What Affects Childrens and Adolescents Adjustment to Stepfamilies

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Several factors may affect how well a child adjusts to a stepfamily. First, the child's gender is a factor. Girls have more difficulty than boys adjusting to step-family life. In stepfamilies that include the child's biological mother and a stepfather, girls are more likely than boys to be resistant to the stepfather. In single-parent divorced families, mother-daughter relationships often are exceptionally close; consequently, when mothers remarry, girls may view new stepfathers as threats to their previously close relationships with their mothers. In contrast, boys' overall adjustment is likely to improve after their mothers' remarriage. Mother-son relationships in single-parent divorced families typically are conflicted and coer cive; consequently, boys may appreciate new stepfathers as alternative supportive parents and masculine role models. In stepfamilies that include the child's biological father and a stepmother, the stepmother may be seen as an intruder in the previously close father-child relationship. Girls may have trouble adjusting to the new stepmother, particularly because most girls maintain a close relationship with their noncustodial mother, but girls generally adjust to the new stepmother and benefit from the new relationship.

The second area that may affect a child's adjustment to a stepfamily is the age of the child. Young children adapt most easily, whereas early adolescents have the most difficulty adjusting to new stepfamilies. The adjustment is particularly difficult for early adolescents because, in addition to the new stepfamily, they are adjusting to puberty and new sexual feelings, becoming more independent from the family, experiencing egocentrism and self-consciousness, and being exposed to new peer pressures to experiment with sexuality and drugs or alcohol. These multiple stressors make it more likely that the adolescent may react negatively to the new stepparent, making it difficult to build a relationship. In addition, stepparents may be hesitant to monitor adolescents for fear of threatening the stepparent-adolescent relationship; consequently, these adolescents may be more likely to get into trouble.

Individual differences in temperament, intelligence, and behavioral patterns also may affect how well children adjust to stepfamilies. Children with easygoing temperaments, high intelligence, and good behavior are more likely to evoke positive responses from their parents and stepparents, making it more likely that these children will receive the support needed to adjust. In contrast, the stresses of living in a stepfamily are likely to magnify children's and adolescents' preexisting problems. Consequently, children with difficult temperaments or with preexisting behavior problems are likely to evoke negative reactions from their parents and new stepparents, thereby reducing the amount of support these children receive.

Parenting factors also may affect children's adjustment to stepfamilies. Children are more likely to have problems adjusting to stepfamilies if both adults bring children into the new stepfamily because parents tend to have closer relationships with their biological children. Stepchildren perceive the closer relationships between stepparents and their biological children as differential or nonequal treatment and resent their stepsiblings.

In addition, because of the stresses of adjusting to a new marriage, mothers (during the first year of the

Step Familys
America's most famous stepfamily—the Brady Bunch. This television sitcom was centered on two single parents, each with three children, who married to become one big family. Episode themes dealt with issues related to having new brothers, sisters, and stepparents. (Kobal Collection)

remarriage) are likely to provide less control and monitoring and to be more negative toward their children. Mothers' parenting tends to improve after the first year and eventually becomes similar to mothers in intact families. Adolescents in stepfamilies are still more likely than adolescents in intact families to experience mother-adolescent disagreements and low levels of supervision.

Stepfathers typically initially assume a polite, nondisciplinarian role in stepfamilies partly because stepchildren (especially stepdaughters) tend to reject stepfathers' attempts at discipline. Eventually, stepfathers and stepdaughters may become involved in conflict focused on the stepfathers' authority. Consequently, stepfathers often become less supportive, less positive, and less involved in discipline than fathers in intact families. Stepfathers' disengagement from parenting is associated with poor child and adolescent adjustment. The most positive outcomes occur with younger children (especially boys) when the step father initially forms a warm relationship with the child and supports the mother's discipline, and later begins to provide authoritative discipline (warmth with moderate control). Early adolescents adjust best when stepfathers begin immediately to establish a warm, supportive relationship with moderate amounts of control.

In contrast, stepmothers often immediately become more involved in discipline. If the biological father supports the stepmother's discipline attempts, children generally receive more effective parenting from both parents. Stepmothers perceive parenting as more challenging than mothers in intact families, although research suggests that stepmothers are actually less negative and coercive in their interactions with their stepchildren than mothers in intact families. Stepmothers who provide authoritative parenting, providing warmth and moderate control, have stepchildren who are better adjusted than the stepchildren of stepmothers who provide authoritarian or neglectful parenting.

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