The Science of Stepdads

Being a great stepfather isn't easy. Science is here to help.

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Stepparents don’t get the media attention they deserve. Disney, inspired by Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm, started pushing an evil stepmother narrative in 1950 and, with the notable exceptions of Mike Brady (“who had three boys of his own…”) and Modern Family’s lovable curmudgeon Jay Pritchett, only a few stepfathers have ever been warmed by the pop cultural spotlight. But blended families (a term we’ll us here in lieu of the more traditional, but less inclusive “stepfamilies”) are increasingly common in the United States. And studies have shown that hero stepfathers can—and do—make massive differences in their stepchildrens’ lives.

“There’s a negative connotation that comes with stepfamilies,” Sheryl Goodey, stepfamily program manager at Utah State University told Fatherly. “But families are overcoming those connotations and becoming more accepted in our society.”

That’s a good thing, because there is an emerging consensus that kids who grow up with engaged stepdads enjoy many of the same advantages—known collectively as Father Effects—as kids raised by the men who’s names appear on their birth certificates. Children with outstanding stepfathers perform better in school, enjoy healthier relationships with their peers, and are less likely to suffer from depression than kids who grow up in single-parent homes. But, while stepparents offer stability similar to that of biological parents, the challenges are unique.

“There’s a different parenting style that’s more effective for parenting stepchildren,” Goodey explains.

Stepfathers, By The Numbers

There are 1.3 million stepfathers in the United States. More than 1,300 new blended families form each day, and more than 50 percent of children under age 13 live with one biological parent and one stepparent. If those figures seem staggering, blame the divorce rate. Studies suggest that the average marriage in the U.S. lasts barely seven years and roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. The 1990 U.S. Census Bureau incorrectly predicted that, by the year 2000, there would be more blended than original families in America.

The Census was wrong, but not by much.

Children in blended families seldom have it easy. Studies suggest that the risk for kids developing behavioral problems after divorce is twice that of children with parents who stay together. “Most research shows that 15 to 20 percent of kids in stepfamilies do not develop within normal limits, compared to about 10 percent of kids from non-divorced families,” James H. Bray, former president of the American Psychological Association and author of a book on stepfamilies, told Fatherly. Still, “the vast majority of kids in stepfamilies do quite well.”

“Having an engaged stepfather contributes to that,” he adds. “Stepfathers who are more engaged tend to have stepkids that are better behaviorally-adjusted.”

How To Be An Engaged Stepfather

When researchers talk about engaged biological fathers, they’re usually talking about dads who embrace the authoritative parenting style. Unlike the authoritarian style (“My house, my rules!”) and the permissive style (“My house, no rules!”), authoritative parents set high standards while guiding their children compassionately toward meeting those standards on their own levels. An engaged biological father exercises authority—he may tell his daughter that he doesn’t approve of her budding relationships, or tell his son that he feels he’s fallen in with a bad crowd—but he also seldom misses a recital or ball game. He’s available to talk, but also to critique.

Stepfathers, however, would be well-advised to read from a different script — at least at first. “There is evidence to indicate that developing these relationships takes time,” Dawn Braithwaite, chair of interpersonal and family communication studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, told Fatherly. “The turning points aren’t positive right away.”

Braithwaite recently conducted a study that involved asking stepchildren about “turning points”, during which their relationships with their stepparents improved drastically. The upshot of her research is that blended families need to time develop, and that stepparents who jump into parenting roles without first building up rapport with their stepchildren do more harm than good.

Stepfathers need to account for this transition period, Bray says, which usually lasts about two years. “In the first two years, it’s paradoxical,” Bray says. “If he tries to become too engaged in parenting before he establishes a relationship with the stepchild, the child pushes back.”

Instead, studies suggest that stepfathers should work on forming permissive relationships with their stepchildren, acting more as friends than parents, and avoiding discipline or conventional “engaged parenting” until the end of the adjustment period. “The stepfather needs to really focus on establishing a relationship with the stepchildren before he steps into a primary parenting, disciplinary role,” Bray says. “That can take between six months and two years.”

How To Maximize Positive “Stepfather Effects”

After the transition period, most blended families are ready to begin functioning as a family unit. At this point, researchers begin to see the positive effects of warm, engaged, stepparenting. “Having an involved stepfather is incredibly important for stepchildren in terms of their well being, academic outcomes, and risk of depression,” Chelsea Garneau-Rosner, professor of human development and family science at the University of Missouri, told Fatherly. “The positive impact that stepfathers have tends to be greater the longer they’ve been in the family.”

This positive impact closely mirrors the traditional Father Effect (the battery of positive outcomes seen in children with involved biological fathers). “With younger children, we see better cognitive abilities and fewer internalizing and externalizing problems,” Garneau-Rosner says. “In adolescents, we see decreases in depression and in likelihood of early sexual debut.”

These effects differ depending on the age of the stepchildren when the stepfather enters their lives. Younger stepchildren tend to accept their new stepfathers and adjust their behaviors better than adolescents, so stepfathers would be well advised to begin treating well-adjusted stepchildren like their own biological children across the board. Adolescents, on the other hand, are unlikely to fully accept their new stepfathers before its time to leave home.

