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By Amy Lofquist*

One-third of Americans are stepparents, stepchildren, stepsiblings, or some other member of a stepfamily. While the number of children living with both biological parents has declined, the number of children living in a stepfamily has increased. With changes in family structure such as divorce, single-parenting, or remarriage, a question many struggle with is how such changes affect children. Any family form that differs from the traditional two-parent, biological family is assumed to place children at risk. Such changes require some adjustment time; however, it is inaccurate to assume that stepchildren have more problems than other children because of parental remarriage.

For many years research studies have examined the effects of remarriage on children, typically comparing them to children in other family structures - (e.g. biological two-parent families, and single-parent families). Commonly, adjustment and well-being have been defined in terms of self-esteem, stress or anxiety, academic achievement, behavior problems, social relations, and attitudes toward marriage and family life. Overall, a review of the many studies reveals inconsistent findings. In other words, some studies find children in stepfamilies are less well adjusted than children in other families and other studies find no such differences.

Two somewhat consistent findings have emerged from the literature. No differences in self-esteem are found between children of different family structures, and children in stepfamilies tend to leave home earlier. Contradictory findings have been reported regarding academic achievement and other school behaviors, including dropping out, tardiness, and behavior ratings by teachers. Some studies suggest that children of divorce and remarriage are at greater risk for academic difficulties when compared to children from intact, first-married families. Other studies, however, suggest that children of divorced, single-parent households are at greatest risk with no differences found between children in stepfamilies and those in first-marriage families. Regarding behavioral problems, findings also vary. Early research suggested that children in stepfamilies were at no greater risk for behavior problems (e.g., frequency of delinquent behavior, drug use, and poor peer relationships). More recent studies indicate that children in stepfamilies have more overall behavioral problems than children in first-marriage families.

Other studies find children in stepfamilies to be susceptible to peer pressure and deviant peer relationships, which may lead to later delinquent behavior, and girls in stepfamilies may be at increased risk for drug/alcohol use. Because children in stepfamilies and single-parent families report more negative stress in their lives, behavior problems and adjustment difficulties may be one reaction to stress. Importantly, when adjustment difficulties are reported for stepchildren, such behaviors typically appear within the normal range for such behaviors, thus not suggesting a need for clinical intervention. In addition compared to children in intact, unhappy first-marriage families, stepchildren are better adjusted.

Why so many contradictory findings? One reason is that different studies are done in different ways which makes comparisons across studies more difficult. Also, most studies address relatively simple questions of differences by family structure and fail to consider the multiple factors that likely affect children's adjustment regardless of family structure. When researchers simply compare children from different families, sensitivity to the dynamic nature of family life is lost. Also, studies that have found children in stepfamilies to be less well adjusted often limit their participants to members of new stepfamilies. Time is need for children to adjust; some adjustment difficulties and negative reactions would be expected. With time many problems disappear or decrease. That is, studies reveal few differences in children's adjustment several years after the stepfamily formation when compared with children in other families. This may suggest that children generally are resilient to changes in marital relationships.

Furthermore, it is important to consider behavior problems in light of children's adjustment prior to the remarriage. Most research studies do not indicate the level of adjustment before the remarriage occurred. It may be that a particular child had a history of school problems. More recent studies have attempted to look beyond family structure and examine the factors that put children at risk for adjustment difficulties. Findings consistently suggest that the parent-child, former-spouse, and the spousal relationships affect child outcomes. For example, parenting style and positive parent-child interactions affect children's adjustment. Studies indicate that high parental warmth and support, consistency, limited use of punishment, and agreement between spouses on children's issues are associated with positive outcome. The former-spouse relationship also can affect children's adjustment through conflict and competition. Marital conflict and poor marital adjustment is a key to understanding children's behavior and self-esteem.

Regardless of family structure, low marital conflict and positive spousal relations enhance children's adjustment; any home that is highly conflictual is likely to negatively affect a child's well-being. Sex of child is another factor affecting outcome. Some evidence suggests that girls have more adjustment problems in stepfamilies than do boys. Girls in stepfamilies typically report more stress than girls in nondivorced families and boys in stepfamilies. Higher stress may lead to adjustment difficulties such as poor academic performance and problem behaviors. Parents tend to report an increase in negative behaviors in daughters following remarriage and a decrease in sons. This is often explained by the close mother-daughter relationships formed prior to the remarriage and the perceived threat to that relationship by the addition of a stepfather.

Age of the child is another factor affecting children's adjustment. Adolescents have a more difficult time than do younger children, in part because adolescence is a time of developmental change. The formation of a stepfamily also produces change and may generate added stress. Adolescents may show a reluctance to establish ties as they strive for autonomy and turn toward peers for support. Especially for girls, it may be a difficult time for parental remarriage. Whereas younger children may show some reaction and behavioral changes with a remarriage, once a consistent routine is established adjustment problems typically disappear.

Given the current state of research on children in stepfamilies, it would be premature to suggest that no differences exist between these children and children living in first-marriage families. On the other hand, we cannot assume that all children in stepfamilies will have problems. It is safe to say that children may encounter temporary difficulties in making the shift from one family to another, ultimately, most children seem to function and develop normally. Moreover, family relations in any family form are complex with numerous factors affecting a child's well-being. We still have much to learn about these factors related and the processes that enhance adjustment.

* This article was published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Fall 1993.

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