Stepfamily ties into adulthood

Kristie Auman-Bauer
June 01, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Stepfamilies continue to form at increasing rates, with approximately 30 percent of all U.S. children spending time in a stepfamily. Penn State researchers are exploring stepfamily relationships and the lasting impacts they can have as stepchildren grow into young adulthood.

Stepfamilies face unique challenges, according to Valarie King, professor of sociology, demography, human development and family studies and director of the Family Demography Training Program; and Rachel Lindstrom, Ph.D. candidate in sociology and demography.

“Relationships between stepparents and stepchildren and negotiating parenting roles between two sets of parents can cause strain in newly formed stepfamilies,” explained King. “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 is investigating these relationships because a lot of variability exists in their functioning and quality. “We found most research on stepfamilies focused on minor children living at home, but we did not know what would happen to these relationships as stepchildren grew and gained independence,” said King. Their research was published in the June 2016 edition of the Journal of Family and Marriage.

According to the researchers, this is the first study to prospectively examine patterns of stepchild closeness to stepfathers at two points in time, adolescence and young adulthood, and to explore how these relationships unfold. “Prior research often relied on retrospective reports from individuals regarding what they remember these relationships were like growing up,” noted King.

The researchers looked at data from Waves I and III of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a nationally representative sample of adolescents in grades seven through twelve in the U.S. during the 1994-95 school year. The study followed these adolescents into young adulthood with four in-home interviews. King and Lindstrom restricted their study to stepchildren who reported that they had lived with their married biological mothers and stepfathers, and whose mothers and stepfathers were still living together when the children reached adulthood.

They found that almost half of the stepchildren reported feeling close to stepfathers in adolescence into young adulthood. Stability was also apparent in the next largest group of respondents, but at the opposite end of the spectrum. “About 23 percent of stepchildren reported not feeling close to stepfathers in adolescence and this continued into young adulthood,” King reported. “About an equal number of respondents reported becoming less close or improving their stepfather relationship over time, 15 and 16 percent, respectively.”

King discovered that the most important factor in determining stepchild-stepfather relationships was the quality of the stepchild’s relationships with other family members. 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.

“In particular, parents who were in supportive marriages seemed to develop closer relationships with their children, perhaps because they were more emotionally available to respond to children's needs,” King explained. “Additionally, 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.”

Previous research has shown that stepchildren who reported feeling close to their stepfathers spent more years of their childhood living with them. Stepchildren in these closer relationships may have benefited by having stepfathers help them with homework, coach their athletic teams, teach them how to drive, explore colleges and help them move.

“Stepchildren who maintained close relationships with stepfathers or whose relationships improved over time were likely advantaged during their transition to adulthood,” said King. “The way parent–child relationships are defined at this point is likely the path these relationships will follow in the future.”

Their work is being supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and Penn State’s Population Research Institute, part of the Social Science Research Institute.

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Last Updated June 02, 2016