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 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.
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.”
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. The National Stepfamily Resource Center has links to many sites that provide good information for stepfamilies.
Stepfathers need to account for this transition period, according to this Work Play Life article, 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.”