The Relationship between Children and Stepfathers
At present, a great number of children in the United States experience the divorce of biological parents and the necessity to get used to the life with a stepparent. Since the emergence of stepfather families has turned into a widespread phenomenon, special attention is paid to the development of the relationship between stepfather and stepchild. Although each family is characterized by individual behavioral patterns and faces different challenges, it is still possible to define some common aspects that can be useful for the complete understanding of stepfamily issues. Thus, the stepfather-stepchild relationship can be examined by revealing the child’s perspective on the life in a stepfamily, observing the most common stepfamily problems, stressing the importance of interpersonal communication, defining the most common types of relationships and mentioning exceptional related aspects.
Theoretical Background of Stepfamily Formation
The broad concept of a stepfamily can be subdivided into categories depending on the relations between adults and children. Thus, a stepmother family includes a male partner who has children from the previous marriage, while a stepfather family involves children of the female partner. As stated by Robertson, a stepfamily that consists of two partners both having children from previous relationships is called a blended family. According to the recent evaluations, the majority of children living in a stepfamily reside with a stepfather. Therefore, the issues related to the communication between stepfather and stepchild require special attention.
The successful functioning of the entire stepfamily unit depends on the relationships established between stepparents and stepchildren. Research findings reveal that the major problems occur during the early stages of the stepfamily life. As a rule, the first few years spent together do not bring much improvement in the quality of the relationship between stepfather and stepchild. According to Hetherington and Clingempeel, at the initial stages, a stepfather is perceived as a polite stranger who is not able to control and monitor the behavior of stepchildren and feels a sense of distance from them. The first two years of stepfamily life are the most stressful and tense due to unrealistic expectations formed by its members. However, detailed studies demonstrate that the closest relationships are established by those stepfathers who paid much attention to their communication with stepchildren.
Stepfamily from the Child’s Perspective
The postdivorse life and the formation of a stepfamily may be perceived by children in different ways. Firstly, it is important to choose the proper timing for a new marriage since children who had to experience parents’ divorce and remarriage within a short period of time are more likely to develop emotional and psychological disorders. Another aspect that is important for the development of attitudes towards the stepfamily is the age of the child. The fact that a stepfamily can be formed by either cohabitation or remarriage can also contribute to the development of family relationships. The complexity of the relationship between stepchildren and cohabiting stepfathers can be determined by the weaker commitment between cohabiting partners and the higher chances of relationship dissolution, the separation of economic resources, unclear parenting responsibilities, and lower relationship quality. Consequently, the study conducted by Brown demonstrated that children living in a cohabiting stepfamily may suffer from psychological disorders, have problems with behavior, and show worse results in study. Positive relationships between stepfather and stepchild may also develop as a response to stable and caring adult partnership. A child is able to observe the communication between his mother and stepfather on a daily basis and evaluate the quality of their relationship in terms of frequency of arguments, parenting agreements, and open family communication. The behavior of stepfather in relation to these aspects can either contribute to the formation of the emotional connection with a stepchild or maintain a sense of distance between them.
The Most Common Stepfamily Problems
The decision to become a stepfamily can bring a set of challenges for each of its members. The most common challenges faced by the stepparents include disciplinary issues, aspects related to rules and routines, the negative influence of nonresidential parents, financial management, a child’s hostile attitude to a stepparent, a child’s support of a nonresidential parent, fair attitude to all children, and sharing possessions. It is commonly observed that both parents and stepparents admit that they faced multiple challenges while being a part of a stepfamily. However, the majority of stepfamilies develop their own strategies to overcome these issues. For instance, many parents state that disciplinary issues with a stepfamily can be solved by initiating a discussion to reach agreement and compromise. It is also mentioned that the issues of this kind can be initially discussed by a parent and a stepparent to present a united front to a child with the purpose of minimization the resistance against the disciplinary measures. In some stepfamilies, the failure of attempts to treat all children equally turns into a significant family problem. While some parents manage to solve this issue at the early stages by deciding to treat all children equally and setting common rules, some parents remain confident that there is nothing bad in giving preference to their biological children on some occasions. A hostile reaction towards a stepparent displayed by a child is a serious issue that requires taking specific measures. Depending on the nature of the problem, they vary from talking with the child and spending more time with a stepparent to having a family counseling session . However, in some rare cases the only way out is to limit the amount of time that stepfather and stepchild spend together or even let the child live with the other parent.
