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Do stepfamily relationships hold together when the kids grow up?
Penn State researchers have been investigating what happens to relationships when the kids in stepfamilies grow up. Findings were published in the Journal of Family and Marriage. - photo by Lois M. Collins
Close to a third of American kids will be in a stepfamily at some point, most of them living with their biological mother and a stepfather. When those kids become young adults, will the relationship with the stepfather hold up?

That's a question that researchers at Penn State have been exploring, and their findings were published in the June edition of the Journal of Family and Marriage.

"Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren and negotiating parenting roles between two sets of parents can cause strain in newly formed stepfamilies," researcher Valarie King, professor and director of the Penn State Family Demography Training Program, said in a written statement. "Given that children usually live primarily with their mothers when biological parents separate, we wanted to focus on the relationship between adolescents and stepfathers and how they change and develop over time."

King and Ph.D. candidate Rachel Lindstrom found that the quality of the stepchild's relationship with other relatives determined how good the relationship was with the stepfather. "Stepchildren who reported feeling close to their mothers also had a closer relationship to their stepfathers and reported stronger feelings of family belonging in adolescence," they said.

Supportive marriages mattered because it helped couples develop stronger relationships with the children. King suggested that "a good marriage might encourage stepfathers to develop and maintain a relationship with stepchildren, and stepchildren may also be more likely to form bonds with stepfathers who make their mother happy and seem to be making positive contributions to the family."

They found "much variability in how these relationships unfold over time, although a sizable minority of youth remained close to their stepfathers."

The study used data from the first and third waves of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which is a sampling of youths grades seven through 12 in the 1994-95 school year, who were then followed over time with in-home interviews. This study focused on stepchildren who had lived with their married biological mothers and stepfathers, who were still living together when the children reached adulthood.

When long-term child-stepparent relationships were good, the transition to adulthood seemed to go more smoothly as well, the research found.

Other research has documented some of the challenges with stepparenting. For example, in so-called "mine, yours and ours" families where each partner in a marriage has at least one child from a previous marriage or partnership and they then also have a shared biological child the number of roles influences parental well-being. The Deseret News reported on a study published last year in the journal Social Work:

"Data from more than 6,000 nationally representative parents showed the more roles a person fills biological parent, stepparent, noncustodial parent, often all at once the greater the likelihood of depression. While that was true for both genders, it particularly impacted multirole stepdads, according to the study by Kevin Shafer, a professor of social work at Brigham Young University and Garrett T. Pace, a research specialist at Princeton's Center for Research on Child Wellbeing."

The American Psychological Association notes some of the challenges in forming successful stepfamilies: "Recent research suggests that younger adolescents (age 10-14) may have the most difficult time adjusting to a stepfamily. "Older adolescents (age 15 and older) need less parenting and may have less investment in stepfamily life, while younger children (under age 10) are usually more accepting of a new adult in the family, particularly when the adult is a positive influence. Young adolescents, who are forming their own identities tend to be a bit more difficult to deal with."

APA also offers some advice: "Stepparents should at first establish a relationship with the children that is more akin to a friend or 'camp counselor,' rather than a disciplinarian. Couples can also agree that the custodial parent remain primarily responsible for control and discipline of the children until the stepparent and children develop a solid bond."