(HealthDay)—Although the role of father is often clear-cut, stepdads must navigate the fine line between parent and friend with the children of their wives.
Now, new research, just in time for Father's Day on Sunday, suggests that open communication is the compass the family needs to survive the journey.
"There's a lot of evidence that moms expect the dads to take on the father role, but dads think their role is to be a friend to the stepchild," said study author Kevin Shafer, an assistant professor of social work at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah.
Once a stepfamily is forged, everyone's roles need to be renegotiated, the researchers said, and mothers can play a key role in helping the children adjust to the new family dynamics.
One expert said it just takes time and a lot of talking.
"They're not going to look like the Brady Brunch right away. Creating a stepfamily is a major transition," said Markie Blumer, an assistant professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. "It's important to sit down and say that we're all going to have to make adjustments and it isn't just the stepparent who has to do all the adjusting if this is going to work."
Blumer also recommends that parents be as flexible as possible and try to see things from the children's point of view. "Ask the kids if they want you to be at their baseball game, and tell them it's OK if they change their mind," she said. "Leaving the door open is really important [since things will likely change over time]".
Shafer said couples should discuss beforehand how they're going to parent the children together, and the kids also need to be involved in talking about how the family is going to function.
Although these findings may sound like common sense, Shafer said, many adults don't talk about their expectations beforehand.
It's not just the parenting issues the couple tends to avoid, he said. Sixty percent of men who owe child support and alimony to their ex-spouses never mention that to their new partners. "If they're not talking about their financial obligations, what else are they not talking about?" he said.
Blumer added that although there is a great deal of research on the effects of divorce on children, there aren't many studies that look at the issues associated with remarriage. But the impact on the kids can be significant.
Todd Jensen was a teenager when his father remarried, and he remembers the adjustment being difficult. "I felt my opinions weren't taken into account and my parents were so focused on their new marriage, the children took a back seat," he said.
From that experience, Jensen, now a research associate at Brigham Young University, became interested in studying how children perceive stepfamily relationships. He co-authored this latest research, published recently in the journal Social Work.
Nearly 10 percent of children in the United State live with a stepparent at any given time, and one-third will live in a stepfamily before they turn 18, the researchers said.
The study tapped data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, a survey of people who were between 14 and 22 years old in 1979, and their children, aged 10 to 16 at the time they were surveyed. The participants have been followed yearly and asked questions about their marriages, children and family situations over time.
The study included about 1,000 respondents: children whose mothers were divorced and either remarried or living with someone other than the child's biological father. Among the respondents, the mother had been remarried or living with the stepfather for an average of five years.
Blumer was unsure whether the data remains relevant, noting that the respondents were primarily white Protestants, with parents born in the late 1950s. "You can't generalize the results to recent years," she said.
Learn more about parenting from the U.S. National Library of Medicine.