The Push and Pull of Stepfamily Life: The Contribution of Stepchildren's Autonomy and Connection-Seeking Behaviors to Role Development in Stepfamilies

Article excerpt

Role negotiation in stepfamilies is an important process that involves and affects all family members. Although researchers have focused on stepparent role development and the influence of stepparents' behaviors, less attention has been given to the influence and experience of stepchildren in role development. This investigation examined the contribution of stepchildren to the type of stepparent roles developed in stepfamilies, as well as stepchildren's experience of role ambiguity and the impact of stepchildren's role content and clarity on relational quality. Fifty-two stepchildren completed questionnaires about their relationships and interaction with their stepparent during adolescence. Findings indicate that stepchildren's autonomy and connection-seeking behaviors predict stepchildren's reports of stepparent role types, stepchildren's reports of stepparents' warmth displays predict stepchildren's role ambiguity, and stepchildren's behavior and role ambiguity relate to their relational satisfaction. Suggestions for future research in this area are proposed.

Keywords: Autonomy; Connection; Role Development; Stepfamily Communication

Stepfamily life can seem like a "roller coaster ... a continuous cycle, perhaps even an adventure, with its ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, positives and negatives" (Burrell, 1995, p. 296). Stepfamilies bring together individuals with different past familial experiences during a time of transition when role development and negotiation and managing relational ambiguity become important communicative activities (Golish, 2003). When stepfamily members are in the early stages of forming and organizing, life is often unpredictable and chaotic (Burrell, 1995). It can take several years for members of previously distinct families to adjust to one another and to integrate their lives into a new family system (Baxter, Braithwaite, & Nicholson, 1999). Researchers studying stepfamilies agree that the model of the nuclear, or traditional, family is inappropriate for understanding these relational processes because stepfamilies have unique characteristics (Baxter et al., 1999; Burrell, 1995; Ganong & Coleman, 1999). Specifically, stepfamilies have a history of a past family and its loss, as well as parent--child relationships that existed prior to the new marriage. Other elements unique to this family form include the influence of noncustodial parents, children functioning as members of multiple households, and extended and complex family networks (Burrell, 1995). To understand what contributes to the development of strong stepfamilies, then, research needs to focus on key experiences of stepfamily life (Golish, 2003).

Members of stepfamilies, adults and children alike, must manage the tasks of developing new stepfamily relationships while maintaining existing family ties (Ganong & Coleman, 2000). To accomplish this successfully, stepfamilies must form structures, roles, and norms that are appropriate within the new family (Braithwaite, Baxter, & Harper, 1998). Developing coherent, comfortable roles is important because roles allow stepfamily members to anticipate one another's behavior and to develop an understanding of how one should reciprocate or respond. Role negotiation in stepfamilies is thus an important process that involves and affects all family members, including stepchildren.

Although researchers have focused on the influence of stepparents' behaviors on role development (e.g., Fine, Ganong, & Coleman, 1997), less attention has been given to stepchildren's contribution to the process. The stepchild's role in the stepfamily context is interesting, as its initiation is uncontrolled and its development often occurs during a personally tumultuous time. Adolescent stepchildren, for example, must deal with adjusting to the new family while simultaneously managing physical and emotional developmental changes, such as the need to engage in identity exploration (Sroufe & Fleeson, 1988). …