Stepfathers in children's lives
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This paper uses data from the Institute of Family Studies' Parents and Children after Marriage Breakdown study to investigate how children adjust to being in a stepfamily, and how they feel about their stepfathers. The study points to the happy incorporation of stepfathers into the families of about two-thirds of the adolescents in the sample. Stepfathers who are perceived to have a low involvement appear to be in the happiest homes. Conditions in the family before the arrival of the stepfather may, however, be quite important to how involved the stepfather becomes with his stepchildren. The findings also point to the need to help those children who are in a 'stand-off' with their stepfather. They are also likely to be unhappy at home, and less likely to have close contact with their own father.
Parents have a distinct advantage when forming a stepfamily: the choice of partner is theirs. Repartnered parents report a significant rise in wellbeing (Weston 1989), and they find their new partners to be supportive in parenting matters (Funder 1991a). But not everything comes up roses: second marriages are more likely than first unions to end in divorce while the children in stepfamilies are likely to have somewhat lower self-esteem (Ochiltree 1990), to leave home early because of conflict, and to cut short their education (Kiernan, 1991; Young 1987). O'Connor (1989) also reports the over- representation of children from stepfamilies among the homeless children.
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 (Weston 1989) while the new adult may increase the adult and kin contacts available to the child (Funder 1991b), and provide a sense of security.
But the move into a stepfamily is more often analysed in terms of problems to be overcome, such as adapting to the new partner, changes in roles and behaviours, competition for affection, confusion of identity, difficulty in establishing behavioural 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 behaviour 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.
Five to eight years after the separation of their parents, 66 of the 105 children interviewed had a step-parent. Only nine children were living primarily with their father, so the majority (91 per cent) of children living with step-parents had stepfathers. Since most children live with their mothers after separation, this stepfamily type is the most common. The sample had insufficient numbers of children living with their fathers to warrant consideration of resident stepmothers, therefore this discussion is limited to families comprising a resident biological mother and stepfather, and which might also have new children of the second union or stepsiblings. The stepfamilies were more or less evenly split into these three permutations.
Stepfathers most frequently touched the lives of the young people interviewed by telling them what was right and wrong (88 per cent) and by paying to keep them (80 per cent). Stepfathers were also often available to assist with homework (55 per cent), to talk over problems (52 per cent) and to help with decisions about education and career (37 per cent). They did less in the way of health and direct contact with school and remained on the sidelines in matters of religion, hobbies, clothes and friends. Most of these children and young people thus had stepfathers who were involved in some ways in their lives, and particularly in setting standards and providing financial support.
In response to the question rating their liking for the stepfather on a scale of one to five, the median was four; thus the children interviewed tended to heartily endorse their stepfather. It appears these children had, for the most part, a relationship with their stepfather that suited them; some liked their stepfather and were highly involved with him (56 per cent) or liked him but he was not very involved in their life (18 per cent). Of those who did not get on well with their stepfather, most appeared to have relatively little involvement with him (16 per cent). A small group did not like their stepfathers but reported him to be actively involved in their lives (11 per cent).
Involvement was related to age, with younger children reporting that their stepfathers did more with them than older children. This is in line with their reports about their mothers and fathers and with the normal growth in adolescent autonomy. Affection for the stepfather did not significantly correlate with age, and there was no statistically significant age difference between groups characterised by different patterns of engagement with the stepfather.
Girls have been reported to have more difficulty accepting stepfathers, perhaps because the new spousal relationship interupts their closeness to their mother. The girls in this study, however, reported liking their stepfathers a little more than did boys (f=2.85, df 1,55, p <.10). Boys, on the other hand, reported their stepfathers were more involved (f= 4.83, df 1,57, p <.05).
