In spite of their better economic circumstances on average, children in step-families face many of the same risks as children of never-married or divorced parents.
ABOUT THIS BRIEF
Over the past 20 years, a body of research has developed on how changes in patterns of family structure affect children. Most researchers now agree that together these studies support the notion that, on average, children do best when raised by their two married, biological1 parents who have low-conflict relationships.
McLanahan and Sandefur found that children who did not
live with both biological parents were roughly twice as likely to be poor, to have a birth outside of marriage, to have behavioral and psychological problems, and to not graduate from high school.
[T]he risk of dropping out of high school for the average white child was substantially lower in a two-parent biological family (11 percent) than in a single-parent family or step-family (28 percent).8 For the average African American child, the risk of dropping out of high school was 17 percent in a two- parent family versus 30 percent in a single- or step-parent family. And for the average Hispanic child, the risk of dropping out of school was 25 percent in a two-parent family and 49 percent in a single- or step-parent family.
Up to half of the higher risk for negative educational outcomes for children in single-parent families is due to living with a significantly reduced household income. Other major factors are related to disruptions in family structure, including turmoil a child experiences when parents separate and/or re-couple with a step-parent (including residential instability), weaker connections between the child and his or her non-custodial parent (usually the father), and weakened connections to resources outside of the immediate family—that is, other adults and institutions in the community that the non-custodial parent may have provided access to.9
When controlling for other differences in family characteristics, such as race, level of parents’ education, family size, and residential location, McLanahan and Sandefur found little difference in outcomes for children according to whether the single-parent families were a result of non- marital births or divorce. However, children of widowed parents do better than children of other types of single-parent families with similar characteristics.
In spite of their better economic circumstances on average, children in step-families face many of the same risks as children of never-married or divorced parents. They are more likely to have negative behavioral, health, and educational outcomes, and they tend to leave home earlier than children who live with both married biological parents. However, the effect sizes are small for many of these differences,37 and risk levels may vary according to race and level of socio- economic disadvantage. One study found that African American daughters in step-families were 92 percent less likely to have engaged in sex than African American daughters of single mothers.
They were also less likely to become pregnant.38 Finally, children in step-families are at increased risk for experiencing physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.39
The quality and stability of remarriages: The role of stepchildren.
White, Lynn K.; Booth, Alan
Although remarriages can be just as happy as 1st marriages, Ss with stepchildren reported significantly less satisfaction with their family life than Ss with biological children. In addition to breaking up their families through divorce, stepfamilies tend to move teenagers out of the home and empty the nest faster than biological families. It is concluded that the presence of stepchildren is a destabilizing influence within remarriages and a major contributor to the somewhat greater rate of divorce.
Violence against stepchildren.
Daly, Martin; Wilson, Margo I.
Data indicate that the rate of abuse and murder is greatly elevated in step-families. Explanations are offered for why step-parent households appear more dangerous than genetic-parent households. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)
Some relationships of step-children to their parents.
Bowerman, Charles E.; Irish, Donald P.
Marriage & Family Living. Vol 24(2)
Step-relationships showed more stress, ambivalence, and low cohesiveness than did normal homes. Stepmothers had more difficult roles than did stepfathers. Stepdaughters manifested more extreme reactions than did stepsons. The presence of a stepparent tended adversely to influence the adjustment of the child to the natural parent. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)
There are several reasons to devote special attention to stepfamilies. First, as documented in the next section, stepfamilies are common as a result of divorces, remarriages, and first marriages following out-of-wedlock births. Second, as discussed in the next chapter, stepfamilies face a variety of unique challenges that generally go unaddressed in depth in most existing marriage education curricula but which may put them at higher risk for dissolution than non-stepfamilies. These challenges arise in part from complex relationships with stepchildren, former partners, and half- and stepsiblings. Third, although children can do well in a variety of family forms, it appears that living in a stepfamily is associated with greater risk for a variety of negative outcomes for children when compared to living in a nuclear family (in this paper we define “nuclear” family as one that includes only a married man and a woman and their children in common). On average, children in stepfamilies do worse on measures of social and emotional well-being when compared to children living in nuclear families (e.g., Cherlin & Furstenburg, 1994; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; see Coleman et al., 2000 and Ganong & Coleman, 2004 for reviews).2