Stepfamily Outcomes for Children and Their Prevention
The life in a stepfamily during childhood and adolescence can lead to the development of a variety of psychosocial problems in the adulthood. The findings of the study conducted by Nicholson, Fergusson, and Horwood demonstrated that children who lived in a stepfamily in the age from six to 16 faced an increased risk of nicotine dependence, juvenile offending, leaving school without qualifications, dependence on elicit substances, early beginning of sexual activity, and multiple sexual partners. However, these risks can be substantially reduced by the adjusting of psychosocial outcomes for the effects of particular antecedent factors including the socioeconomic characteristics of the family, family history of conflicts, adversity, and instability, the age of mother, her religious beliefs and bad habits, the gender of a child, and attention problems and patterns of the child’s behavior that developed prior to the formation of a stepfamily. The findings of the study lead to the conclusion that the risk of negative psychosocial outcomes is determined primarily by the combination of social, contextual, and individual factors preceding the formation of a stepfamily rather than the child’s exposure to the life with a stepparent. Thus, all these aspects should be considered to prevent the child from facing any psychosocial issues in the adulthood.
The Importance of Stepfather-Stepchild Relationship
The sustainable development of a child’s personality as well as the potential achievements are directly related to the close and supportive relationship with the stepfather. According to the results of the study focused on the quality of relationships between children and stepparents, 40% of adolescents reported that their connection with stepfathers is not close while 60% of respondents stated that they are close with their stepparents. Those stepfathers who have their own experience of being a stepchild may understand the true value of communication with an adult man and devote more efforts to become an example of masculinity and reliability. In general, a sensitivity of fathering approach depends on the personality of the stepfather and his willingness to understand the child’s needs and interests. A truly caring stepfather is always ready to protect and nurture as well as provide the child with everything needed as if his child were his own. However, although some men manage to develop fatherlike feelings for their stepchildren, many stepfathers choose an approach of acting like an adult authority figure without significant emotional attachment to the stepchild.
On the other hand, some scholars question the importance of stepfather’s influence on the child’s well-being. According to a number of studies, the well-being of children living in stepfamilies does not significantly differ from the well-being of children residing in single-parent households. However, the studies do not consider the quality of the relationship between children and stepparents. Therefore, the kind of relationship developed in a stepfamily may be of greater importance than the presence or absence of a stepfather in the child’s life. From this perspective, it can be assumed that the development of close bonds to stepfathers may bring similar outcomes for the child’s wellbeing to those observed in case of the presence of both biological parents.
An alternative viewpoint concerning the necessity of stepfather’s involvement in the child’s life consists in the evaluation of detrimental effects of the stepfather’s influence on the behavioral scores of children. A study involving children with a parental separation experience demonstrated that children whose parents settled their differences as well as children whose mothers remarried have more behavioral problems comparing to those who remained in a single-parent family. Rosenberg and Wilcox claim that stepfather or any other unrelated figure in the household can become more abusive than biological fathers. Children who live with stepfathers are more likely to become subject to physical and sexual abuse. Regardless of these findings, it is not appropriate to treat a stepfather as a potentially dangerous family member that can pose a threat to the child’s physical and psychological health.
The Affinity between Stepfathers and Children
In most cases, stepfathers make attempts to elicit affinity from their stepchildren. The study based on the relationships in the stepfamilies that functioned for nearly five years contributed to the identification of three common behavioral patterns. The first one manifests itself as continuous affinity-seeking with the attempts to build friendly relations with the stepchildren both before and after the remarriage. The second group of stepfathers is represented as early affinity-seekers who tried to become friends with their stepchildren at the initial stages but did not continue these attempts after the remarriage. The representatives of this group usually perceive the beginning of live under the same roof with stepchildren as a chance to assume the role of parent that does not presuppose close affinity of friendship. Finally, the representatives of the last group of stepparents labeled as nonseekers do not pay much attention to generation of affinity from their stepchildren during the whole period of their live together. The results of the study demonstrated that the most cohesive relationships were developed between stepchildren and continuous affinity-seeking stepparents who tried to participate in the activities of the child’s interest and became engaged in dyadic interactions with a stepchild that did not involve anyone else in the household. This approach allowed the stepparents to spend more time with children in direct interaction and become aware of their needs and interests. Therefore, the warm attitude of the stepfather and his involvement in the child’s life is crucial for the development of friendly relationships and strong affinity.
