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A stepfamily is a family where at least one parent has children that are not genetically related to the other spouse or partner. Either one parent may have children from a previous relationship. Children in a stepfamily may live with one biological parent, or they may live with each biological parent for a period of time. In addition, visitation rights mean that children in stepfamilies often have contact with both biological parents, even if they permanently live with only one.
A child is referred to as the stepchild, stepdaughter or stepson of their biological parent's new spouse, and that person as the stepparent, stepfather or stepmother of the child.
A stepfather is the husband of one's mother and not one's biological father. A stepmother is the wife of one's father and not one's biological mother. Similarly, a stepbrother is the son of a stepparent who one is not biologically related to. A stepsister is the daughter of a stepparent to whom one is not biologically related. A parent's spouse of the same sex may also count as a stepparent.
Alternatively, in Australia Under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) a ‘stepparent’ in relation to a child, is interpreted as a person who is not a parent of the child; and is, or has been, married to or a de facto partner of, a parent of the child; and treats, or at any time while married to, or a de facto partner of, the parent treated, the child as a member of the family formed with the parent.
The traditional and strictest definition of a "stepfamily" is a married couple where one or both members of the couple have pre-existing children who live with them. More recently, the definition is often expanded to include all cohabiting couples, whether married or not. Some people also apply the term to non-custodial relationships, where "stepparent" can refer to the partner of a parent with whom the child does not live. The term is not generally used (but can be in individual cases) to refer to the relationship with an adult child who never lived in the home with the parent's new partner.
A "simple" stepfamily is one in which only one member of the couple has a prior child or children and the couple has not yet had additional children. When both members of the couple have at least one pre-existing child, the new family is "complex" or "blended" from the start; if only one member has one or more prior children but the couple has another child together, the "complex"/"blended" designation replaces the "simple" designation upon the birth of the new child. If both members of the couple have prior children, those children are stepbrothers and stepsisters to one another. Any subsequent child born to the couple is a half-sibling of the respective members' prior children.
If a stepparent legally adopts the partner's child or children, he or she becomes the child's legal parent. In such cases, the parents may stop using the terms "stepparent" and "stepchild" and instead refer to the child simply as their son or daughter; depending on the child's degree of affinity for the adoptive parent and/or approval of the legal proceedings culminating in the child's adoption, the child may likewise drop the "step-" designation from his/her description of the relationship. Even when all parties describe the relationship using the terms applied to biological and adoptive families, however, at least some of the emotional and psychological issues common to stepfamilies may persist.
Statistics in the United States are difficult to come by, because the U.S. Census Bureau has discontinued providing estimates of marriage, divorce, and remarriage except for those that are available from the 1990 and earlier censuses.
- The most common form of a blended family is a mother and stepfather arrangement, since mothers often maintain custody of the children.
- One-third of all children entering stepfamilies were born to an unmarried mother; the other two-thirds of cases involve divorce or the death of one parent.
- Of the 60 million American children under the age of 13, half are currently living with one biological parent and that parent's current partner.
- The 1990 U.S. census estimated that by the year 2000 there would be more stepfamilies than original families.
- If only children residing in legally married stepfamilies are included, 23% of U.S. children would be designated as living in a stepfamily; when children are included who live with a cohabiting parent, the figure rises to 30%.
In the United States, it is estimated that in 1987, 60 million adults and 20 million children were in stepfamilies, almost 1/3 of the U.S. population. If this trend continues, people in stepfamilies may make up half of the population by the next century. According to Pew Research Center in 2011 4 out of every ten adults have a step relative in their family with the most common being a step sibling rather than a parent.
The earliest recorded use of the prefix step-, in the form steop-, is from an 8th-century glossary of Latin-Old English words meaning "orphan". Steopsunu is given for the Latin word filiaster and steopmoder for nouerca. Similar words recorded later in Old English include stepbairn, stepchild and stepfather. The words are used to denote a connection resulting from the remarriage of a widowed parent and are related to the word ástíeped meaning bereaved, with stepbairn and stepchild occasionally used simply as synonyms for orphan. Words such as stepbrother, stepniece and stepparent appeared much later and do not have any particular connotation of bereavement. Corresponding words in other Germanic languages include: Old High German stiuf- and Old Norse stjúp-.
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According to James Bray, three of the challenges facing a stepfamily are financial and living arrangements, resolving feelings about the previous marriage and anticipating parenting changes.
Additional challenges that a step- or blended family face are those regarding the paternal parents as well as the inherent bond that paternal parents have with their children and vice versa. Stepparents often face significant difficulties when interacting with the paternal parent. Often, paternal parents feel as though the other man or woman is going to ultimately replace them. This is a common feeling for a parent to have when faced with the new circumstance of blended families. .
