Living in a stepfamily: the rewards and challenges

Dr Claire Cartwright, a Senior Lecturer in the University’s Doctor of Clinical Psychology programme, presented 'Living in a stepfamily: the rewards and challenges' at the recent Combining Parenting and a Career Seminar.

The highly interactive seminar featured a wide range of questions and issues raised by the audience, who were clearly captivated by Claire’s research.

Claire opened her presentation by defining stepfamilies as a family or household that includes (at least) a parent, the parent’s children and the parent’s partner. She illustrated how these families can become more complex when both partners have children from previous relationships, and explained that the main difference between stepfamilies and non-stepfamilies is that one partner is not the biological parent of the children.

Claire discussed studies that have compared outcomes for children from non-divorced families and children from stepfamilies. The studies found that children from stepfamilies faced an increased risk of adjustment difficulty. Claire said that many children do not want their parents to separate, but they can adjust to the separation over time, especially if the children have a relationship with the parent’s new partner prior to living together.

Claire noted key areas of stepfamily life that are central to stepfamily adjustment, including the establishment of strong couple relationships, workable step-parent - child relationships, and the importance of interactions with the 'other' parent.

She explained how some parents may feel like the 'meat in the sandwich' or the 'insider', torn between their children’s and their new partner’s feelings. Meanwhile, the step-parent may feel like the 'outsider'. Claire noted the importance of supporting and sympathising with each other’s position to ensure a strong relationship. Other helpful tips included taking time to get to know the stepchild in order to build a friendly relationship, and understanding the children’s need for their parent’s time and attention.

Claire also suggested that step-parents refrain from taking on a parent role with their stepchildren too soon. This, she said, may lead to resentment and rebellion against the step-parent’s influence.

Throughout her presentation Claire highlighted the rewards of living in a stepfamily. She noted that some children have a positive relationship with their step-parent from the beginning, and that living in a stepfamily can provide a stimulating and fun environment.