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SAA Research Update – Is Stepmothering More Difficult than Stepfathering?

Stepfamily Research: SAA’s Research Updates

Stepfamily Research: SAA’s Research Updates

Why is Stepmothering More Difficult than Stepfathering?
By Rose Marie Hoffman

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Summer 1995

Overwhelmingly the literature paints a bleaker picture of life as a stepmother than as a stepfather. In fact, some have argued that stepmother-stepchild relationships have the potential to be particularly problematic for both stepmothers and stepchildren. This is particularly true when the stepchild resides with the father and his new wife. Consider for a moment the obstacles residential stepmothers likely encounter. We know that after divorce noncustodial mothers maintain more frequent and consistent contact with their children in comparison to noncustodial fathers. As such, mothers are more likely to interfere, consciously or unconsciously, with the development of a bond between residential stepmothers and stepchildren. In addition, children’s attachment to their mothers is believed to be stronger than their attachment to fathers. This stronger attachment may make it more difficult for children to accept another mother-figure in their lives than for them to accept another father-figure.

Still another complication is the "invisible burden of fantasy" that Papernow (1993) noted, which is characteristic of the earliest stages of stepfamily development. This fantasy weighs even more heavily on the residential stepmother who often seeks to provide the stepchildren with their first experience of effective mothering. Expectations held by the stepmother and by the stepchildren are more likely to be either overly hopeful or overly negative rather than realistic. Either position can hinder reasonable development of good relationships. Unguided by norms, role clarity, or realistic expectations, the stepmother works to "make up for the past" experiences of the stepchildren, only to come to the awareness that she is overwhelmed, frustrated, and less committed to them than she believes she should be. In turn, her stepchild(ren) may react to her frustration, recoiling from their own thwarted fantasies and unmet expectations.

The lack of role models for women who become stepmothers means that women have nowhere to turn for meaningful advice. Residential stepmothers are simply far fewer in numbers than are residential stepfathers. The lack of role models also can be problematic for stepchildren. For children it also means that fewer of their friends are in similar family structures, so there are fewer children with whom stepchildren in stepmother families can identify. Furthermore, the few models that do exist are often restricted to popular fairy tales where the relationship between the stepmother and stepchild is characterized by an innocent child hated and abused by a "wicked" stepmother.

Another factor that makes being a residential stepmother more difficult is the set of circumstances that led to the biological father gaining custody of his children. In general, fathers are awarded custody by the courts when the biological mother is abusive, dysfunctional, or has abandoned the child. Other fathers obtain physical custody through more informal means, commonly as the child experiences adolescence and conflict between the biological mother and child escalates. In either case, turbulence more likely precedes the formation of a residential stepmother than a stepfather family.

Despite the changing roles of men and women, women bear the primary responsibilities for everyday care, maintenance, and nurturance of children. Stepmothers are not excused from these responsibilities. Yet, stepmothers report lower marital satisfaction when they assume primary responsibility for the care of stepchildren. In addition, stepmothers report greater dissatisfaction with their roles and exhibit higher levels of stress than do stepfathers. It’s likely that the expectations for women around child care, unrealistic as they may be, impose added stress and strengthen the potential for difficult relationships within the residential stepmother family. In fact, some research has documented the greater confusion, more problematic interaction, and poorer adjustment of both stepmothers and stepchildren in these families.

Some scholars have identified factors associated with better stepmother-stepchild relationships. Research indicates that residential stepmothers do better if they adopt a less active disciplinary role than their husbands, while working toward establishing a more positive relationship with stepchildren. This is not to suggest that "anything goes," or that total disengagement is the best approach to parenting by stepmothers. Evidence suggests that when fathers assume more responsibility in limit-setting behaviors, the stepmother reports more marital satisfaction. Importantly, we also know that when fathers and stepmothers agree about childrearing issues and behaviors, stepmothers feel better about their marriages. This good feeling can and often is reflected in more positive relationships with stepchildren.

Findings regarding the role of consensus between stepmother and father on childrearing point to a critical need for spouses in stepfamilies to support one another in parenting children. Because a strong marital relationship is vital to building a healthy stepmother-stepchild relationship, couples must start here to enhance stepfamily functioning. A key is in building a working alliance between the spouses that helps to clarify the stepparent role. It is logical that getting clear about what her role is to be should mitigate against conflict between spouses that may potentially ensue from undefined and unagreed upon role expectations. An appropriate sign of stepfamily adjustment is engaging in behaviors that are mutually satisfying to adults and children. This can be accomplished by exploring diverse ways of behaving as stepparents, rather than attempting to fulfill unrealistic expectations built on a first-family model.

Rose Marie Hoffman is a doctoral student in the Department of Counseling and Educational Development at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Before enrolling in her doctoral program, she was a school counselor and specialized in work with children of divorce and remarriage.


Chilman, C.S. (1983). Remarriage and stepfamilies: Research results and implications. In E.C. Macklin & R.H. Rubin (Eds.), Contemporary families and alternate lifestyles: A handbook on research and theory (pp. 147-163). Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Coleman, M. & Ganong, L. (1995). Insiders’ and outsiders’ beliefs about stepfamilies: Assessment and implications for practice. In D. Huntley (Ed)., Understanding stepfamilies: Implications for assessment and treatment (pp. 101-112), Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Fine, M.A. (1995). The clarity and content of the stepparent role: A review of the literature. Manuscript submitted for publication.

Goodman-Lezin, S. (1985). Selected variables affecting role satisfaction and general well-being in stepmothers. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, California School of Professional Psychology, Los Angeles.

Guising, S., Cowan, P.A., & Schuldberg, D. (1989). Changing parent and spouse relations in the first years of remarriage of divorced fathers. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 51, 445-456.

