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Home > Research Articles > Stepfamilies Can Make For Happier Children

USA TODAY

Wednesday, April 30, 2003

(USA TODAY) -- Kids may become more depressed in the first few years they live with a stepfather, but being a part of a stepfamily can significantly improve their lives in the long run, suggests a national study reported over the weekend.

"Stepfamilies are kind of a mixed bag," says UCLA demographer Megan Sweeney, who spoke at the Society for Research in Child Development in Tampa. She compared 870 children living with mothers and stepdads with 1,700 living with divorced or single moms. All youngsters were in grades 7-12.

Research on stepchildren often mixes together kids whose mothers never married the children's fathers with children whose parents divorced.

But divorce spawns its own issues, and children whose parents never married are a growing, under-studied group, says psychologist James Bray, a stepfamily expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

About 600,000 U.S. children are born each year to parents who never marry, he says.

Sweeney's work is unusual, and helpful, Bray says, because it separates out the kids of parents who never married. She looked at how they fared when moms stayed unmarried, compared with marrying and forming stepfamilies.

Sweeney also looked at how children did if their moms stayed divorced or created new stepfamilies.

Among key findings:

Children's depression symptoms tend to increase for a few years after stepfamilies are formed, but the longer they're in a stable family, the fewer symptoms they have. Teens are more likely to have parents at home to supervise them if they are living in stepfamilies rather than with single moms.

Kids are much less likely to be living in poverty if they're stepchildren. For example, 46% of children lived below the poverty line if their parents never married and their mom stayed single, compared with 12% in stepfamilies. Higher income often leads to better adjustment and life prospects for children, Sweeney adds.

"Stepfamilies are not clearly a good or bad thing for kids' well-being. But if the family remains stable, it gets better and better for them," she says. An estimated half of stepfamilies break up through divorce, Bray says.

It's often difficult to form a stepfamily with adolescents, he adds. "Parents are trying to bring everyone together and, especially during early adolescence, kids are normally withdrawing, they pull back from the family."

Even teens in long-standing stepfamilies have more anxiety and behavior problems than the average kid, Bray says. Stepparents may take kids' normal adolescent sullen behavior personally and confront them about it, which escalates conflict, he says.

The new findings "do give hope," says Bray, "and tell parents they just need to hang in there."

Nearly a quarter of U.S. children live in stepfamilies at some point, according to federal surveys. An estimated 40 million kids now live in them, Bray says.

Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.