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Stepfamilies Need Extra Help

  • Dr. Wade Horn
  • 2001 7 Jul
  • COMMENTS
Stepfamilies Need Extra Help

Q: I’m about to marry a woman with two children, ages 6 and 8. I’ve heard that stepfamilies are more difficult to manage than first-time families. Is this true, and if so, what advice can you give to help us be a successful stepfamily?

A: About 7 percent of all children live with a biological parent and a stepparent. About eight of every 10 children living with a stepparent resides with their biological mother and a stepfather.

These statistics, however, only tell part of the story. When one takes into account both remarriages and cohabitation, nearly 30 percent of all children will spend at least a portion of their childhood in a stepfamily. Hence, stepfamilies, while not the rule, are more common than many people realize.

Unfortunately, research consistently finds that children reared in stepfamilies do not, on average, fare as well as children reared in households with continuously married parents. For example, children reared in stepfamilies are more likely to develop emotional and behavioral problems, fail at school and commit crimes, compared to those living in households with continuously married parents.

Indeed, even though remarriage brings more income and a second adult into the household, studies find remarriage by a single mother does not negate the adverse consequences associated with children who grow up in a single-parent family. On some measures, most especially crime, children in stepfamilies actually may do worse.

Making matters worse, second marriages run a greater risk of dissolution than first marriages, and the risk is even higher when children are involved. By some estimates, as many as two out of three stepfamilies break up.

These statistics can be viewed in several ways. The first is to interpret them to mean that all children in stepfamilies are doomed. This, of course, is untrue. Yes, being reared in a stepfamily raises the risk of poor outcomes for children. That doesn’t mean, however, that every child reared in a stepfamily experiences significant difficulties.

Moreover, simply emphasizing the negative doesn’t help stepfamilies be successful. It only serves to demoralize them.

The second way of looking at these statistics is to deny they exist. That’s like telling a smoker to ignore evidence that smoking increases the risk of developing lung cancer. But pretending a risk doesn’t exist doesn’t reduce that risk one bit. It only reduces one’s motivation to do something about it.

Fortunately, there is a third way to look at these statistics, and it is this: Precisely because children in stepfamilies are at greater risk of poor developmental outcomes than those in households with continuously married parents, we need to do a better job of giving stepfamilies the information and support they need to build and sustain healthy families.

If that sounds like commonsense, well, that’s because it is. Unfortunately, commonsense seems to be in awfully short supply these days.

So, here’s my advice for men who are about to become stepfathers, based on a review of the empirical literature on stepfamilies conducted by my research assistant Anna Degraffinreid:

Reaffirm your commitment to your wife daily. Use the knowledge that stepfamilies are hard on marriages as motivation to work to keep your marriage strong and vital. This means taking extra care to listen to your wife, compliment her, show appreciation for what she does and be affectionate toward her.

Eradicate unrealistic expectations. Recognize that stepfamilies are different from first-time families. Don’t expect that just because you and your wife walked down the aisle together means your children naturally will blend into one, big happy family. Instead, recognize that children in stepfamilies frequently experience loyalty conflicts between their new family and their older one. Becoming a successful stepfamily will take time. Be patient.

Set up rules concerning discipline. One common mistake stepfathers make is over-disciplining their stepchildren. Do create household rules with your wife, but in the beginning at least, allow her to be the primary disciplinarian for your stepchildren.

Plan appropriate ways of relating to your stepchildren. The relationship between stepfathers and stepchildren is not – and never will be – the same as the relationship between biological fathers and their biological children. Different, however, doesn’t mean better or worse; it means different. Don’t force your kids to treat you as if you are their biological father. This means, for example, that you shouldn’t insist that they call you “dad.”

Establish a structured and predictable household. For children, structure and predictability equal security. This is especially true for stepchildren. They already have experienced the dissolution of one family. Developing a predictable and structured household will help reassure them the same thing is not likely to happen to this one.

Create a reliable presence in your stepfamily’s life. Keep the commitments you make to your stepchildren. Avoid making commitments you may not be able to keep. In short, be a man of your word.

Take time to have fun and enjoy each other. Family life shouldn’t be all work. Take time to play and enjoy each other’s company. Create new family traditions through shared activities. Above all, keep or cultivate a sense of humor. This journey isn’t going to be easy. You’ll need to laugh a little along the way.

The bottom line: Stepfathers must R-E-S-P-E-C-T the uniqueness of stepfamilies. Making a success of stepfamilies is a more difficult proposition than succeeding as a first-time family. By recognizing the uniqueness of stepfamilies and the need to play by a different set of rules, however, stepfamilies can succeed and even thrive – no matter what statistics may suggest to the contrary.

Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a clinical child psychologist, and co-author of several books on parenting including the Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book (Meredith, 1998) and the Better Homes and Gardens New Teen Book (Meredith, 1999).