A Bi-directional Process of Relationship Development
The establishment of close relationships in the stepfamily is determined not only by the stepfather’s efforts but also by the stepchildren’s response to these attempts. A constant disregard and rejection of any affinity-seeking activities can make a stepparent believe in the uselessness of his efforts leading to their reduction or even stopping. A stepchild may not respond to the friendly stepfather’s attitude for several reasons. Firstly, many children fail to recognize the affinity-building efforts in the stepfather’s behavior. In such case, the most effective way to make a child appreciate the efforts of the stepparent is to perform the activities that were chosen by stepchild as the ones of a great value. The lack of response from stepchildren may also be explained by the absence of any common interests with the stepparents apart from the love for the children’s mother. The close connection with mother may also hinder the development of affectionate step-relationship since a child can perceive a new stepfather as a competitor for maternal attention and time. The attitude towards the stepfather may also be affected by the close bonds with a nonresidential father. Being loyal to the father, the child may be annoyed at the stepfather’s presence and rejects hi authority. Some children may avoid open communication with the stepfathers not to hurt the feelings of their nonresidential fathers. The number of prior father figures also serves as a determining factor for the development of step-relationships. Children with the previous experience of changing stepfather figures and family instability may become reluctant to establish any ties with a new stepfather. Finally, children may not respond to stepfather’s warm attitude because of the pressure they feel in case of the need to show their attitude to other people. Thus, the choice of the appropriate methods of relationship building can be determined only after the consideration of the interpersonal context related to them.
Types of Relationship between Stepfather and Stepchild
The personality of a stepfather and the interpersonal factors present in the family define his role in the life of a stepchild. The scientists differentiate between the stepfathers trying to act like fathers, stepfathers who want to become friends to their stepchildren, those who cannot clearly define their role in the child’s life, and the ones who abandon their attempts to build close relationships. Each of these behavioral patterns is based on a several processes, including trial and error learning, the evaluation of the child’s reactions, or purposeful planning and decision-making performed by mothers and stepfathers.
Stepfather as a Father
In general, the majority of stepfathers make attempts to take on the role of father to their stepchildren. However, the distinction between the father’s responsibilities observed in different families determines the involvement of a stepfather in the child’s life. While some men play a secondary role in the stepchild’s upbringing just like the real father did, the other ones consider the role of the father as the primary disciplinarian. For the latter ones, the imposition of a strict set of rules and their enforcement may lead to conflicts with their children and wives. Although the role of the father traditionally presupposes the provision of financial support, the degree to which this function is performed by stepfathers may significantly vary. To show the depth of his affinity and responsibility, a stepfather may adopt his stepchildren. However, a firm intention to replace a real parent may not always lead to desirable outcomes. The constant pressure and the need to choose between a nonresidential parent and the new stepfather are stressful for the child. Therefore, children can more easily accept stepparents if they do not perceive their efforts as an attempt to replace their nonresidential parents.
Stepfather as a Friend
The friendship between stepfather and stepchild is widely accepted as the most favorable behavioral pattern. The researchers claim that stepparents who try to establish supportive relationships instead of disciplinary control since the initial stages of interaction can develop more positive bonds with their stepchildren. What is more, the process of relationship development should be led by a child while the stepfather’s approach should be as easy and natural as possible. The mechanism of building friendship between a stepfather and a child is unique for every particular case. Moreover, it is full of pitfalls such as challenging the parent’s authority since a friend is not expected to insist on performing some activities or demand obedience. It is considered that stepfathers who have children from the previous marriages face difficulties in choosing between the demonstration of parental authority and taking the role of a child’s friend. On the other hand, men that did not have children before the remarriage are more likely to build friendship with their stepchildren.
Stepfather as an Inmate Stranger
In some families, the stepfather is relatively uninvolved in the life of his stepchildren and is distant from their problems and needs. The behavioral patterns of this kind usually develop on the basis of cultural expectations of the limited emotional engagement with stepchildren, the absence of genetic relation, and the neglect of parental role demonstrated by the stepfather. Stepfathers that show less affection toward stepchildren exhibit more problematic and neglectful parenting style and try to minimize their involvement in the life of their stepchildren.
To conclude, the challenges faced by stepfamilies have become a subject of detail psychological research due to the frequency of their occurrence and the complexity of their nature. The parents’ decision to life separately and the following remarriage of the parent can become a source of emotional trauma for the child. The successful adaptation to the new lifestyle is possible only with the development of close relationship with a stepparent, particularly a stepfather. Although some stepfathers put in a great deal of effort to elicit affinity from their stepchildren, some men behave as strangers and do not pay much attention to the communicational and behavioral patterns. The need to become involved in the child’s life makes a stepfather choose one of the common types of relationship, namely behaving as a father, a friend, or an inmate stranger. On the other hand, a child is not always willing to respond to stepparent’s efforts or is more loyal to biological father. Therefore, the relationship in the stepfamily depend primarily on the personality of the stepfather, his attitude to his new family and stepchildren, the involvement of other family members, and the quality of relationships established between the remarried couple.