This exploratory study sought to identify the major challenges of stepfamily life and the strategies that families use to address these challenges. Parents, stepparents and older stepchildren from a community sample of 44 stepfamilies who had been together for at least five years participated in the study. Measures of several aspects of family functioning indicated that most stepfamilies in the study were functioning well, although some were facing significant stressors that were negatively affecting family functioning.
While we do not have accurate information on the prevalence of stepfamilies in New Zealand, it is likely that they represent up to one in 10 families with children. Research has shown that while most stepfamilies function well, those living in stepfamilies are more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes, such as behavioural problems, educational underachievement, and greater involvement in crime. Stepfamilies have also been found to be more ‘fragile’ in that compared to ‘first’ families they are more likely to end, especially in the first few years. Research is now focusing on the challenges these families face and why some manage to successfully meet these challenges while others do not.
The aim of the study is to identify factors that contribute to successful stepfamily functioning. The research will address the following questions.
- What specific stresses or challenges did these stepfamilies have to overcome – eg hostility from ex-partners, financial stress (such as child support commitments), and visits from non-resident children?
- To what extent do these challenges co-occur?
- To what extent have these issues been resolved?
- What strategies helped them overcome these challenges and develop successful stepfamily functioning?
- What advice would members (parents, stepparents and children) of these stepfamilies offer to newly formed stepfamilies?
This study utilised a cross-sectional design, involving members of 44 stepfamilies. The participants first completed an individual questionnaire and then had an interview with a researcher. Parents and stepparents were interviewed jointly, while children were interviewed privately. Use of measures from earlier New Zealand studies enabled comparison between recently formed (from previous studies) and more established stepfamilies (from this study). Qualitative questions in the interview were used to elicit details of the experiences of the stepfamily members.
The parents and stepparents in this study reported a similar range of challenges, suggesting both partners were in agreement as to the issues their family had faced. Most families had faced multiple challenges and some were ongoing, although often to a lesser extent than previously. So these stepfamilies had not survived simply because they faced few, if any challenges, or because they had resolved them all. Rather, it suggests that the successful management of these challenges is in part responsible for the longevity of these stepfamilies. As Saint-Jacques et al. (2011) found when comparing those who separated with those whose relationship survived, it was not a difference in challenges faced but rather success in addressing these challenges that mattered.
Four issues were identified by at least two-thirds of parents or stepparents. The most common issue brought up by both parents and stepparents was how to discipline the children and who would be responsible for doing so. This was an ongoing issue for most of these families, which is perhaps understandable given the age of their children (adolescence). Related to this issue was the next most common issue – getting agreement on household rules and routines, although this issue was one many felt they had resolved. Whilst these two issues relate to functioning within the household, the next most common issue was the ‘external’ influence of non-resident parents. Few parents reported that this problem with the non-resident parent was fully resolved, with most reporting having made some progress to reduce the stress associated with having to deal with their ex-partner. Finally, having enough time to develop the couple relationship was cited by many. Given the importance of the couple relationship, a lack of time to invest in this key relationship could be problematic.
A range of strategies for managing challenges was reported by both the parents and the stepparents. The strategy chosen depended to an extent on the nature of the challenge. For example, a practical issue such as a lack of space often required a practical solution. Notebooks might be used to manage contact issues and rules made for the sharing of toys. On the other hand, relationship issues most commonly required an interpersonal solution. Good communication, negotiation and compromise were consistent themes for these stepfamilies.
But some issues just got better over time, perhaps as challenges were reframed or downplayed in importance. Stepfamily members got to know one another better as children, and sometimes adults, matured; they adjusted their expectations of and behaviour towards other family members and began to understand their behaviour.