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WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE ROLE OF THE STEPPARENT

By Kay Pasley, David Dollahite, and Marilyn Ihinger-Tallman *

Increasing numbers of adults become stepparents each day. Estimates suggest that about 60 million adults and 20 million children were in step situations in 1987, or almost 1/3 of the U.S. population. This includes stepfamilies with both resident and nonresident stepchildren. If the trend continues, people in stepfamilies may make up as much as half of the population by the next century.

Both research scholars and clinical experts agree that the stepparent role is more difficult and less clearly defined than the parent role. In part, some of the difficulty of parenting someone else's children stems from the negative or pejorative meaning attached to the term step" in fairy tales, in popular literature, and as perceived by people in general. More recently greater interest has been shown in examining the role of the stepparent as one means for understanding the effects of stepfamily living on child outcomes and overall marital adjustment. The ambiguous nature of the stepparent role has been the focus of a number of empirical investigations and is a common theme in the clinical literature. Early empirical studies often found that stepfathers felt inadequate in their role and did not perceive mutual love or mutual respect between themselves and their stepchildren. Scholars reported that both parents and stepparents expected stepparents to be less involved in the parenting process than parents and were encouraged to be less involved. The findings from recent studies offer support for these earlier findings.

Some studies imply that the stepparent need not be as involved in parenting as the parent at the beginning of the remarriage. Other students found that parents frequently complained about the inadequate involvement of stepparents in parenting. Seemingly contradictory findings suggest there may be discrepancies between beliefs about what stepparents should and should not do and the actual desired behavior regarding the role, depending upon whom is asked (children, spouses, or stepparents). Regarding actual stepparenting behavior, mothers in stepfamilies were reported to be more authoritarian in their parenting style than were others in first-marriage families. In other words, mothers in stepfamilies commonly used stern, dogmatic control without explanations of reasons for discipline and did not promote independent decision making on the part of children. Similarly, stepfathers were less warm, less supportive, less controlling, and more permissive with their stepchildren than were fathers with their biological children. Stepfathers were judged to be less consistent in their discipline and allowed children more leeway in what was viewed as acceptable behavior than did fathers.

Time may be a key determinant in the expectations for appropriate and desirable stepparent behavior. Time also may be a key to understanding the effects of stepparenting on the marital relationship. A study examining stepfamilies of different durations found that early in remarriage good marital adjustment for both stepfathers and mothers was associated with agreement between spouses that stepfathers should not assume a parental role quickly, especially the disciplinary component of the role. After 2 1/2 years of marriage, however, better marital adjustment in stepfathers was associated with his spending more time in child care, as well as agreement between spouses that he should form a relationship with his stepchildren. After five to seven years of remarriage, such behaviors or beliefs were not associated with marital adjustment for either stepfathers or their spouses. Prior parenting experience may be another key to understanding adjustment to stepparenting and its effects on marriage. Stepfathers who had not parented before reported poorer marital adjustment and more negative feelings toward stepchildren than stepfathers who also were fathers.

Being a stepmother is believed to be more difficult than being a stepfather, primarily because stepmothers often are expected to assume primary responsibility for child care. Some studies have shown that stepmothers emit a greater proportion of negative behaviors toward stepchildren than either stepfathers, fathers, or mothers. In addition, stepmothers report higher levels of stress and greater dissatisfaction with their role than do stepfathers.

Effective Stepparenting Behaviors

Early in remarriage, the most successful stepparent-stepchild relationships are as those where the stepparent focuses first on the development of a warm, friendly interaction style with the stepchild. Once a foundation of mutual respect and affection is established, stepparents who then attempt to assume a disciplinarian role are less likely to meet with resentment from the stepchild. Findings also indicate that conflict between stepparents and stepchildren commonly occurs when stepfathers supported their spouse's (the child's mother's) attempts to enforce rules, especially rules around household routines and tasks.

Parenting behaviors that include high levels of warmth, support, and control are associated with positive child outcomes in first-marriage families. This pattern of parenting behaviors known as authoritative parenting doesn't have the same positive outcome in stepfamilies. The predominant parenting style in stepfamilies is characterized by more disengagement. In fact, over time stepfathers showed much lower levels of warmth, control, and monitoring and higher levels of conflict than did fathers in non-divorced families.

Some research suggests that parenting behaviors which work with younger children are less effective with older children, although this may depend on whether the stepchild is a boy or girl. Stepfathers of young boys more frequently used authoritative parenting behaviors than other parenting behaviors, and over time the boys' behavior improved. However, relationships between stepfathers and stepdaughters became more conflicted over time regardless of the parenting behaviors the stepfather used. In addition, the findings from a recent longitudinal study reported that conflicted relationships between stepfathers and adolescent children, especially stepfathers and stepdaughters, usually was provoked by the children's hostility, resistance, and coerciveness toward the stepparent. In other words, children's negativity made it difficult for the stepparent to be warm and controlling or to develop a close relationship with the children. Thus, the nature of interaction between stepparents and stepchildren over time may be another key to understanding adjustment to stepfamily life.

* Kay Pasley is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. If you would like a list of the references on which the summary is based, please contact her directly.

* David Dollahite is Assistant Professor of Families Sciences at Brigham Young University;

* Marilyn lhinger-Tallman is Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, Washington State University.

A more in-depth review of this literature with a series of recommendations for clinical practice will appear in the July (1993) issue of Family Relations.

Published in the SAA quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1993.

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