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Although historically stepfamilies are built through the institution of marriage and are legally recognized, it is currently unclear if a stepfamily can be both established and recognized by less formal arrangements, such as when a man or woman with children cohabits with another man or woman outside of marriage. This relationship is becoming more common in all Western countries.
There appear to be many cultures in which these families are recognized socially as de facto families. However, in modern Western culture it is often unclear as to what, if any, social status and protection they enjoy in law.
The stepparent is a "legal stranger" in most of the U.S. and has no legal right to the minor child no matter how involved in the child's life they are. The biological parents (and, where applicable, adoptive parents) hold that privilege and responsibility. If the biological parent does not give up their parental rights and custody of the child, the other parent's subsequent marriage cannot create a parental relationship without the biological parent's written consent before a "child" reaches adulthood. In most cases, the stepparent can not be ordered to pay child support.
Stepparents generally do not have the authority to give legal consent to medical treatment for a stepchild, unless the stepparent has legally adopted the child or been designated a legal guardian. A child's parents or legal guardians may sign a statement authorizing a third party to consent to medical care.
With regard to unmarried couples, one can easily imagine such social and legal recognition, most notably in the case of common law marriage. Unmarried couples today may also find social recognition locally through community consensus.
Still, it is not at all clear what formal parenting roles, rights, responsibilities and social etiquette should exist between "stepparents" and their "stepchildren." This often leaves the parents in unexpected conflicts with each other, their former spouses and the children.
For all the confusion which stepparents may feel, it is often even less clear to the stepchildren what the interpersonal relationships are, or should be, between themselves and their stepsiblings; between themselves and their stepparent; and even between themselves and their birth parents. These relationships can be extremely complex, especially in circumstances where each "stepspouse" may bring children of their own to the home or in households where children are expected to actively participate in each of the newly created families of both birth parents.
Although most stepfamilies can agree on what they do not want to be for one another, they are often hard pressed to agree upon what they do want to be for one another. This makes it difficult for everyone in the family to learn their roles. It is especially difficult for the children, because the roles and expectations of them change as they move between the homes and families of both of their birth parents.
Stepparent adoption in the United States
In the United States, the most common form of adoption is adopting a stepchild. By adopting a stepchild, the stepparent is agreeing to be fully responsible for their spouse's child. The biological parent not living with the child no longer has any rights or responsibilities for the child, including child support.
Stepparents can become legal parents to their stepchildren through the process of stepparent adoption. Both biological parents, if living, must consent or agree to the adoption. When a stepparent adopts a stepchild, either the non-custodial parent of the child willingly gives up his or her parental rights to the child, or the court terminates the parental rights of the biological parent if there is evidence of abuse or neglect to the child. If a parent is not involved in the child's life, the court can terminate that biological parent's rights on the grounds of abandonment. Grounds for abandonment in most states is no contact between the parent and child for at least one year.
Local laws to complete a stepparent adoption vary. While having the non-custodial parent consent to the adoption is the easiest way to complete a stepparent adoption, it is still possible to have one completed when they either do not consent, or cannot be located.
A stepparent adoption can still occur if the other birth parent refuses to give consent or cannot be located. Most states' laws allow parental rights to be terminated when a parent has willfully failed to pay child support or communicate with the child for a period of time, usually a year.
Stepparent adoption also can occur if the other biological parent is deceased.
Abuse in Stepfamilies
A common villain of classic fairy tales is the abusive step mother. She mistreats her non-biological child by locking them away, or trying to kill them in some cases, and treats her own children very well if she has any. In popular culture phrases like "I'll beat you like a red-headed step child" are uttered as a common threat that show just how aware people are about the assumed nature of step family abuse. The thought is that because this child is not the biological child they are more likely to be beaten due to a lack of kinship ties. The research on this topic shows that this issue is not so clearly defined however. The image of the wicked step mother is well known but much of the research available shows more of the abuse coming from stepfathers rather than step mothers.
Step fathers have been shown to abuse female step children more than males. They are also shown to be more abusive towards female children than biological families, but less abusive than adoptive fathers. The abuse studied with men in mind tends to focus on physical or sexual abuse of children rather than emotional abuse. Neglect is also discussed as a qualifying method of child abuse by step parents in general. In 2004 a U.S. study by Weekes and Weekes-Shackelford found that while biological fathers fatally abuse children 5 and under at a rate of 5.6 per million per year step fathers were found to a have a rate of 55.9 per million per year. A U.K. study done in 2000 had different results which found that many less children responded as being abused by a step parent. Economic factors could also play a role in the abuse of step children. In places with higher levels of social strain abuse my be more prevalent or more violent. Other studies of census data and child neglect and abuse records have found that step parents may be over represented in abuse figures. They found that when the data is balanced, the biological parents have a much higher rate of abuse than the step parents do.
