One step at a time

The author of a new study on stepfamilies says there are coping strategies for stepparents.

Published August 4, 1998 10:22AM (EDT)

Not all stepfamilies bond as seamlessly as those mythical Bradys, whose picture-perfect mugs graced television screens in the early '70s. Mike and Carol -- both mysteriously widowed -- joined their respective broods (three perky blond daughters and three freckled, brunet boys), and despite a few made-for-TV skirmishes, all problems were resolved in the span of a half-hour sitcom.

But as anyone who has been a part of a real-life stepfamily can attest, the "Brady Bunch" scenario was largely a farce. Join a man and woman who have weathered previous marriages, add a few kids and maybe a new home, and problems can flourish: jealousy and rivalry among stepsiblings; stepparents with differing views about discipline; couples trying to forge a marriage while tending to the needs of their own kids and their partner's. With lots of love and the best of intentions, many couples enter into second and third marriages with the hopes they will this time "get it right."

There are more than 20 million stepfamilies nationwide and by 2007 they are expected to outnumber nuclear families in the United States. Yet more than half of all stepmarriages fail, usually within the first three years. Why are the chances for stepfamily survival so tenuous? What makes some stepfamilies function beautifully and others fail miserably?

A nine-year longitudinal study of 200 families, sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, asked these and other questions. The study has been billed as the "the most comprehensive analysis of stepfamilies ever," and its findings have recently been released in a book by Dr. James Bray and John Kelly, "Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade." Salon spoke with Bray, an associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, about conflict resolution, parental guilt and the Cinderella syndrome.

First, describe the group you studied.

We studied 200 families -- 100 nuclear families and 100 stepfamilies. We started the study in 1983 and ended it nine years later. We interviewed these families, gave them psychological tests and went into their homes and videotaped them to see how they worked together.

Were the families from geographically disparate areas?

When the study started, all the families were from the Houston metropolitan area. But by the end about 30 percent of our sample had moved away from the Houston area. Some went all over the country and some went all over the world, and we followed them and kept up with them.

Were there black and white families?

No, they were all white families.

Was that for any particular reason?

It was for two reasons. The main reason is, we had limited funds, so we had to limit the number of families. And second, we suspected there may be some ethnic differences, and this was a way of not adding what we call "error variance" to the study. If blacks are really different from whites, you won't get a very clear picture of anything. But actually it turned out we were wrong about that, because some other studies have looked at black and Hispanic stepfamilies and they're quite similar.

What is significant about this study besides the sheer length of the project?

We looked at three things: How divorce and remarriage impact children, what is the family life cycle of a stepfamily and finally, we wanted to see how stepfamilies were different from nuclear families, particularly what kinds of things made a successful stepfamily.

- - - - - - - - - -

Popular myths characterize stepparents as evil and loathsome, for example, Cinderella's wicked stepmother. How did that image get started?

Prior to the divorce revolution of the last few decades, kids usually entered stepfamilies because of death, not divorce. And prior to about 1905, when there was a divorce, men always got the children because they were considered property. Nowadays most stepfamilies are formed after a divorce, and most full-time stepparents are stepfathers, not stepmothers. But the myth of the wicked stepparent, the wicked stepmother in particular, still endures. And these myths certainly impact children. One of the things that we actually found is that sometimes when kids first enter into a stepfamily they're concerned about whether their new stepparent was going to be wicked or who will take care of them if something happens to their biological parent.

How can that child's fear be alleviated?

Well, what we found is that oftentimes stepparents were trying too hard too fast. We call this the "good stepfather" syndrome, where stepfathers really try to be good parents and be very active, and even when they did a great job -- we had videotapes of them and they looked like they came out of the pages of parenting magazines sometimes because they were doing all the right stuff -- the kids would rebuff them or reject them because they didn't have a relationship with them and they really resented this new person coming in and acting parental.

What's a well-intentioned stepparent to do?

What we found seemed to work better is when a stepparent played more of a back-seat role to the biological parent, what we call kind of a camp counselor -- that's an adult who has authority but also engages the kids. They should then focus on forming a relationship with the children by doing things that the kids are interested in. Sometimes these well-intentioned parents were trying hard and they felt like they were doing everything they could, but what they should have been doing was talking to the kids and finding out what the kids really wanted.

What do you suggest for families where the kids just won't warm up to the stepparent? Did you find that there's often not much that will help the assimilation except time?

Two things seem to speed the process. One is for the stepparent to get involved in activities the kids are interested in, like sports or computers. The second thing, and this really helps the custodial parent, is to help monitor what goes on in the children's lives. This is kind of an indirect form of parenting, where you keep up with what they're doing in school, who their friends are, when they come and go, that kind of stuff. One of the difficulties in divorce is there's only one pair of adult eyes and ears and it's hard to keep up with kids. And so that's a way in which the stepparent can actually help the biological parent, and at the same time it shows an interest in the children as well.

And what kind of coping strategies can you offer to the stepparent who is constantly being rejected out of hand by the kid? Doesn't this get extremely frustrating?

It does. It's particularly hard with young adolescents, who are the ones most likely to do that. We found that stepfathers often tried to be affectionate and warm and loving to their stepkids, but the kind of love and affection they would give was physical affection like hugs and kisses. But the kids said they didn't like that. What they really wanted was verbal affection, things like "Gee, you look nice today," or "I'm glad you did well on your schoolwork." And that really made a difference to the kids.

