The Office of National Statistics has revealed that the number of stepfamilies in the UK dropped from 631,000 in 2001 to 544,000 in 2011, a slump of 14% in just a decade. The drop has been interpreted as a reflection of the difficulties of assimilating children from different families into a new relationship, so if you are planning on doing a <em>Brady Bunch</em>, here’s 10 things you need to know…
1. To date, step-families have been the fastest growing family form in the UK (Ferri and Smith, 2003). Just under one in 10 (9%) children is currently being raised by a step-family.
2. In 2010, 78% of step-families in the UK consisted of a natural mother, her offspring and a stepfather. Just 18% of step-families were comprised of a natural father and a stepmother, while 4% of step-families incorporated children from both partner’s previous relationships. Living in a more complex step-family has been shown to be associated with more adjustment problems than living in a step-family where all the children are related to the mother (Hetherington et al., 1999; Dunn, 2002).
3. Married couple step-families are more likely (57%) than cohabiting couples (35%) with stepchildren to go on to have their own biological children;
4. The younger a child is when the step family is formed, the easier they may find it to adjust. Older boys and girls are more inclined to find it difficult, although in early adolescence, boys seem to find it easier than girls. The quality of parenting is one of the best predictors of children’s well-being, both in intact families, as well as step-families (Amato, 2005; Dunn, 2005).
5. Adjustment never happens overnight. In children, the impact of family change is most evident during the two years following divorce (Dowling et al, 2000), but some experts say that it can take as many years as the age of the child at remarriage (e.g. seven years if the child seven) for the step-family to properly bond.
6. A step-family is a very fragile ecosystem. It almost inevitably encompasses a great deal of pain, loss, or separation, because as counsellor Suzie Hayman has pointed out, either a person, or a relationship, has had to die in order for the step-family to be created.
7. Children who spend time with both biological parents inevitably feel split loyalties and if they are afraid of losing contact with one parent, they may act out their insecurities within their step-family, rather than challenging a relationship that they fear is vulnerable. This is problematic for step-parents who can feel like they are constantly picking up the pieces of their partner’s previous relationship. In 2005, the Parentline Plus helpline received 14,500 calls from step-parents who were experiencing high levels of depression and anxiety. Role ambiguity and role strain were issues for many step-parents who found that these aspects negatively influenced their marital relationships and caused feelings of stress and inadequacy.
8. Making a step-family is relatively simple. Keeping it together in the long-term is incredibly difficult. Parental separation and divorce rates are higher in step-families than in intact families (Booth and Edwards, 1992, Cherlin and Furstenberg, 1994). Nearly 40% of marriage dissolutions in England and Wales annually occur between couples where one partner has been married before. More than 9% of divorces each year happen between couples who have both been married already.
9. A stable family is more important than the structure of that family. Research shows that repeated changes in living arrangements have a more detrimental effect on children than the actual structure of their family. The more often changes occur (e.g. from marriage to divorce, to remarriage, involving new half-siblings, etc.), the more negative the consequences are for children (Coleman et al, 2010, CRFR, 2010).
10. Learning how to talk together as a step-family is an important part of countering the negative dynamics that can build up so easily in a step-family. When you talk together, make sure that everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, has an equal opportunity to speak and to be listened to. If you feel that your step-family is in trouble, act sooner rather than later. The Institute of Family Therapy (www.ift.org.uk) offer family therapy and payment is on a sliding scale dependent of income.