The greater involvement of boys with their stepfathers perhaps reflects what is found between boys and their fathers. When liking and involvement patterns were considered, more boys were in the high involvement and liking category (61 per cent) than were girls (50 per cent). Boys were also considerably more likely to have involved stepfathers whom they did not like (15 per cent compared with 4 per cent of girls). This last category has, perhaps, the most potential for conflict and difficulties. One possibility is that over time girls have been more successful than boys in negotiating a relationship with their stepfather that suits them.
It is possible that children living with stepfathers but without new children of the marriage or stepsiblings might have an easier time accommodating their stepfather. No significant differences in involvement or liking were found, however, for children in different family types.
There appears to be a link betwen the marital status of non- resident fathers and children's involvement with stepfathers. From previous work in this study, it appeared that fathers living alone saw their children more often than others and had them to stay overnight. Moreover, staying over was an important indicator of the father's satisfaction with his relationship with his children. In this study, it appeared that when the non-resident father was single, the stepfather was also more involved with the child than when the child's father was either repartnered or had other children (p < 0.05). In the latter situation, the child reported the least involvement with the stepfather.
It may be, then, that children with more sustained relationships with their father are more secure in that relationship and are then free to enter a new relationship with the stepfather. On the other hand, there may be conditions carrying forward with children and their family which make for ease in relationships and family life. Whatever the explanation, children tend to be involved with two fathers, or have little involvement with either.
If this finding is a general one, it may be a comfort to fathers to know that their children do not appear to substitute one father for another that their affections are not apparently undermined by stepfathers. For stepfathers, it may be a relief to know that their engagement with stepchildren will not mean they have to assume sole responsibility for them.
The Positive Side of Stepfamilies
In looking at what children had to say about their stepfamilies, text from the open-ended questions was categorised 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 parrotted. 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.
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 (18:6, 13:3 and 15:1 respectively). 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 (11), 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 behaviour were taxing, too.
Although new and stepsiblings were generally welcomed (18), six children remarked on jealousy and favouritism 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
Children were somewhat polarised when asked about what was good and what was hard about living in a stepfamily. Eleven broke out of this mould 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 childstepfather relationship in creating a home atmosphere that children find congenial and in which they can grow and learn? 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.
The question of the optimal engagement with stepfathers conducive to a 'happy home' was considered by combining affection (high and low) with involvement (high, mid and low). In this analysis, the child's age was controlled because we knew that younger children were happier with the atmosphere in their home (p < .05). The relationship of the stepfather the five-category, combined classification of involvement and liking also had a significant effect (F=5.36, df 5,55, p < .001). The results of the multiple classification analysis of this analysis are presented in the figure below.
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.
Before discussing the findings it is worth recalling that the strength of this study is its base in a cross-section of Australian children in stepfamilies. It is, however, a relatively small study with 105 children from 55 families, so that population estimates would be prone to error. Nevertheless, it is a group that was not selected on any criteria related to having problems, nor to identifying themselves as stepfamilies. This was perhaps borne out by the frequent response of the children that their families were 'normal', or 'no different' from others. It is possible that the 'stepfamily' tag assumes some of its importance in the eye of the beholder.
One of the key issues on which the study can perhaps shed light is that of conditions under which things seem to be working well for children and those where difficulties are apparent. In interpreting the findings presented here, it is important to remember that each child has a family history that includes a period before the parental separation, the divorce and its sequels, and the reformation of the family in its existing form, five to eight years after the separation. The analysis and results presented are part of a larger study that attempts to take account of some of this history, though it is largely absent in this discussion. Nevertheless, it is worth remembering that aspects of family functioning will pre-date the stepfamily stage under analysis here.
Children in Happy Homes
Although children who are happy at home and with their siblings are found in all categories of involvement and liking for the stepfather, they are more prevalent in circumstances in which the stepfather is well-liked and less involved. It seems, too, that this has been easier for girls than boys.
'Stella', 13, had a stepfather and stepbrother. Although she reported low involvement with her stepfather, whom she liked, she thought the good things in the family were: 'Um ... you get more attention. Well, there's more people for you to look up to. I look up to Dad and [stepmother] and mum and [stepfather] a lot. Um ... It's just good.'
