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WHAT IS EFFECTIVE STEPPARENTING?

By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.*

In 1993, a special symposium was held at Pennsylvania State University on stepfamilies. There, noted scholars shared the results of their cutting-edge research while other scholars had the opportunity to react to and discuss the findings. At that time, E. Mavis Hetherington and Kathleen M. Jodl from the University of Virginia presented a paper that integrated the findings from three longitudinal studies involving stepfamilies. One of the three longitudinal studies from which the findings were derived followed children of non-divorced and divorced families from the time the children were four until they were fifteen (Virginia Longitudinal Study; Hetherington, 1993). The second study (Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992) followed a group of families with an early adolescent child for 26 months after remarriage. The third study, National Study of Nonshared Environments (Reiss, et al., in press) also involved adolescent children. In addition to other types of families, the study included stepfamilies who had been married at least five years.

Of particular interest to SAA readers were their findings about stepparenting, especially behaviors that are helpful in establishing a positive stepfather-stepchild relationship. Summarized here are the key findings from this paper. Hetherington and Jodl reported that unlike biological fathers, stepfathers commonly adopt a disengaged parenting style. This style is characterized by low levels of involvement and rapport, and a lack of control, discipline, and monitoring of the stepchild's behavior and activities. Among biological fathers, authoritative parenting was more common. Authoritative parenting includes moderate to high levels of control, high levels of warmth, positivity, and monitoring, and low negativity. Several specific behaviors of stepfathers were most effective in building positive stepparent-stepchild relationships. However, effective stepparenting behaviors differed according to the age of the stepchild.

When remarriages occurred before children reached adolescence, stepfathers were more effective when they supported the biological parent's attempts to set limits rather than attempting to control or discipline the stepchild. In these families, the stepfather was able to exert his authority independent of the biological parent only over time. Stepfathers who attempted to exert control initially by either an authoritarian parenting style (high control, rigid rules, low warmth) or an authoritative parenting style (moderate control, high warmth, low negativity) were met with greater resistance by the stepchild. When remarriage involved an adolescent child, more immediate authoritative stepparenting was warranted. In other words, the stepparent that asserted his authority more quickly was more likely to develop a better stepparent-stepchild relationship. Certain behaviors on the part of the stepparent were more useful in fostering a positive relationship: clearly communicated limits, ongoing discussion with the biological parent regarding acceptable/unacceptable behaviors and ways that discipline was handled, and encouraging family discussion of rules. Limiting inappropriate behaviors was best done within the context of high levels of warmth and support. Both greater acceptance of the stepfather and more positive outcomes for children resulted. Importantly, stepfathers with adolescent stepchildren were more effective if warmth and involvement accompanied their attempts to limit behavior or enforce controls.

Other findings suggest that both age and sex of the child affect the outcome of the stepparent-stepchild relationship. In the long run, when children were younger at the time of a remarriage, a closer stepfather-stepson relationship was likely to develop. This was not true for stepfathers with stepdaughters. Even in families where initial stepparent-stepchild conflict had subsided, it was likely to erupt around adolescence, especially for stepdaughters.

Professionals often encourage the development of a strong marital relationship as a necessary foundation for a good stepparent-stepchild relationship. In other words, building and sustaining the couple is seen as a key to stepfamily adjustment. Hetherington and Jodl reported that in stepfamilies with younger children a close marital relationship was associated with more negative behavior toward both the mother and stepfather early in the remarriage; this was especially true for preadolescent girls. If the mother-daughter relationship was close before the remarriage, preadolescent girls were even more resistant to their parents and stepparents when the remarriage was satisfying for the adults.

For preadolescent stepsons, higher levels of marital satisfaction were associated with lower levels of acting out/aggressive behaviors. The picture was somewhat different for stepfamilies with adolescents. When parents of an adolescent remarry and that marriage is characterized by closeness or satisfaction, the adolescent is more likely to accept the remarriage and develop more positive (step)parent-child relationship. In summary, the findings from these studies suggest that certain behaviors of stepparents, particularly stepfathers, are more effective than others. Furthermore, behaviors that work to strengthen the stepparent-stepchild relationships will vary depending on the age and sex of the stepchild. What works for younger stepchildren may not work with older stepchildren, and what works with stepsons may not work with stepdaughters.

* At the time of this publication, Dr. Kay Pasley is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Published in the quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Summer 1994.

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