Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parent-Child Relationships in Stepfather Families and Adolescent Adjustment: A Latent Class Analysis

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Parent-Child Relationships in Stepfather Families and Adolescent Adjustment: A Latent Class Analysis

Article excerpt

Because of high rates of divorce, nonmarital childbearing, cohabitation, and remarriage, an increasing number of children are growing up apart from their biological fathers and living with stepfathers. The transition to stepfamily living presents a number of risks for children, and children in stepfamilies exhibit more internalizing and externalizing problems than do children in two-biological-parent households, on average (Bray, 1999). And despite improvements in children's standard of living when custodial mothers remarry, children in stepfather families are no better off on most emotional and behavioral indicators than are children in single-mother households (Amato, 2010; Sweeney, 2010).

A focus on average differences in children's adjustment, however, obscures the heterogeneity in outcomes among children living in stepfamilies (Coleman, Ganong, & Russell, 2013). Why do some children in stepfamilies thrive while others flounder? Although a variety of factors contribute to children's adjustment in stepfamilies, almost all observers agree that the role of parents is central (Bornstein, 2002). Close and supportive relationships with parents foster children's healthy development in all types of families, including stepfamilies, yet establishing and maintaining strong parent-child ties in stepfamilies is challenging, especially for adolescents (Bray & Easling, 2005; Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992; Hetherington & Stanley-Hagan, 2000).

In this study we drew on Waves I and III from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health; to examine the closeness of parent-adolescent relationships in married mother-stepfather families and the implications of these relationships for adolescent adjustment. We focused on stepfather families because the number of children in stepmother households is comparatively small (Stewart, 2007), and their representation in Add Health is too limited to conduct a detailed analysis. The current study also was limited to married stepfathers because adolescents in the Add Health study who lived with their mothers and cohabiting partners were not asked questions about their relationships with stepfather figures. Stepfamilies that began as cohabiting partnerships and transitioned into marriage prior to the Wave I interview, however, were included in the sample. Despite some sample limitations, the Add Health data set is appropriate for the current topic because it is large, is nationally representative, and provides detailed information on parent-child relationships in stepfamilies. Moreover, Add Health makes it possible to study the associations between stepfamily relationships and multiple aspects of adolescent adjustment.

Previous stepfamily research has focused on children's relationships with each parent separately (e.g., Buchanan, Maccoby, & Dornbusch, 2000; King, 2006). In contrast, we identified family constellations defined by adolescents' relationships with mothers, stepfathers, and biological nonresident fathers-an approach broadly consistent with family systems theory. In particular, we (a) identified the most common underlying patterns of adolescent-parent relationships in stepfamilies; (b) determined the background characteristics that predict these patterns; and (c) examined how different patterns of relationships are associated with symptoms of depression, delinquency, and substance use in adolescence (using cross-sectional data) and young adulthood (using longitudinal data).


Many researchers have studied stepfamily dyads, with a particular focus on the stepfather-stepchild relationship. This research has revealed a striking degree of variability, with some stepfathers developing close emotional ties with their stepchildren and others remaining disengaged and emotionally distant (King, 2006). Despite the usefulness of this research, few studies of stepfamilies have studied systems larger than dyads. …

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