227), creating a house-full of stress and tension.
Another study delves into how much children "matter" to their stepparents -- because "to matter is to be noticed, to be an object of concern, and to be needed by a specific individual" (Schenck, et al., 2009, p. 71). The authors posit that when children "feel secure and accepted in their parental relationships, they feel less threatened by stressful events" (p. 71). This study, published in the journal Fathering, involved 133 adolescents in stepfather families. The child participants were in 7th grade at the outset of the research; the end result of the research concluded, "mattering to both fathers [stepfather and biological father] was significantly related to adolescents' mental health problems" (Schenck, p. 84). Further, it was found (through teacher interviews) that when a child "mattered" to the stepfather the child was more apt to "externalize" his problems, which reduces stress and enhances self-esteem" (Schenck, p. 85).
Meanwhile research published in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect was based on sampling the feelings expressed by 40,000 youths that had checked into homeless and runaway youth shelters across the country. The findings show that when there is a "non-related parent figure" in the home there is typically "an elevated risk of sexual and physical abuse" (McRee, 2008, p. 449) when compared with homes consisting of "a single natural parent, two natural parents, or a natural parent and an adult relative). On page 452 McRee establishes that many social factors that are part of living in "blended households" provide hefty challenges in terms of keeping stability in the family. The article asserts, "Scholars have speculated that the relatively high risk of child abuse found in blended families is distributed in a way that corresponds to different statuses available to non-related parent figures" (McRee, p. 453).
The bottom line of this research for future researchers and social scientists, according to McRee, is that those professionals who intervene in "suspected cases of abuse by parents" might well give consideration to "biological relatedness between children and parent figures as a meaningful risk factor when determining intervention strategies" (McRee, p. 453).
Still on the subject of abused children, an article in the Journal of Nursing Scholarship (Schnitzer, et al., 2008, p. 91) presented the results of a study involving children under the age of five who had died during an 8-year period. Three hundred eighty children fell within the study category described above, and the results show that "…children residing within households with adults unrelated to them had nearly six times the risk of dying of maltreatment-related unintentional injury" (Schnitzer, p. 91). More specifically, children living with step or foster parents "were also at increased risk of maltreatment or death" (p. 91). That having been said -- and the results seem perhaps more lethal than they really are -- in the conclusion the authors assert that the factors associated with unintentional injuries and fatal maltreatment are also associated with "lower socioeconomic status, young maternal age, and lower maternal educational attainment" (Schnitzer, p. 96). When residing "with any adult who is not a biologic parent" (including of course stepparents) a child incurs "excessive risk of fatal maltreatment-related unintentional injury" (Schnitzer, p. 95). Stress is one thing, death is definitely another, but it seems safe to say the dynamics that led up to the unintentional death involved stressors.
Along with the stress that has been reviewed in this paper, members of stepfamilies also face "stigmatization" and stepfamilies have "fewer extrafamilial supports, or are simply not acknowledged in social policies and practices" (Adler-Baeder, et al., 2004, p. 449). That is the basis of the literature research conducted in this article in the journal Family Relations. The authors' research into existing empirical studies reveals that "successful couples in stepfamilies" have developed "realistic expectations" about the dynamics they will encounter; and moreover, those successful stepfamily couples have avoided some of the stress that comes with the territory because they took the time "necessary" to establish the "roles" they must follow (Adler-Baeder, p. 449).
Adler-Baeder explains that only those "lower marital quality" couples are naive enough to think that there will be "instant love" between family members and the stepparent just because the biological mom and the stepfather love each other. The successful stepfamily couple also eschews any notion of "instant parent-child relationship adjustment" -- and no matter how well thought out the family strategy may be in a stepfamily, "the first several years can be turbulent" and stressful (Adler-Baeder, p. 449). The key to success for typical stepfamilies is not necessarily involve "family cohesion" but rather success more often results from "respectful behaviors among members and flexibility" (Adler-Baeder, p. 449). In other words, the stress will be there no matter how hard the stepfamily's parents try to avoid it, but in the meantime the simple rule of household respect -- being flexible, not flying off the handle when there is a crisis or collision of emotions, and doing things together that everyone enjoys -- can keep things calm.
Grandparents are in many cases "most effective in reducing depressive symptoms" for grandchildren in stepfamily homes, according to research in the Journal of Social Issues (Ruiz, et al., 2007, p. 793). But can grandparents moderate the stress in a family of stepparents? In some cases, they can and do, because grandparents "…are in a position to offer grandchildren a form of unconditional love" that parents in stepfamilies cannot offer due to "conflicting responsibilities and time restrictions" (Ruiz, p. 796). However, the research conducted by Ruiz does not indicate that grandparents affect the self-esteem of stepchildren or children in stepfamilies. Still, given that grandparents (especially grandmothers) are in general supportive of children in stepfamilies, whether their biological grandchildren or not, along with that support comes a lessening of stress, which is always a good thing.
Summary and Conclusion
Because an estimated 50% of marital relationships in America end in divorce, the issue of how stepfamilies (and stepchildren in particular) can reduce their levels of stress should be high on the list of important topics to be researched. Obviously there are millions of children today living in stepfamily households. The Web site www.divorcerate.org (based on data from Enrichment Journal) claims that the divorce rate is 41% for first marriages, 60% for second marriages and 73% for third marriages. Putting aside those gloomy statistics, one can clearly see that within those first, second, and third marriages, many stepchildren struggle to adjust to new homes and new parents. It is a huge national problem, and since the future of our society in many ways is dependent on the emotional, physical and psychological health of today's children, we all need to pay attention to this matter and do what we can to make things better for children.
I learned a great deal from this research, and moreover, I now have a better understanding of the stress and confrontations that friends of mine have gone through as stepparents. The most important information that this research brought to light is the need for stepparents to be patient, flexible, intelligent and well informed about what they are getting into. Also, immediately pushing their values on the stepchildren in their new homes is most often a terrible mistake.
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