What Helps Kids Feel Closer to a Stepparent?

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Parenting is challenging for everyone, and stepparenting can be extra tricky! If you’re a stepparent, you might have struggled with trying to get close, knowing how and when to discipline, or even keeping things civil. At times, you may have wondered if there’s anything you can do to help this relationship along.

Harmony in the Home is Key

Although there’s not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to this issue, experts do have some insights. In one study of over 1000 children living in households with a mother and stepfather, researchers tried to find out what tends to help children feel closer to their stepfathers.  They looked at factors like the parents’ relationship with each other, how much arguing there was in the home, how often the child saw his or her biological dad, whether mom worked outside the home, and whether the mom and stepdad agreed on how to parent.  They also wanted to know whether parents’ education, background, and income were important or not.

In the end, children in this study tended to feel the closest to their stepdads when:

  • The relationship between their mom and their stepdad was good
  • Their stepdad and their mom usually agreed with each other about how to parent
  • Their mom and stepdad didn’t argue a lot
  • They felt able to talk to their mom about their stepdad

Meanwhile, here were some things that didn’t matter as far as whether or not kids felt close to their stepdads:

  • How educated the mom and the stepdad were
  • How much money the family had
  • The family’s religion
  • Whether the mom worked or not
  • How often the child saw his or her biological dad

It’s also worth noting that overall, boys tended to have a better relationship with their stepdads than girls.  This is something that other studies have found, too.

The Take-Home Message

What can parents learn from this study? First of all, it may be reassuring to learn that what your family “has” and “is” doesn’t seem to matter when it comes to this relationship. It’s also interesting that time with the biological dad didn’t seem to play a role one way or the other.

Instead, kids seemed to be tuned in to whether or not their mom and stepdad were getting along and presenting a united front when it came to parenting decisions. But they also needed to be able to talk to their moms about the new member of the family. Open lines of communication are always a good thing!

Of course, some conflict and disagreement between parents are very normal—no relationship is perfect, and no two parents will always agree about how to handle situations. However, it may be helpful to discuss these situations in private, out of kids’ hearing, especially at first.

Free Help with Stepparenting

Are you part of a stepfamily? Looking for some concrete, practical strategies to help with handling parenting, finances, the couple relationship, and more? The SMART Couples project is offering Smart Steps, a FREE, research-backed stepfamily education class taught by trained instructors, in 5 Florida counties. Sign up today!

By Carol Church, lead writer, SMART Couples, Department of Family, Youth and Community Sciences, University of Florida

References

Jensen, T. M., & Shafer, K. (2013). Stepfamily functioning and closeness: Children’s views on second marriages and stepfather relationships. Social Work, 58(2), 127-36.