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Book review: Stepfamilies across the world

The International Handbook of Stepfamilies: Policy and Practice in Legal, Research and Clinical Environments, edited by Jan Pryor, is an important contribution to the literature about stepfamilies and is one of the few to take an international perspective

The book reviews reprinted here are courtesy of PsycCRITIQUES editor, Danny Wedding. PsycCRITIQUES is an online journal that has replaced Contemporary Psychology and that provides reviews of books, monographs, films and other productions in psychology, and includes a database with PsycCRITIQUES and Contemporary Psychology reviews stretching back to 1956. Readers can also access selected reviews and discuss books important to the science and profession of psychology by visiting the PsycCRITIQUES blog. If you are interested in reviewing, please contact editor Danny Wedding.

Stepfamilies across the world

A review of The International Handbook of Stepfamilies: Policy and Practice in Legal, Research, and Clinical Environments by Jan Pryor (Ed.) Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008. 611 pp. ISBN 978-0-4701-1458-2. $95.00

Reviewed by James H. Bray

Stepfamilies have been around for centuries and will continue to increase across the world because of high divorce and remarriage rates and the increase in the numbers of children born outside of marriage. In the United States, interest in stepfamilies has followed from the divorce revolution that started in the 1960s and the fact that most divorced adults remarry. In addition, children born outside of marriage become part of a stepfamily when the parent marries.

The International Handbook of Stepfamilies: Policy and Practice in Legal, Research and Clinical Environments, edited by Jan Pryor, is an important contribution to the literature about stepfamilies and is one of the few to take an international perspective. Much of the work in this area has been largely from the United States, and the importance of viewing these demographic changes from a global perspective is evident in the chapters. It is important for the reader to understand what this book represents and what is does not. This book is written for professionals at the graduate level or above. It is a scholarly volume that includes chapters that are primarily based on scientific evidence. Several of the chapters are summaries of important studies on stepfamilies, and some of the chapters present new and/or previously reported data from the research (e.g., Chapter 3, Mignot; Chapter 20, Nicholson, Sanders, Halford, Phillips, and Whitton). This evidence-based perspective is important so that biased political and negative perspectives about stepfamilies are countered with scientific evidence.

This handbook is not a clinically oriented book for practitioners. The exception is the chapter by Papernow that summarized clinical writings and research from a practitioner perspective. While the summaries of research and policy chapters are useful for clinical work with stepfamilies, they are just that. Readers who are expecting a book filled with clinical explanations and examples will likely not be satisfied. This in no way takes away from the fine compilation of works edited by Pryor.

The handbook contains many chapters from leading scholars in this area. The first section focused on demographic trends in stepfamilies in the UNited states, France and Japan. The demographic chapter by Teachman and Tedrow is a very useful summary of trends for stepfamilies in the United States. As the authors point out, since family makeup was not included in the 2000 U.S. Census (a mistake that will hopefully be corrected in the 2010 census), there is no one definitive source for the number of stepfamilies in the United States.

The chapters on France and Japan are fascinating looks at two counties where the effects of divorce and remarriage are similar yet different from those found in the United States. Nowawa highlights the cultural context of stepfamilies as part of the emerging demographic trends in Japan. Given the increasing global perspectives in Asian countries, it will be important to examine how these demographic trends occur in other Asian countries, such as China and India.

Section II of the handbook has individual chapters on different aspects of life in stepfamilies: stepfathering, sibling relationships, parent-child relationships, marital relations, household tasks, and communications, Most of these topics are covered in the large longitudinal studies on stepfamilies conducted by Hetherington and colleagues (Hetherington & Clingempeel, 1992; Hetherington et al., 1999) and Bray and colleagues (Bray, 1999; Bray & Berger, 1993; Bray & Kelly, 1998).

Most of the chapters present data on the particular area of focus for the chapter. They read like journal articles rather than the usual book chapter summary. Some of them provide a nice overview of the literature for that particular topic. However, as a family systems-oriented person, I wish there had been a chapter that pulled all of the pieces together. The research clearly indicates that one part of a stepfamily, such as parent-child relations, has an impact on other parts of he stepfamily, such as the marriage, and often differently than in first-marriage families.

Section III of the handbook focused on outside influences on stepfamilies, such as kinship networks, nonresidential parents, and intergenerational family relationships. There is a very nice chapter on stepmothers by Marilyn Coleman and colleagues, which seems out of place in this section and better placed in the previous one. The overarching message of these chapters is that outside family influences affect stepfamily functioning and adjustment of children in stepfamilies. This is pat of what makes a stepfamily so complex, even more so that first-marriage families. In stepfamilies, there are multiple kinship networks that may influence the family-usually double the number of those in a first-marriage family.

The final section focused on clinical and legal implications of research on stepfamilies. As previously stated, the chapter by Papernow provides a very nice practitioner-focused work. Clinicians will find this chapter helpful to address specific issues in stepfamilies. For an evidence-based review of research on clinical interventions, read the chapter by Whitton, Nicholson, and Markman. It is great to see Markman and his team expanding their work on marriage preparation and intervention to stepfamilies. The chapter does a good job of reviewing the available research— unfortunately, it is a small literature. This chapter points to the need to develop more evidence-based interventions and programs for stepfamilies.

The next chapter by Nicholson and colleagues presents their research on a program developed in Australia to help stepfamilies. This is one of the few longitudinal studies in this area on interventions for stepfamilies. The next two chapters in this section focus on legal issues, providing a nice overview for legal issues in the United States. There is a caution about these chapters; since laws differ in each state in the United States and certainly across the world, the reader should be careful to investigate the specific legal standards for his or her state and country. Jan Pryor finishes with a nice overview of where we are with research on stepfamilies that provides some helpful ideas about where we need to head. This chapter is good reading for graduate students who want to work in this area.

I enjoyed reading this book. As with edited volumes, there are some inconsistencies in style and quality, but overall this is a volume that one should have on one's shelf. It provides a rich view of the research and scholarship on modern stepfamilies. The literature continues to grow even over recent reviews (Bray & Easling, 2005). The handbook clearly demonstrates why we need to continue to focus on this important family form, as stepfamilies will be with us in growing numbers over the next decades.