How mothers and their new partners feel about becoming a stepfamily is one thing, and how the children involved feel is quite another. In 2009, more than 7 percent of children lived with at least one stepparent, yet much of the research and writing on the topic centers on how the adults navigate this new family dynamic.
Brigham Young University researchers sought to shift the question to the child’s perspective. Kevin Shafer, a professor at Brigham Young’s School of Social Work, and Todd Jensen, a graduate student, wanted to discover what stepchildren think makes for a good relationship with a stepfather, and how a mother and her new partner can make that happen.
The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (which is why their conclusions, although possibly more broadly applicable, are limited to mother-stepfather households) to consider what factors appeared to affect how close children reported feeling to their stepfathers. Happily, their findings suggest that factors like family resources or education levels had little or no impact on a child’s perception of the strength of his or her relationship with a stepfather.
What mattered, they found, was that the children’s voices were heard, and to some extent, the adults were muted. The adults need to agree on how to parent (and keep their disagreements to a minimum), while the children need to feel comfortable sharing their problems. “Moms need to let their children know that it’s OK to talk if they have a problem with their stepfather, because everybody is still trying to figure out this new family dynamic,” Shafer said.
Shafer described two mistakes couples commonly make in the transition: acting as though nothing has changed, or leaving the majority of the active parenting to the mother (although when the stepfather assumes too much authority too soon, children also report feeling frustrated).
Children want to see their mother and stepfather get along, but that alone is not enough — they also need to feel that they can still count on their mother to hear and respond to their feelings about their stepfather and their new family. That, the researchers suggest, may make children less prone to hold resentful feelings toward their stepfathers, and more able to find a connection.