Academic journal article Social Work

Stepfamily Functioning and Closeness: Children's Views on Second Marriages and Stepfather Relationships

Academic journal article Social Work

Stepfamily Functioning and Closeness: Children's Views on Second Marriages and Stepfather Relationships

Article excerpt

Stepfamilies are formed when a parent forms a relationship, either through cohabitation or remarriage, with a partner who is not the biological mother or father of their child or children (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). Recent estimates of the prevalence of stepfamilies in the United States suggest nearly 10 percent of children live with a stepparent at any given time and a full third will live in a stepfamily before they turn 18 years old (Bumpass & Raley, 1995; Sweeney, 2010). These patterns are supported by the United States' high divorce and remarriage rate. In fact, the United States has the highest remarriage rate in the world--indicating the relative importance of marital relationships to most Americans (Amato, 2010; Smock, 2000; Sweeney, 2010; U.S. Census Bureau, 2000). Although most individuals think of stepfamilies as being formed through remarriage, an increasingly large number of these families are formed through cohabitation (Goldscheider & Sassler, 2006). Indeed, cohabitation has become an increasingly frequent precursor and alternative to remarriage, creating a unique stepfamily type (Bumpass, Raley, & Sweet, 1995; Wu & Schimmele, 2005). Clearly, these trends have meaningful implications for children. Unfortunately, however, current research has failed to adequately measure children's perceptions of stepfamily life.

Past research has identified how the presence of a stepparent affects children by addressing issues such as school performance, internalized problem behavior, externalized behaviors, and risky behaviors (Coleman, Ganong, & Fine, 2000). A number of studies have addressed stepfamily quality and the strength of relationships formed through remarriage from the adults' perspective (Sweeney, 2010). In fact, Coleman et al. (2000) estimated that approximately 92 percent of the literature addresses these relatively few topics. Because many scholars see the child-stepparent interaction as central to stepfamily functioning, several scholars have called for greater attention on children's perspectives of stepfamily life, closeness, and quality (Gamache, 1997; Ganong & Coleman, 2004; Sweeney, 2010). The lack of attention on this topic to date is unfortunate because of the implications that poor family functioning can have for stepchildren. Also, children's perceptions of stepfamily functioning and closeness have significant implications for social workers who work with stepfamilies. The results of our study identify several potentially fruitful places for practitioners to begin working with stepfamilies experiencing a myriad of problems and difficulties.

Using nationally representative data from a sample of children ages 10 to 16 years at time of interview, our study focused on closeness between a child and stepfather and its predictors as a way to conceptualize positive stepfamily functioning. As a result, we addressed two gaps in the literature on postdivorce unions and stepfamilies. First, we introduced the viewpoint of children in stepfamilies. Second, our study has significant clinical implications for social workers and other professionals working with stepfamilies--especially if they have children. These clinical insights can support more effective stepfamily formation and improve stepfamily functioning. We used a family systems perspective in our analysis, which shows that the best predictor of a child's closeness with his or her stepfather is how the child views the relationship between his or her mother and stepfather.

FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY

Family systems theory, popularized in the 1960s and 1970s, suggests that a family is not merely a collection of individuals, but is defined by the roles, rules, and connections between family members (Bowen, 1978; Minuchin, 1974; Satir, 1967; Satir & Baldwin, 1983; Satir, Stachowiak, & Taschman, 1977). Relevant in research and clinical settings, the theory essentially argues that the family as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts (Day, 2010). …

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