Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Disparate Parenting and Step-Parenting with Siblings in the Post-Divorce Family: Report from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study

Academic journal article Journal of Family Studies

Disparate Parenting and Step-Parenting with Siblings in the Post-Divorce Family: Report from a 10-Year Longitudinal Study

Article excerpt


A longitudinal study of divorced families shows widely discrepant psychological adjustment among siblings along with disparate relationships with parents and stepparents in one half of the families at the 10-year follow-up. These differences in sibling adjustment and parent-child relationships were not evident at the divorce assessment. This instability in many parent-child relationships following divorce and remarriage challenges the view of divorce as an acute time-limited crisis for children and court policy that assumes that parent-child relationships at divorce will remain relatively unchanged over the years that follow. Findings also show the power of remarriage to reshape parenting styles of biological parents.

Keywords: parenting; step-parenting; sibling relationships; post-divorce relationships


The research that we describe is the first to investigate parent-child and stepparent-child relationships with siblings over 10 years in the post-divorce family. In each of the families identified as showing marked disparities in the treatment of siblings by parents or stepparents, one or more children showed serious psychological and learning problems. These differences in the psychological condition of siblings and in the parenting of siblings were not apparent at the divorce assessments. They were, however, strikingly evident a decade later in one half of the multi-child divorced families in this longitudinal study. Because well known studies of children in divorced families employ a research method that assesses only one 'target child' in each family (Amato & Booth 1997; Cherlin, Chase-Lansdale & McRae, 1998; Emery 1994; Hetherington & Kelly 2002), differences among siblings, along with disparate parenting, as these emerge over time, have gone unobserved and unreported. Our interest in exploring the course of post-divorce parenting of siblings was triggered by cases of parents who rejected one of several siblings, cases that came to light 5 and 10 years after the divorce (Wallerstein & Blakeslee 1989).


The marriage came apart at the mother's behest because of the father's drinking and physical abuse. The court order provided for weekly visits for the well-educated father with his son, age 7, and his daughter, age 5. The mother did not object. The father greeted his son warmly at each visit. He taught the boy to play chess, played ball with him, and praised him lovingly throughout their time together. By contrast, he ignored or humiliated his daughter, calling her 'stupid, just like your mother, just like all women,' or referring to her with coarse epithets, which the little girl fortunately did not understand, although their tone was unmistakable. After each visit, she cried for hours. Once she poignantly reported to her mother, 'At least this time, Daddy let me pet his dog.' These unhappy visits continued throughout the girl's childhood and early adolescence, causing the hapless child years of suffering. At the 25-year follow-up she was an anxious, timid young woman who allowed men to exploit and physically abuse her.

There was no evidence of the father's rejection of his daughter before or at the divorce. While he was closer to her brother, he did not mistreat her until after the divorce, when she appeared to be standing in for her mother and for 'all women.' As a result, the rescue that the divorce provided for the mother was denied to the female child who was victimized, probably in her place.


The expectation that siblings will be treated similarly by their parents (i.e., absent-specific allegations of mistreatment directed at a specific child) has been the dominant paradigm governing the work of the North American courts. Thus court evaluations in custody disputes assess parenting interest and capacity as a general attribute of the parent, and assume, barring representations to the contrary, that these qualities extend equally to all siblings. …

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