'Margery', 15, enjoys home and her stepfather and alludes to previous difficulties: 'It's good if you didn't get along with the other parent ... or even like the way they were. And then [stepfather] was different towards me.' This same girl found getting on with her non- resident stepmother very difficult, however.
For fifteen-year-old 'Martin': '... Mum's [place] is quiet and you can get away and that sort of stuff ... and that's really all.'
Children in Unhappy Homes
These children split into cases of high and low involvement on the part of the stepfather, but it was expected that children who were 'toughing it out' with the stepfather would be the most unhappy. In fact it was those who were in a 'stand-off' who expressed the strongest dissatisfaction with home and with their brother or sister. What may be happening in this snapshot is that the latter group have experienced the higher involvement and not tolerated it. They are, however, a little older than the high involvement/low liking group so factors associated with age may also play a part, both in their power to maintain a distance and in their need for independence.
For most children, the relationships were complex. Twelve- year- old 'David', who had an involved and happy relationship with his stepfather and was happy at home, said there were '... not so many good things. Just that I've got a father again now.' The down side of this was 'you haven't got your own father to talk to'.
Thirteen-year-old 'Geoff', who rated his home as very unhappy, had greater difficulty expressing himself. On the positive side he could find solace only in: 'I guess a brother and sister to play with. Having more relatives to see.' On the down side he recorded that 'Mum and [sister] are a bit much sometimes ... They'll just try to annoy you and stuff'. He appeared not to be close to his mother or sister in a household that now had a stepfather with his two children living there.
The nine children whose families were the unhappiest and who were in stand-offs with their stepfather were sometimes eloquent in their unhappiness, and occasionally their desperation.
Eighteen-year-old 'Jeanette' surmised that being in a stepfamily was better for her brother '... because Dad didn't have time ... it keeps him in the family, I think', but could think of nothing good for her except some new kin. For Jeanette, the difficulties were easier to relate. 'Jealousy, I'd have to say, would be the hardest thing, um ... Conflict arises and jealousy I'd say would be the hardest thing and not liking each other. I dislike [stepfather] intensely, but he's living with Mum and that's the way it is, and that's hard, but that's life, kiddo.'
Others in this situation expressed their desperation thus: 'I suppose your family is just split apart', and the problem is '... just talking to each other and that ... getting on ...'
This work points to the happy incorporation of stepfathers into the families of about two-thirds of the adolescents in our sample. Stepfathers who are perceived to have a low involvement appear to be in the happiest homes. There is good reason for caution, however, since conditions in the family before the arrival of the stepfather may be quite important to how involved the stepfather becomes with his stepchildren. This work also points to the need to help those children who are in a 'stand-off' with their stepfather. They are also likely to be unhappy at home and with their sibling, and less likely to have close contact with their own father.
- Funder, K. (1991a), 'New partners as co-parents', Family Matters, No.28, April.
- Funder, K. (1991b), 'Children's construction of their post- divorce families: a family sculpture approach', in Funder, K. (ed.), Images of Australian Families, Longman Cheshire and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Kiernan, K. (1991), 'Step-children at risk', Family Policy Bulletin, December.
- McDonald, P.F. (ed.) (1986), Settling Up: Property and Income Distribution on Divorce in Australia, Prentice Hall Australia and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
- Ochiltree, G. (1990), Children in Stepfamilies, Prentice Hall, N.Y.
- O'Connor, I. (1989), 'Our homeless children: their experiences', Report to the National Inquiry into Homeless Children by the Equal Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Sydney.
- Weston, R.E. (1989), 'Income circumstances of men and women after marriage breakdown: a longitudinal study', Paper presented at the Third Australian Family Research Conference, Ballarat, November.
- Young, C. (1987), 'Young People Leaving Home in Australia: the Trend Towards Independence', Australian National University, Department of Demography, Canberra.