Cover Story

If Tolstoy were alive today, he might have penned his famous line like this: Happy families are all alike--and every stepfamily is complex in its own way.

Take one example. If a stepparent is frequently battling his former spouse, research shows that his children suffer. But if he is close with his ex-partner, his new spouse may feel anxious and insecure. On top of this, say experts, many children don't view their step-parents as "real parents" for the first few years--if ever--and parents in second marriages may treat their biological children differently from their stepchildren.

"Stepparents once were viewed as 'replacing' biological parents, thus recreating a two-parent family," notes University of Virginia (UVA) psychology professor Robert E. Emery, PhD, author of "The Truth about Children and Divorce: Dealing with the Emotions So You and Your Children Can Thrive" (Viking/Penguin, 2004). "Economically, there may be some truth to this, but psychologically, that is not the reality. Remarriage and stepparenting are new, tricky transitions for children, the stepparent and the biological parents."

Fortunately, researchers and clinicians today better understand the common pitfalls of such "blended" families and how they can overcome them. That's important because one in three of us is a member of a stepfamily, according to the Stepfamily Association of America, and that number is likely to grow as traditional family bonds grow more fragile (see sidebar, page 61). The demographics of stepfamilies are as complex as the psychological ones: About a quarter are headed by unmarried parents, for example, and stepfamilies make up the full spectrum of our nation's citizens, according to the association.

The role of children

Given the complexity of the subject matter, researchers and clinicians are looking at stepfamilies through many lenses. A major one is via the children, who often suffer the most through divorce, remarriage and stepfamily situations. They are particularly at-risk if their biological parents are in conflict (see sidebar, this page), the divorce situation is protracted, they receive less parenting after the divorce or they lose important relationships as a result of the divorce, according to a 2003 article in Family Relations (Vol. 52, No. 4, pages 352-362) by Emery of UVA and Joan B. Kelly, PhD, a psychologist and divorce expert in Corte Madeira, Calif.

Indeed, children of divorce--and later, remarriage--are twice as likely to academically, behaviorally and socially struggle as children of first-marriage families: About 20 to 25 percent struggle, compared with 10 percent, a range of research finds. They're also more likely to get divorced themselves, reports University of Utah sociologist Nicholas H. Wolfinger, PhD, in his book, "Understanding the Divorce Cycle" (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Adults whose parents divorced but didn't remarry are 45 percent more likely to divorce than adults whose parents never divorced, he notes, and 91 percent more likely to divorce if their parents divorced and remarried.

Furthermore, children often "calls the shots" on the emotional trajectory of family life, says psychologist and stepfamily expert James H. Bray, PhD, of the Baylor College of Medicine.

"When people get married for a second time, the biological parent really feels they need to attend to the kids," explains Bray, author with writer John Kelly of "Stepfamilies" (Broadway, 1998). "And when the kids aren't happy, they'll say things like, 'I don't like your new husband--he's mean to me.' That creates conflict in the marriage. In a first-marriage family, if a kid says, 'I don't like my dad,' the mom says, 'So?'"

That said, UVA psychologist and professor emeritus E. Mavis Hetherington, PhD, found in a much-publicized 20-year study that the vast majority of children of divorce do well. As adults, many still feel pain and sadness when they think about their parents' divorce, but they still build productive and satisfied lives, and they don't experience clinical levels of depression, anxiety or other mental health disorders, Hetheringon concludes in her and writer John Kelly's book, "For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered" (Norton, 2002).

Fostering resilience

Indeed, many researchers are focusing on these young people's resilience and how to build on it. Psychology professor Allen Israel, PhD, of the University at Albany of the State University of New York, for example, has been developing and evaluating a model of family stability that he believes has special relevance to children in divorce and stepfamily situations.

Family stability, he and his team are finding, isn't contingent on whether you live in a first-marriage, stepfamily or single-parent family, but more particularly on the environment that parents create for their kids, such as the presence of regular bed- and meal-time hours.

That's heartening, Israel believes, because it suggests intervention potential: "You can't always prevent the big things that are causing stress in these kids, such as parents moving or parents who have periods of low contact," he says. "But you might be able to affect the little things that are happening in the home."

In a related 2002 study in the Journal of Marriage and Family (Vol. 64, No. 4, pages 1,024-1,037), Kathleen Boyce Rodgers, PhD, a child and family studies researcher at Washington State University, found that outside influences like friends and neighbors can help youngsters undergoing such transitions cope better.

Analyzing data on 2,011 children and adolescents in first-marriage families, stepfamilies and single-parent divorced families, she found that teens who lived with a single, divorced parent and who said they received little support from that parent were less likely to have internalizing symptoms like depression, suicidal ideation and low self-esteem if they had a friend to count on.

In addition, Hetherington has found that consistency in school settings helps predict positive adjustment in children, especially when their home lives are chaotic.

Successful stepfamilies

Bray examined factors that may predict stepfamilies' success in a nine-year, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded study of 200 Texan stepfamilies and first-marriage families.

Classifying stepfamilies into categories of neotraditional, matriarchal and romantic, he found that neotraditional families fared the best. These parents formed a solid, committed partnership so they could not only nurture their marriage, but effectively raise their children. They didn't get stuck in unrealistic expectations of what the family should be like.

Relatively successful were matriarchal families, headed by strong, independent women who remarried not to gain a parenting partner, but a companion. While their husbands were devoted to these women, the men had fairly distant relationships with the children, Bray found.

Matriarchal families functioned well except in parenting matters, Bray found. Conflicts arose, he says, either when the men decided they wanted to play a greater role in parenting--in which case the women were loathe to relinquish their parenting power--or when the women decided they wanted their partners to get more involved. In one common scenario, the woman asked her husband for parenting help but he prevaricated. "She'd ask him to pick up the kids, for example, and he'd forget," Bray says. "That created a lot of conflict."

Romantic families were the most divorce-prone, Bray found. Couples in these families had unrealistic expectations, wanting to immediately create the perfect family atmosphere, and they took their stepchildren's ambivalent reactions to the family transition personally instead of seeing them as normal reactions to a stressful situation.

Tips for clinicians

Bray and others also have put their heads to creating research-based clinical suggestions for those working with stepfamilies (Bray's suggestions, called "Making Stepfamilies Work," are summarized at the APA Help Center.

These include encouraging second-marriage parents to:

  • Discuss and decide on finances before getting married.

  • Build a strong marital bond "because it will benefit everybody," says Bray.

  • Develop a parenting plan, which likely will involve having the stepparent play a secondary, nondisciplinary role for the first year or two. "Otherwise, even if you're doing a good job, the children will rebuff you," he says.

Family psychologist Anne C. Bernstein, PhD, author of "Yours, Mine and Ours: How Families Change When Remarried Parents Have a Child Together" (W.W. Norton, 1990), additionally advises parents to:

  • Take time to process each transition.

  • Make sure that big changes are communicated adult-to-adult, not via the children.

  • Work with therapists who are specially trained in stepfamily dynamics.

Finally, parents in these families need to "take the long view," Emery advises. "You're going to be a parent forever," he says. "For the sake of the kids, you want to at least make that a working relationship."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.