Stepchildren relate to stepparents based on perceived benefits, researchers find

March 29, 2011

More than 40 percent of Americans have at least one step relative, according to a recent Pew Center study. Relationships between stepchildren and stepparents can be complicated, especially for children. University of Missouri experts have found that stepchildren relate with stepparents based on the stepparents' treatment of them and their evaluations, or judgments, of the stepparents' behaviors.

"It takes both parties – children and adults – to build positive relationships in stepfamilies," said Larry Ganong, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. "Children and stepparents should think of it as building a friendship. There's no perfect formula for doing this, and even if stepchildren initially reject their stepparents, it shouldn't be viewed as permanent. Relationships among stepchildren and stepparents can grow in acceptance, friendship and bonding, regardless of how they begin. Negative relationships don't have to last forever."

Ganong and Marilyn Coleman, Curators Professor in the College of Human Environmental Sciences, identified factors that are related to positive and negative stepchild-stepparent relationships. They found that stepchildren build positive or negative relationships based on their evaluations, or , of stepparents' behaviors toward them and their family. Children also are affected by the opinions and actions of their biological parents and other family members as they develop relationships with stepparents.

The MU researchers evaluated stepchildren's participation and contributions in building relationships with stepparents. They identified six patterns of step-relationship development from stepchildren's perspectives: accepting as a parent, liking from the start, accepting with ambivalence, changing trajectory, rejecting and coexisting.

"Whether or not stepparents are accepted by stepchildren depends on the overall family situation and if they are recognized as being beneficial to their family, either financially or emotionally," Ganong said. "However, step-relationships aren't determined solely by individual actions, but by the collective interactions of both persons in the ."

Another complication is the presence of interested third parties, such as biological parents and siblings, and their reactions to stepparents. Through a process called triangulation, many nonresidential birth parents work to get their children to "side" with them and therefore, reject stepparents.

"Rather than engage children against stepparents, parents should seek counsel from persons outside the , such as a minister, a therapist or best friend, and avoid getting kids involved," Ganong suggests. "Parents should remember that they won't be replaced by stepparents if they maintain strong bonds and that their kids will still love them, even if they also love their stepparents. Relationships are not a zero sum game; there isn't a limit on how much and who people can love."

More information: The study, "Patterns of Stepchild-Stepparent Relationship Development," will be published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Stress in pregnancy linked to changes in infant's nervous system, less smiling, less resilience

November 23, 2017
Maternal stress during the second trimester of pregnancy may influence the nervous system of the developing child, both before and after birth, and may have subtle effects on temperament, resulting in less smiling and engagement, ...

Schizophrenia drug development may be 'de-risked' with new research tool

November 22, 2017
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) and the New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) have identified biomarkers that can aid in the development of better treatments for schizophrenia.

Study finds infection and schizophrenia symptom link

November 22, 2017
If a mother's immune system is activated by infection during pregnancy, it could result in critical cognitive deficits linked to schizophrenia in her offspring, a University of Otago study has revealed.

Self-harm, suicide attempts climb among US girls, study says

November 21, 2017
Attempted suicides, drug overdoses, cutting and other types of self-injury have increased substantially in U.S. girls, a 15-year study of emergency room visits found.

Car, stroller, juice: Babies understand when words are related

November 20, 2017
The meaning behind infants' screeches, squeals and wails may frustrate and confound sleep-deprived new parents. But at an age when babies cannot yet speak to us in words, they are already avid students of language.

Simple EKG can determine whether patient has depression or bipolar disorder

November 20, 2017
A groundbreaking Loyola Medicine study suggests that a simple 15-minute electrocardiogram could help a physician determine whether a patient has major depression or bipolar disorder.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.