Childrens and Adolescents Adjustment in Stepfamilies

Children and adolescents in stepfamilies tend to develop more problems than children and adolescents in intact families. Children in stepfamilies are more likely than children in intact families to have academic problems, to have externalizing or internalizing disorders, to be less socially competent, and to have problems with parents, siblings, and peers. About a third of adolescents become disengaged from their stepfamilies and consequently may be more like ly to become sexually active at an early age, to be involved in delinquent activities, to be involved with drugs or alcohol, and to drop out of high school. When children or adolescents raised in stepfamilies reach adulthood, they are more likely to divorce than children raised in intact families. But it is important to note that although children in stepfamilies are more likely to have problems than children in intact families, the majority of children in stepfamilies are normally adjusted.

One would expect that children and adolescents in stepfamilies would be better adjusted than children and adolescents in single-parent divorced families. Stepfamilies have more resources than single-parent divorced families, including two parents to share child rearing and more financial resources. Surprisingly, a large body of research indicates that children and adolescents in stepfamilies have the same level of adjustment problems as children and adolescents in divorced single-parent families. One reason for this similarity between the adjustment of children in step-families and single-parent divorced families may be that stepfamilies experience significant stresses within their family interactions. It may take five to seven years for a new stepfamily to stabilize and begin to function smoothly. From a family systems perspective, stepfamilies begin with a weak family system. Instead of a healthy family system (a strong, well-established marital bond, strong child bonds to both parents, and little outside interference), stepfamilies typically begin with a new and relatively weak marital coalition, a strong parent-child relationship, a weak or conflicted stepparent-child relationship, and with the outside involvement of the noncustodial parent. In addition, children in stepfamilies may have to adjust to less attention from their biological parent, to parenting from a new stepparent, and to new sibling relationships.

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