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Breakup of Stepparents Can Stress Stepchildren

Breakup of Stepparents Can Stress Stepchildren

New research reviews the way in which a divorce of stepparents can impact a step-children’s mental health.

Given the prevalence of divorce, remarriages are a relatively common occurrence. Remarriages often combine two families into one stepfamily unit.

In the new study, researchers wanted to learn how the dissolution of a stepfamily unit influences the relationships between former stepparents and stepchildren.

Investigators from the University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Sciences found stepchildren’s views of former stepparents depended on emotional reactions to the divorce.

Stepchildren perceptions were also influenced by additional factors that include patterns of support or resource exchanges, and parental encouragement or discouragement to continue step-relationships.

Whether stepchildren maintained relationships with their former stepparents largely depended on whether stepchildren viewed their former stepparents as family.

“For a substantial portion of these children’s lives, they’ve been living with a stepparent, who, in many cases, became a parent to them,” said Marilyn Coleman, Ph.D., Department of Human Development and Family Science.

“Then, the couple breaks up, the family breaks up, and what happens to these kids? Stepparents may have invested a lot of time, a lot of emotion in raising a child, and then end the relationship completely.

“Sometimes, there’s an assumption that when the relationship ends, there’s no need to continue ties. But for children who have grown up viewing someone as a parent, it may not be so easy for them to lose that relationship.”

In the study, researchers interviewed 41 young adults who had experienced stepfamily dissolutions. Half of the participants had considered or “claimed” their stepparents as family at one time or another.

Of those, half of the adults still maintained relationships with their former stepparents, but the other half had since ended their relationships with their former stepparents.

“In post-divorce families — stepfamilies and former stepfamilies in particular — kinship is an important notion,” said Larry Ganong, Ph.D., a professor in the University of Missouri Sinclair School of Nursing and co-chair in the Department of Human Development and Family Science.

“People make judgments about whether or not people are ‘family,’ and if you are, then there’s some sort of expectation about interactions, feelings, expectations. If you aren’t ‘family,’ then there’s ambiguity. It’s stressful, and people are less sure about how to act and feel.”

Ambiguity exists about what step-relationships mean even when couples are together; these ties become even more ambiguous when the relationships dissolve, Ganong said.

“Stepparent-stepchild relationships in particular have neither legal nor genetic ties, which are the two markers that legally and culturally we use to decide who is obligated to whom,” Ganong said. “When there’s a second divorce, there are neither blood nor legal ties binding stepparents and stepchildren, so that creates an added level of complexity about who’s in families and why.”

Divorcing couples should consider how their breakup will affect their biological children and stepchildren. Although a 10-year relationship might be a small portion of parents’ lives, it could be a significant portion of children’s lives, Coleman said.

Researchers warn stepparents to consider the kids during the divorce process.

“Don’t put your kids in the middle,” Coleman said. “When stepfamilies dissolve, the biological parent can completely cut ties with the stepparent — the children could never see him or her again. Until children are old enough to drive, they have no way to maintain contact with former stepparents unless the parents facilitate visits.”

The researchers said they noticed diversity among the relationships between stepparents and stepchildren. These family dynamics continue to evolve over time, Coleman said.

“We have a study of a point in time with these young adult children,” Coleman said. “Some are talking retrospectively.

“We don’t really know how all of these relationships are going to play out, and there’s so much diversity: Some families break ties completely, others keep living together, give financial support, or spend holidays together. Some stepchildren re-establish contact with former stepparents years after the stepfamilies dissolve.”

Source: University of Missouri, Columbia/EurekAlert
Family divorce photo by shutterstock.

Breakup of Stepparents Can Stress Stepchildren

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Breakup of Stepparents Can Stress Stepchildren. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 11 Aug 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.