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The three keys to forging strong relationships between children and their stepdads

BYU researchers have identified three things that improve the odds that children and their stepdads will have a close, happy relationships and the family will thrive.
BYU researchers have identified three things that improve the odds that children and their stepdads will have a close, happy relationships and the family will thrive.

PROVO — BYU researchers have identified three things that improve the odds that children and their stepdads will have a close, happy relationships and the family will thrive.

Moms need to let their children know that they can communicate openly and honestly about issues in the stepfamily, said Kevin Shafer, assistant professor of Social Work at Brigham Young University and one of the study's authors. Too often, kids figure mom will side with her new husband and there's no point in discussing things, he said.

The mom and stepfather also need to let the kids know that the couple's relationship is a good one; it's important to keep arguments in front of the kids to a minimum, Shafer noted. And finally, the stepfather and mom need to agree on how they're going to parent.

"What that means is moms and stepdads need to treat family like a system," said Shafer, "and talk about what how parenting will operate, family traditions, discipline. ... It's not a discussion families are prone to having. In a biological family, there's a broad agreement on what it looks like, but in stepfamilies, that's not true. It takes a lot of discussion between all family members."

The study is published in the journal Social Work. The co-author, Todd M. Jensen, will be awarded his master's degree in social work in May.

Squishy numbers

It's not easy to count how many children live with stepdads. Stepfamilies include both married and cohabiting couples. Pew Research focused on stepfamilies in 2011 and provided statistics about adults with a stepfamily relationship: 42 percent of adults have a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling or a stepchild. It said 15 percent of men are stepdads (about 16.5 million), but not how many of those stepfathers actually live with the children.

Much of the data from the government that is available on the subject is old; it no longer tracks marriage, divorce, remarriage and stepfamily trends the same way it did before 1996. But a researcher from The National Center for Family and Marriage Research in 2010 told SmartStepfamilies' Ron Deal that about one-third of all weddings in America form stepfamilies.

The BYU study found economic resources and education levels were not nearly as important as the actual relationships. That's good news, said Shafer, because amid the challenges of forging a new family, those who can focus on building good relationships will flourish.

Shafer and Jensen analyzed the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, a nationally representative sample of 1,088 kids ages 10 to 16. Where most studies look at adult concerns regarding blending families, this one sought to tell the story from the childrens' perspective. It focused solely on families with stepdads, since that was the group that answered the point-in-time survey. Shafer pointed out, though, that children are much more likely to live with a stepdad than a stepmom.

Girls and boys

Shafer said most of the kids in their sample reported "feeling relatively ambivalent about their stepdad — not incredibly close, but not adversarial." On a 14-point scale, in fact, the mean was seven. Girls felt less close to their stepdads than the boys did.

"It's a difficult dynamic. Boys are looking for a father figure," he said. "It's a lot harder for men and girls."

Shafer emphasized that moms have to tell their kids it's OK to discuss any problem they have with their stepfathers. They need to know the couple is committed to each other, but that mom is still available to them and will hear their concerns.

The researchers note two mistakes that families in transition make. Sometimes the mom and stepdad act like dad is a replacement, instead of an addition to the family, and that backfires. It also doesn't work when mom tries to do all the parenting herself.

Questions, limitations

The study background notes said that there are unanswered questions about how a child's relationship with a biological father can impact attitudes toward a stepfather. A child with an absent father might either seek out a father figure or approach one with significant distrust. Those with a close relationship to their biological father could either be more welcoming of a stepfather or view him negatively.

They also noted that stepfamily relationships formed through cohabitation might be "hampered for several reasons," including what other research has found is an increased likelihood the relationships will dissolve, the fact that people who live together without marriage seldom pool their finances and that parenting responsibilities are less clear.

Among limitations, the researchers said that the study was longitudinal, but the questions the kids answered were only asked at one point in time.

A number of studies have looked at dynamics within stepfamilies. Pew, for example, asked among many other questions how obligated respondents felt they were to help out various relatives if they fell on hard times. They found the vast majority felt obligated to help their parents with a serious problem (85 percent), compared to 56 percent who felt obligated to help a stepparent. And that went both ways. Adults with both biological and stepchildren said they would feel more obligated to help their own grown child, 78 percent compared to 62 percent for the stepchild. The pattern was true for siblings, too.

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