Theoretical Explanations for Stepparent Effects on Stepchildren

The increasing sophistication of research on stepchildren includes more efforts to explain why stepchildren are at greater risk for negative outcomes than children living with both parents, and why they generally are similar to children in single-parent households on measures of academic and behavioral outcomes. Most explanations may be subsumed under one of three general frameworks: (1) stress effects, (2) family process effects, and (3) selection effects.

Stress Models

The negative consequences of family and individual stress are at the core of several explanatory models of stepfamily effects on children. A major tenet of scholars who take a stress approach to understanding stepfamily effects on children is that parental remarriage increases stress in both children’s and adults’ lives (e.g., Henry & Lovelace, 1995).

Structural Changes and Family Instability

When a custodial parent remarries or cohabits with a new partner, many changes may ensue—moving to a new residence, adapting to new household members, learning new household routines and activities. For school age children and adolescents, a new residence after parental remarriages may mean changing schools and leaving behind familiar neighborhoods and old friends. As we have noted in earlier chapters, the amount of contact with the nonresidential parent often changes when either the residential parent or the nonresidential parent remarries. New household routines and activities imply new rules for children. The change and instability perspective proposes that the multiple changes experienced by children as their families undergo structural transitions lead to impaired cognitive and academic performance (e.g., Tillman, 2008; Wojtkiewicz & Holtzman, 2011), internalizing and externalizing problem behaviors (e.g., Barrett & Turner, 2005; Cavanagh & Huston, 2006; Langenkamp & Frisco, 2008; Sweeney, 2007), and more distant relationships with parents and other family members (DeLongis & Preece, 2002).

The cumulative effects hypothesis proposes that it is multiple marital and relational disruptions that increase the chances that children will exhibit internalizing and externalizing problems resulting from having to cope with all the transitions (e.g., Capaldi & Patterson, 1991; Martinez & Forgatch, 2002; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007; Wu & Thomson, 2001). Considering that a stepchild whose parent is in a second marriage or long-term relationship has probably experienced at least two parental relationship transitions (e.g., marriage-divorce-remarriage, marriage-death-remarriage), the cumulative effects hypothesis would suggest that stepchildren whose parents are in their third or higher relationship should fare worse because each transition accumulates stress. Support for this hypothesis has been found. Children whose custodial parent lived with several partners over time had more problems than children whose parent had repartnered only once (e.g., Capaldi & Patterson, 1991; Dunn et al., 1998; Martinez & Forgatch, 2002; Osborne & McLanahan, 2007 ).

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