Andrew Parker

Study Uncovers Rifts, Older Stepfamily Couples Battle Turbulent Bonds with Adult Children

A new study looked at how older couples and their stepchildren interact with each other. It examined how positive or negative these relationships were and showed clear differences between mothers and families. The findings suggest that stepfamilies have their own challenges and experiences compared to non-stepfamilies.

The Rise of Blended Families

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As divorce became less taboo in the late 20th century, there was a surge in remarriages that has continued into the present day. This trend has led to more blended families, particularly among middle-aged and older couples. 40% of older people who have children are in blended families.

The New Study

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Bowling Green State University’s I-Fen Lin and colleagues conducted the study to understand the impact of stepfamilies on parent-child relationships. Before conducting the study, they predicted that stepfamilies may report fewer positive interactions with their stepchildren than non-stepfamilies. They predicted that families with a “joint” child may feel happier than those without one.

The Methodology

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The researchers used data from the 2016 and 2018 Health and Retirement Study, focusing on people aged over 51. This gave them a foundation for understanding parent-child relationships in stepfamilies and non-stepfamilies. They spoke to 2,150 married couples and asked them various questions.

Positive and Negative Relationships

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The study’s participants rated their relationship with their children based on various factors, including understanding, openness to talking about worries, and whether they could rely on them during times of conflict. The researchers compared these positive aspects with the participants’ feelings of frustration or criticism. This gave the researchers a better understanding of how parents felt toward their children or stepchildren.

Gender Differences

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Both mothers and fathers in stepfamilies claimed to feel fewer positive parent-child interactions compared to mothers and fathers in non-stepfamilies. Stepfathers and birth fathers felt the same amount of negative interactions with the children. Stepmothers, though, reported feeling more negative levels of negative relationships with their stepchildren. 

The Effect of Joint Children

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Having a joint child, a child that is biologically related to both parents, seems to have a positive effect on parent-child relationships in stepfamilies. The researchers said, “Having a joint child was associated with more positive parent–child relationships in stepfamilies, supporting the concrete baby effect.” This seemed to prove one of their original predictions.

Family Bonds

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Other research also suggests that joint children have a positive effect on blended families. In a University of Michigan study, stepfamilies with both joint and stepchildren spent as much time together as biological families. This suggests that joint children could help blended families create stronger bonds.

Other Findings

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The researchers continued, “We found that couples in stepfamilies perceived relationships with their children less positively than did couples in non-stepfamilies […] Non-stepfamilies had more positive parent–child relationships than in all of the stepfamily configurations (except “hers and ours” families, families where the mother has children from previous relationships), but stepfamily types did not differ from one another.”

Living Situations

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The paper reported that 11% of stepfamilies lived with one of their children, while 18% of non-stepfamilies reported the same. Stepfamilies also had fewer chances of having at least one college-educated spouse and were more likely to be from a minority background. Most blended families were created after a divorce.

The Study’s Limitations

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Although the study does have some interesting results, it also had some limitations. Only a few of the blended families had parents who each brought children into the marriage. Also, the researchers only spoke to parents, not the children. They may have a different view of their relationship. 

Racial and Socioeconomic Differences

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According to the Pew Research Center, stepfamilies are more common among Black adults than among Whites or Hispanics. Their research supports the findings of Bowling Green State University, which said stepfamilies were less common among college graduates. They also reported that people with higher incomes were less likely to be part of a stepfamily.

Stepfamily Duties

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The Pew Research Center reported that most adults feel more duty toward their biological families than stepfamilies. Even so, many adults still felt the need to support their step-relatives. Likewise, around 64% of people said, “They would feel very obligated to a sibling who was in serious trouble.”

The Emotional Side of Stepfamilies

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Any new stepparents should think about their child’s feelings and past experiences before trying to create a relationship with them. The American Psychological Association suggests showing interest in the child’s activities and giving verbal praise to help build trust. This can reassure the stepchild that their new family member is genuinely interested in having a relationship with them.

Transitioning to a Stepfamily

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Experts also suggest that creating traditions around the move to a stepfamily can help children feel more secure and reduce anxiety. This could include special activities or routines that show the change positively. This way, children can feel less stressed about adjusting how much time they spend in each household.

Role of Support Groups

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Support groups for stepfamilies can help them to deal with their unique challenges. They can share their experiences in these groups, which can help members to learn from each other and feel isolated. This way, they can build a support network that understands what it’s like to be in a blended family.

Stepfamily Retreats

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Similarly, taking part in stepfamily retreats can help blended families. These retreats offer workshops and counseling services to address any issues. At the same time, they also have bonding activities for stepfamilies to strengthen their ties in a supportive environment, away from criticism.

Individual Time

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In a stepfamily, spending one-on-one time with each child can help to strengthen individual relationships. This can help each child feel valued and heard. For stepchildren, it can give them a sense of security and belonging, which could be very important in helping them feel part of their blended family.

Legal and Financial Planning

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Outside these emotional issues, stepfamilies have to deal with other complicated legal and financial issues. MarketWatch claims that inheritance rights and child support responsibilities are big issues for blended families. Planning ahead and having open discussions can avoid these problems. 

Holidays and Special Occasions

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Holidays and special occasions can be particularly difficult for stepfamilies as they often bring up traditions from previous family structures. It could be worthwhile to create new traditions that include all family members. This can help create a family identity and celebrate these times together.

Effect on Grandparents

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Stepfamilies can change the relationship between children and their grandparents, according to one study. Everyone involved needs to work hard to nurture these relationships so that grandparents remain an important part of the children’s lives. This can involve giving them additional support and love.

A Pet’s Life

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Pets play a bigger role than you might think in helping a blended family bond. Having a pet means you’re sharing responsibilities and getting unconditional love. This can help create teamwork and shared memories, which can make the transition into a new family easier than without one.

Challenges for Stepchildren

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According to the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, children in stepfamilies might face more struggles in behavior and emotional well-being. They might struggle with accepting new family members or feel caught between biological and stepparents. This can cause them to take part in riskier behavior or struggle academically.

Parenting Styles

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Across America, families have very different parenting styles, ranging from overprotective to liberal approaches. The Pew Research Center reported that mothers and fathers approach protection and discipline differently, with mothers being more overprotective than fathers. The study suggests that fathers are also more stubborn than mothers.

Society’s Views on Marriage

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People’s interest in marriage depends on factors like their age and relationship status. In a Survey Center on American Life study, many unmarried Americans said they were not interested in marriage, but religious people are likely to see marriage positively. 76% of Americans in a committed relationship but have never married would like to get married.

Staying Informed

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If you’re entering a blended family, you should make sure you stay educated about yourself and the specifics of a stepfamily. There are many resources out there to use, including books and workshops, which can help you deal with the challenges of stepfamily life. These can help you to set realistic expectations and build healthy relationships.

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