Ihinger-Tallman, M. (1988). Research on stepfamilies. Annual Review of Sociology, 14, 25-48.

Noy, D. (1991). Wicked Stepmothers in Roman society and imagination. Journal of Family History, 16, 345-361.

Papernow, P.L. (1993). Becoming a stepfamily: Patterns of development in remarried families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pasley, K., Dollahite, D., & Ihinger-Tallman, M. (1993). Bridging the gap: Clinical applications of research findings on the spouse and stepparent roles in remarriage. Family Relations, 42, 315-322.

Quick, D.S., McKenry, P.C., & Newman, B.M. (1994). Stepmothers and their adolescent children: Adjustment to new family roles. In K. Pasley & M. Ihinger-Tallman (E’s.), Stepparenting: Issues in theory, research, and practice (pp. 105-125). Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishers.

Salwen, L.V. (1990). The myth of the wicked stepmother. Women and Therapy, 10, (1-2), 117-125.

Visher, E.B., & Visher, J.S. (1988). Old loyalties, new ties: Therapeutic strategies with stepfamilies. New York: Brunner/Mazel.


Stepfamily Research: SAA’s Research Updates

What is Effective Stepparenting?
By Kay Pasley, Ed.D.

Stepfamilies Quarterly, Summer 1994

Last fall, a special symposium was held at Pennsylvania State University on stepfamilies. There, noted scholars shared the results of their cutting-edge research while other scholars had the opportunity to react to and discuss the findings. At that time, E. Mavis Hetherington and Kathleen M. Jodl from the University of Virginia presented a paper that integrated the findings from three longitudinal studies involving stepfamilies. One of the three longitudinal studies from which the findings were derived followed children of non-divorced and divorced families from the time the children were four until they were fifteen (Virginia Longitudinal Study; Hetherington, 1993). The second study (Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992) followed a group of families with an early adolescent child for 26 months after remarriage. The third study, National Study of Nonshared Environments (Reiss, et al., in press) also involved adolescent children. In addition to other types of families, the study included stepfamilies who had been married at least five years.

Of particular interest to SAA readers were their findings about stepparenting, especially behaviors that are helpful in establishing a positive stepfather-stepchild relationship. Summarized here are the key findings from this paper.

Hetherington and Jodl reported that unlike biological fathers, stepfathers commonly adopt a disengaged parenting style. This style is characterized by low levels of involvement and rapport, and a lack of control, discipline, and monitoring of the stepchild’s behavior and activities. Among biological fathers, authoritative parenting was more common. Authoritative parenting includes moderate to high levels of control, high levels of warmth, positivity, and monitoring, and low negativity. Several specific behaviors of stepfathers were most effective in building positive stepparent-stepchild relationships. However, effective stepparenting behaviors differed according to the age of the stepchild. When remarriages occurred before children reached adolescence, stepfathers were more effective when they supported the biological parent’s attempts to set limits rather than attempting to control or discipline the stepchild. In these families, the stepfather was able to exert his authority independent of the biological parent only over time. Stepfathers who attempted to exert control initially by either an authoritarian parenting style (high control, rigid rules, low warmth) or an authoritative parenting style (moderate control, high warmth, low negativity) were met with greater resistance by the stepchild.

When remarriage involved an adolescent child, more immediate authoritative stepparenting was warranted. In other words, the stepparent that asserted his authority more quickly was more likely to develop a better stepparent-stepchild relationship. Certain behaviors on the part of the stepparent were more useful in fostering a positive relationship: clearly communicated limits, on-going discussion with the biological parent regarding acceptable/unacceptable behaviors and ways that discipline was handled, and encouraging family discussion of rules. Limiting inappropriate behaviors was best done within the context of high levels of warmth and support. Both greater acceptance of the stepfather and more positive outcomes for children resulted. Importantly, stepfathers with adolescent stepchildren were more effective if warmth and involvement accompanied their attempts to limit behavior or enforce controls.

Other findings suggest that both age and sex of the child affect the outcome of the stepparent-stepchild relationship. In the long run, when children were younger at the time of a remarriage, a closer stepfather-stepson relationship was likely to develop. This was not true for stepfathers with stepdaughters. Even in families where initial stepparent-stepchild conflict had subsided, it was likely to erupt around adolescence, especially for stepdaughters.

Professionals often encourage the development of a strong marital relationship as a necessary foundation for a good stepparent-stepchild relationship. In other words, building and sustaining the couple is seen as a key to stepfamily adjustment. Hetherington and Jodl reported that in stepfamilies with younger children a close marital relationship was associated with more negative behavior toward both the mother and stepfather early in the remarriage; this was especially true for preadolescent girls. If the mother-daughter relationship was close before the remarriage, preadolescent girls were even more resistant to their parents and stepparents when the remarriage was satisfying for the adults. For preadolescent stepsons, higher levels of marital satisfaction were associated with lower levels of acting out/aggressive behaviors. The picture was somewhat different for stepfamilies with adolescents. When parents of an adolescent remarry and that marriage is characterized by closeness or satisfaction, the adolescent is more likely to accept the remarriage and develop more positive (step)parent-child relationship.

In summary, the findings from these studies suggest that certain behaviors of stepparents, particularly stepfathers, are more effective than others. Furthermore, behaviors that work to strengthen the stepparent-stepchild relationships will vary depending on the age and sex of the stepchild. What works for younger stepchildren may not work with older stepchildren, and what works with stepsons may not work with stepdaughters.

These materials were provided to Flying Solo® by Stepfamily Association of American, Inc. To find out more about SSA Membership, articles, and products, you can contact SSA in the following ways:

By e-mail --
By telephone – (402) 477-STEP (7837)
By facsimile – (402) 477-8317

By mail –
Stepfamily Association of America
215 Centennial Mall South,
Suite 212
Lincoln, Nebraska 68508

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