Why do you think they didn't like it when the parent was physical? Was it too invasive?

It's too invasive, one. And two, I think dads probably do it because guys are more likely to do that than women. I think there are gender differences here. Men are less likely to talk and tend more toward action. I think they're just trying to be close with them, and that's one way of expressing that closeness.

You say that sometimes the parents' fighting in front of the children can be constructive because they can learn about conflict resolution.

I would say conflict is OK to express in front of kids, not necessarily fighting, and certainly not if it gets into an abusive or a violent nature. But one of the things I think children can learn in a stepfamily is that it's OK for adults to have arguments and to resolve those arguments.

Kids in stepfamilies are initially very sensitive to any kind of conflict in the family, because they are afraid that another divorce might come out of it. It may be hard for them to get close and form an attachment to stepparents. But when they realize that no, Mom and Stepdad can have an argument, but they're going to resolve it and they'll still be together, that can be really helpful for the kids.

How do kids cope with stepsiblings. Is there a lot of competition? Jealousy?

Well, we found a great variety in our study. In some cases, stepsiblings got along really well, they became playmates. In some cases it was not at all, and there was a lot of competition and conflict. It was very difficult for the families to merge in those cases. One issue here is the parenting question -- how the kids are treated. In some families it was hard for the parents to agree on similar rules, which put a strain on the kids because one child was treated one way and another was treated another.

Do you suggest that parents, once they merge families, write the rules over again?

They really need to do that. And they need to make them consistent, and that involves compromise. Let me give you an example. One of the most common ones is TV. Some families eat dinner in front of the TV, some have it at the dinner table. If one set of kids was used to eating in front of the TV and the other wasn't, that could cause problems.

A common problem after a divorce is each parent's vilifying the other one to the child.

That's one of the worst things that happens to children in divorce. Fortunately that only happens in a small percentage of cases, probably about 20 percent. When it does happen, it is really damaging to kids. The most important thing to do is to never speak negatively about the child's other parent, or stepparent for that matter.

How does that affect the kids? What kind of damage is done?

It really impacts their self-esteem and their sense of loyalty. Parents often don't realize that when they criticize the other parent, they're really criticizing their child because the child is half of that person.

So the child internalizes that criticism?

They do. We found that this was especially true for girls.
The criticism also drives a wedge in the relationship between the children and the parents because children are very protective of their parents. They're loyal, and so they want to defend the parent being criticized; particularly when the kids get older, into adolescence, they're more likely to be rebellious and upset.

Often kids have problems when they see their parent being physical or sexual with a new partner. Did you see that in the study?

Younger kids don't pay as much attention to that, but as kids get into early adolescence, they're very sensitive to sexuality, and so some kids do respond to that. A colleague of mine did a study where she looked at kids in early adolescence, and she found that that was a particular problem because kids at that age don't like to think of their parents as sexual. And when there's an active, hot romance going on, it's kind of hard to ignore that. I think that's something parents need to be aware of with their kids.

You write that in first marriages there's often a honeymoon period and then things start going downhill, whereas in stepfamilies the opposite happens. What kind of turmoil or trauma did you find in the first years of stepmarriages?

The biggest trouble spots are about parenting, and the hardest task is to integrate a new stepparent into the family. The second big issue is how to develop a strong marital bond with kids from Day 1. One of the things about first marriages is, you usually have nine months before the kids are around. But in stepfamilies, often the parents don't take enough time for their marriages. Some even take their kids on their honeymoon, often out of a sense of guilt. But in reality, it's critical that you develop a strong marriage and a strong marital bond first, otherwise it's harder to negotiate all those other issues. Your adult needs must be met.

I imagine guilt is something parents who divorce feel a lot.

Often parents feel really horrible about putting their kids through a divorce, and so afterwards, they are more lenient than maybe they were before. They might give in to things that they wouldn't have earlier because they feel so guilt-ridden about the fact that their child is in pain.

What are some of the positive effects of a remarriage?

If a child has a strong, stable stepfamily, if they get the nurturing and love and good, quality parenting that helps them develop into healthy, happy kids, then there can be lots of benefits. One, which I already mentioned, is that kids learn how to deal with conflict from successful adult relationships. Having a strong, supportive stepfamily can help adolescents manage their identity and autonomy; they can revisit their parents' divorce and come to terms with that. When things work well, you have more than two parents to love you and perhaps three or four sets of grandparents. So we actually have seen big success stories where people really do get along and establish big extended families that involve multiple people.

Judith Wallerstein released a study last year that said divorce was absolutely devastating for children, across the board.

I think Judith Wallerstein's study was important and added to our understanding about divorce, but her conclusions about the negative impact of divorce have not been replicated by anybody. And her statement that 70 percent of kids from divorced families have significant emotional problems has not been replicated. In fact, we find just the opposite. We find that 75 to 80 percent of kids in stepfamilies do just as well as kids in first-marriage families. And so I think part of the problem with her study was that she didn't have a control group of kids in nuclear families, and so some of the things she said were problems -- that she attributed to divorce -- were actually just adolescent issues.

And wasn't her sample fairly small?

It was small, and it came from a clinical population, which means that she selected kids who were having problems from the beginning. Whereas our study was a community sample of people, and we screened out people who had emotional problems to begin with.

By Lori Leibovich

Lori Leibovich is a contributing editor at Salon and the former editor of the Life section.

MORE FROM Lori Leibovich

Related Topics ------------------------------------------