Research sheds new light on stepfamilies

Stepparents and non-resident parents play just as important role in the behaviour and well-being of their children as the parent they live with, New Zealand's Victoria University researchers have found.

In a project for the Ministry of Social Development, researchers from Victoria's Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families interviewed 100 stepfamilies with children between the ages of nine and 13 to explore how relationships within stepfamilies affect the well-being of the children in them. Each relationship was assessed by the child, his or her resident parent, non-resident parent, and stepparent.

Centre Director, Associate Professor Jan Pryor, says the study found children’s relationships with their stepparents and non-resident parents are much more important than previously thought and not only affect their relationship with the parent they live with but also their own behaviour, self esteem and happiness. The quality of these relationships was also linked with the quality of family life in their stepfamilies.

"The research indicates that children’s relationships with their parents and stepparents are interrelated. If a child feels close to their non-resident parent, then they are likely to feel close to their resident parent and their stepparent as well," she says.

"This suggests that stepparents and non-resident parents need not feel in competition with each other. If a child as a good relationship with one adult then they are likely to have good relationships with all three."

Associate Professor Pryor says while living in a stepfamily poses challenges; clear factors enabled households to thrive. Fostering good relationships among all family members, and particularly between stepchildren and stepparents, was a priority.

"An important finding is that children have a much more accurate understanding of family interactions than previously thought and their assessments of these relationships is more strongly linked to their own well-being and that of their family than the assessments of adults," she says

"This means a child’s perceptions of their relationships will give a clear indication of how well their family is functioning, which has important implications for how the Family Court, professionals working with families, and parents think about managing separation and divorce, and the best interests of children."

For more information, contact Associate Professor Jan Pryor on 04 463 7428 or 025 272 7473

Click here to view the full report.

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