Understanding the Role of Stepfathers

A step-parent changes a family in many ways. On the positive side, children may benefit from having a parent whose satisfaction with life is greater due to the advent of the new partner. A second, and most often male, income raises the household’s standard of living while the new adult may increase the adult and kin contacts available to the child, and provide a sense of security.

But the move into a stepfamily is more often analyzed in terms of problems to be overcome, such as adapting to the new partner, changes in roles and behaviors, competition for affection, confusion of identity, difficulty in establishing behavioral norms, and uncertainties about belonging and boundaries. This emphasis on difficulties stems, perhaps, from the need to provide remedies for distress where it occurs, and from the availability to researchers of people who seek help. It may also reflect the expectation that stepfamilies will be aberrant, because society does not have well- defined norms for behavior and roles in such families.

Children’s views on stepfamilies and how the children respond to different conditions, and how these families meet children’s needs are important issues for educators and policy makers, as well as for the parents and children involved.

A 1987 Institute study, Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown, included the views of children from a representative cross-section of families in which parents divorced. The parental sample of 523 men and women had already been interviewed before for the 1984 AIFS Economic Consequences of Marriage Breakdown study. This sample was not selected from support groups for parents or from families looking for help, but from the Australian Bureau of Statistics data tape on divorces. The sample was representative of parents with two dependent children who divorced after marriages lasting from five to 14 years; these couples form the largest group among divorces with dependent children. Full details of the sample are described in Settling Up (McDonald ed. 1986).

In cases where both parents were interviewed, their children were also included in the follow-up study. This resulted in 105 children from 55 families being interviewed, thus providing independent views from children and both parents on family life and wellbeing following separation.

The Positive Side of Stepfamilies

In looking at what children had to say about their stepfamilies, text from the open-ended questions was categorized into comments reflecting the benefits of living in a stepfamily and comments that were negative, or expressed difficulties.

Positive comments were twice as frequent as negative, but with two qualifications. Nine children mentioned getting more presents as an advantage, an apparently stereotyped comment that was often parroted. Second, children who expressed little liking for the stepfather were more likely to say ‘nothing much’ or ‘I don’t know’ in response to the question on what was hard about living in a stepfamily. It is possible that these children, in the difficult situation of often having to deal with a stepfather they did not like, may have suppressed sentiments they found painful. Even with these qualifications, however, the children appeared on balance to be quite content with their stepfamily. You can download and read any interesting take on the importance of the stepfather in blended families at POW Ministries.

The three most often mentioned features of stepfamilies were having step- or half-siblings, having bigger families and having two families. The balance of comment was strongly positive. It appears that many children like having new members in the family even though there are obvious demands involved.

Five children were happy to see their mother’s contentment arising from a new relationship and four said how happy they were themselves with their stepfather. Ten children commented on a new- found sense of family and another ten found greater security, expressed as safety, togetherness and stability. The extra support in the presence of a new father figure was welcomed by nine children who said: ‘I’ve got a father again’; or ‘… good to have an extra father’; or ‘You’ve got people you can talk to if you ever need to’; and ‘… someone else to support you when you need it’.

The Down Side

The negative aspects of adjusting to a stepfamily cannot be ignored. Among the various difficulties mentioned by children, the most common was a sense of divided loyalty, and reluctance to talk about one family in front of the other. Nine children were concerned that their relationship with their father had suffered, or was difficult to maintain. In some cases it was not clear whether these comments were specific to being in a stepfamily or a sequel of the marriage breakdown of their parents, but they were in the forefront of these children’s minds. Nine children found keeping up with two families a strain; travel and logistics and different standards of behavior were taxing, too.

Although new and stepsiblings were generally welcomed, six children remarked on jealousy and favoritism as disturbing, and two others were worried about being displaced from their previous position as eldest or by being out-numbered by boys.

Six children were unhappy about the stepfather’s assumption of the parental role. They expressed this as: ‘He doesn’t have the right…’, or ‘He’s not my father’. Another six said they just did not like their stepfather, or did not get on with him.

More of the Same

As the New York Times points out, children were somewhat polarized when asked about what was good and what was hard about living in a stepfamily. Eleven broke out of this mold and declared in one way or another that their family was ‘normal’, or unchanged, or that the questions were not relevant to their way of thinking. They commented on ‘being a family again’, or ‘being normal’ and ‘having a father again’.

All but one of these children liked the stepfather and eight of the eleven were highly involved with him. For these children, the stepfather seems to have re-established their family identity. That these children felt their family to be incomplete without a father under the same roof is a powerful demonstration of the norms that apply in our society.

Atmosphere at Home

How important is the child-stepfather relationship in creating a home atmosphere that children find congenial and in which they can grow and learn? This article tells us that for young adolescents, it appears that a modest amount of involvement in their lives on the part of the stepfather is optimal. This is no surprise since adolescents are moving towards increasing autonomy. On the other hand, very low involvement was associated with poor ratings of the atmosphere in the home, as was high involvement. Affection for the stepfather was also associated with significantly higher ratings of home atmosphere.

Children who liked their stepfathers and who had low involvement with him were happiest with their homes. Children who had more involvement and liked their stepfather also seemed to be relatively happy at home and with their siblings. The children who had little involvement and did not like their stepfather were the most dissatisfied with home and sibling relationships.

These results do not allow for causal interpretation; they do imply that stepfathers play a significant part in children’s satisfaction with home life, though it may be that children contented with home are more accepting of a stepfather. On the other hand, the relationship with a stepfather did not appear to be associated with the less intimate aspects of children’s family living, levels of anxiety and depression or with children’s self-image.