce and remarriage by psychologists Mavis Hetherington, Margaret Bridges and Glendessa Insabella of the University of Virginia.