That’s not to say the relationship between a teen and a new stepdad can’t be productive—just that it needs to be different. “Adolescents still do benefit from having an engaged stepfather,” Bray says. “But the type of engagement that’s most helpful is what we call ‘parental monitoring,’ where the stepparent really knows what their stepchild is doing, who their friends are, whether they’re doing homework. It’s not controlling what they do—it’s knowing what they’re doing.”

Meanwhile, children benefit from strong, complementary relationships between all of the adults in their lives. This often means stepfathers and biological fathers need to put in the effort to build healthy interpersonal relationship. “There seems to be a positive, additive effect,” Bray says. “If you rank what’s best for kids, it’s when both father figures are involved and there’s not much conflict. If one is involved, that’s good. Neither involved is the worst case scenario.”

Researchers have addressed how different age groups respond to stepparents, but few studies have looked into how stepfathers interact with sons versus daughters, or how Stepfather Effects differ across racial and socioeconomic groups, or in same-sex families. “A lot of these questions don’t have straightforward answers,” Garneau-Rosner says. “There’s a need to better understand the dynamics of family relationships in stepfamilies across more diverse contexts.”

When Stepfamilies Suffer  

When stepfamilies form after an ugly divorce, kids suffer. This may have less to do with the formation of a new family than it does with the dissolution of the old one, but either way this means that children in these blended families frequently have behavioral and physical health problems associated with living through divorce. Several studies have shown that divorces can harm children’s physical health. One 1993 study reported that family conflicts are “strongly related to illness later in life, as well as with mortality” and other research has established links between ugly divorces, psychological stress, and immune deficiencies. One surprisingly robust study demonstrated that kids from broken homes are more likely to catch colds, even as adults.

But these figures might be misleading, Goodey says. “A lot of research used to tell us about the negative effects of stepfamilies,” she says. “But we have to look at transitions the child has gone through. There are some turbulent years as we disrupt one family system and create another. Individuals in the family need to figure out their roles, new rules need to be established.” This can cause children to act out, and skew research into showing that stepchildren are at higher risk of behavioral and academic problems. Once this period of adjustment passes, however, “children settle back into academically and socially better behaviors,” Goodey says.

When bad behaviors continue even after the transition period, pinpointing the reason can be tricky. We rush to blame stepparents and the stepfamily structure, Garneau-Rosner says, but family dynamics are complex and each child’s behavioral problems are unique.

“We might see delinquency, or trouble in school, or anxiety, but it’s often a symptom of larger family dynamics, [such as] the quality of the relationship between the stepparent and biological parent,” she says. When it comes to assigning blame for a stepchild’s bad behavior “it’s really hard to tease out what might be a function of the stepparent, per se.”

Practical, Expert Advice For Aspiring Stepfathers

Sheryl Goodey manages the Stepfamily Program at Utah State University, where experts offer classes for stepfamilies, based on family systems theory. The theory, pioneered by Murray Bowan of Georgetown University, suggests that individual family members are best understood not in isolation, but within the context of an interdependent and interconnected family.

In a nod to this theory, Goodey encourages the entire stepfamily to attend its programs, to discuss empathy or communication, and then work as a group on implementing goals across a two-hour session. Goodey, a member of a stepfamily herself, says she has personally benefitted from the program. “My family took this six-week course after we had only been married for a year, and came away with a lot of skill I wish we had gained earlier in our relationship.”

For stepfathers who do not have access to such programs, sound advice can still be found in the scientific literature. Bray’s research has shown that stepdads must prioritize developing a parenting plan with their spouses. “Most stepfamilies don’t explicitly talk about the rules, they just jump in feet first,” he says. “We found that, when parents actually talk about it and develop common rules, the kids tend to do better.” Bray adds that stepfathers should ensure that the biological parent takes on the primary disciplinary role. “Be the extra set of eyes and ears about the children, help the mom,” he says. “But she’ll be the primary disciplinarian.”

As far as practical relationship-building tips, the basics are the same whether you’re a stepparent or a biological parent. “It is helpful for stepparents to listen and communicate clearly,” Braithwaite says. “Find shared activities that the stepchild would choose, that they’re actually interested in,” Garneau-Rosner adds. And make one-on-one time with your new stepchildren.

“Trying to force family time can be a challenge,” Garneau-Rosner says. “A greater sense of family cohesion can be developed through spending time as just a stepparent and stepchild. That can take some of the pressure off trying to feel like a family, so it can happen naturally.”  

Dads who are not members of blended families can also help their step brethren. Garneau-Rosner says that one reason why blended families suffer is that society still perpetuates unhelpful “wicked stepmother” stereotypes and fails to accept and celebrate less traditional families. Fixing society is a tall order, but it all starts with talking about how a family can mean a lot of things—and that being an involved dad is important whether or not your children share your genes.

“We need to do a better job of talking about stepfamilies,” Garneau-Rosner says. “We need to make people aware of the information out there that can help stepfamilies become successful.”

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