Step mothers are thought to be less violent in their abuse and instead rely mainly on verbal and emotion abuse.
There is little research in the field of parental abuse by children in concern with step children abusing step parents. The abuse of step children by their siblings is also a topic with little research.
In her book, Becoming a Stepfamily, Patricia Papernow (1993) suggests that each stepfamily goes through seven distinct stages of development, which can be divided into the Early, Middle, and Late stages. The Early stages consist of the Fantasy, Immersion, and Awareness stages. In the Fantasy stage, both children and parents are typically "stuck" in their fantasies or wishes for what their family could be like. The developmental task for this stage is for each member to articulate their wants and needs. In the Immersion stage, the family is typically struggling to live out the fantasy of a "perfect" blended family. In this stage, it is critical for the "insider spouse" (i.e. the biological parent who typically forms the emotional hub of the family) to understand that the feelings of the "outsider spouse" and children are real. The task of this stage is to persist in the struggle to become aware of the various experiences. This stage is followed by the Awareness stage, in which the family gathers information about what the new family looks like (e.g., roles, traditions, "family culture") and how each member feels about it. The tasks of this stage are twofold: individual and joint. The individual task is for each member to begin to put words to the feelings they are experiencing, and to voice their needs to other family members. The joint task is for family members to begin to transcend the "experiential gaps" and to try to form an understanding of other members' roles and experiences.
The Middle stages consist of the Mobilization and Action stages. In the Mobilization stage, the stepparent can begin to step forward to address the family's process and structure. The tasks of this stage are to confront differences in each member's perception of the new family, as well as to influence one another before shaming or blaming begins to take action to reorganize the family structure. The goal here is to make joint decisions about new stepfamily rituals, rules, and roles. The focus in this stage is on the stepfamily's unique "middle ground" (i.e. the "areas of shared experience, shared values, and easy cooperative functioning created over time," p. 39), and on balancing this new middle ground with honoring of past and other relationships.
The Later stages consist of the Contact and Resolution stages. In the Contact stage, the couple is working well together, the boundaries between households are clear, and stepparents have definite roles with stepchildren as "intimate outsiders." The task for this stage is in solidifying the stepparent's role, and in continuing the process of awareness. Finally, in the Resolution stage, the stepfamily's identity has become secure. The family accepts itself for who it is, there is a strong sense of the stepfamily's middle ground, and children feel secure in both households. The task for this stage is to nourish the depth and maturity gained through this process, and to rework any issues that might arise at family "nodal events" (e.g., weddings, funerals, graduations, etc.).
- Children in a one parent family often feel threatened when their parent is dating as the parent is looking for a prospective spouse. The prospective spouse can often feel threatened as the children become part of the package within the relationship. Stepfamilies can sometimes find it difficult to feel like a family as the spouse may not feel equal to the children due to the fact that a biological parent and their biological child have a stronger bond which is separate from the marriage.
In her book, Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do, social researcher Wednesday Martin takes an anthropological approach to examining stepfamily dynamics. The Daily Mail said that Stepmonster "in the US, has become widely regarded as the 'go to' source for stepmothers, stepchildren, and therapists."
The prevalence of stepfamilies has increased over the past century with the increase of divorce and remarriage. According to the Step Family Foundation, "over 50% of US families are remarried or recoupled."}These families are unique in their experiences facing many challenges which first-married families do not. For example, role ambiguity, dealing with stepchildren, and ex-spouses are only a few of the issues which are unique to these families. In response to these families' desire for assistance, stepfamily education has become an increasingly common topic among scholars and educators. Although still a relatively new facet within the marriage education realm, stepfamily education provides important information which may not be addressed in traditional marriage or relationship education curriculum. As discussed by Adler-Baeder and Higginbotham (2004) a number of curricula are currently available to stepfamilies and family life educators; however, further research is needed in order to determine best-practices for the field. One way in which this gap is being filled is through the current implementation of Healthy Marriage Demonstration Grants in the U.S. As part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005, grants for healthy marriage and responsible fatherhood, which include at-risk and diverse populations such as stepfamilies, are providing important information on the evaluation of stepfamily programs and their effectiveness in servicing stepfamilies.
- LeBey, Barbara (2004). Remarried with Children: Ten Secrets for Successfully Blending and Extending Your Family. New York: Bantam.
- Martin, Wednesday PhD (2009) Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way we Do. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Papernow, Patricia L. (1993). Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Ulrike Zartler, Valerie Heinz-Martin, Oliver Arránz Becker (Edts.). Family Dynamics after Separation. A Life Course Perspective on Post-Divorce Families. Special Issue ZfF, Volume 10, Barbara Budrich, 2015, ISBN 978-3-8474-0686-0.
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