Stepfamilies Families Term Paper

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Stepfamilies

Families and Stepfamilies

It is a reality of the modern lifestyle that families find themselves challenged in terms of structure. Indeed, the high divorce rate, as well as other factors such as death and increasing births to single mothers, have led to structure changes. The "normal" family with two biological parents has decreased in number, while there is an increasing number of families where one or both parents are non-biological. Indeed, according to Dunn et al. (2001), 90% of children lived with both biological parents in 1970, whereas this number has decreased to only 69% in 1994. Statistics in the United Kingdom are just as grim: in excess of one in eight children in this country will have separated or divorced parents by the time that they are 16. The increase in stepfamilies can thus be explained by factors such as divorce and births to single mothers.

Many challenges face stepfamilies. These include he stereotypes imposed by society, as well as the effect on children of living with stepfamilies. It has been concluded by a variety of studies that adjusting to new families presents a challenge to children. Many variables are however inherent in such adjustments, and it is therefore a difficult subject to pin down. A very young child for example would find adjusting to a stepfamily easier than a child who has lived in a certain family situation for a longer time, and is older. On the other hand, a very young child who is very attached to the original family may find this adjustment more difficult than a more independent, older child. Personality and individual situations thus play a large role in family adjustment. The stepfamily itself is also a factor that influences adjustment, as is the aforesaid social stigma attached to stepfamilies.

Another problematic factor influencing conclusive studies on childhood and the influence of stepfamilies on behavior, according to Dunn et al. (2001), is the fact that the views of the children themselves have not often been adequately examined.

Adjustment to Stepfamilies

According to Wilcox Doyle et al. (2002), research show a tendency in children with stepfamilies to struggle with maladjustment and low self-esteem issues. When comparing these children to their peers from biological families, it is found that these problems are worse for children with stepparents. Such research, despite the shortcomings mentioned above, is increasing to match the increasing numbers of stepfamilies. The reason for this is the fact that many more adjustments are necessary for children from stepfamilies than for those from biological families (Dunn et al., 2001).

The first adjustment is when the original family structure changes. Unless the child is extremely young, it will be necessary to some extent to ensure that he or she has adjusted fully to the first change before imposing a new one. A child who lost a biological parent to either divorce or death for examples should be granted a chance to mourn this loss before having to adjust to yet another new situation. Furthermore the new family should be sensitive to adjustment and self-esteem issues that the stepchild may harbor.

Secondly, Dunn et al. (2001) mention the "social capital" model, according to which the integration of new family members into the relationship network requires time and energy for new relationships to develop in as healthy a way as possible. These factors may place extra tension on the family situation, as new relationships take additional energy to what is already required for the existing family. The concept of social capital then refers to the time that parents take to positively interact with their children. When social capital within a family is taxed, behavior problems may develop in both biological and stepchildren. When a new child enters a family for example, the biological children may feel neglected with more social capital is engaged in attention to the stepchild. Similarly, the stepchild may feel neglected and left out when the family interacts with greater ease when he or she is not integrated in the activities.

A third issue mentioned by Dunn et al. (2001) is the "incompleteness" of stepfamilies. By this is meant the cultural lack of a definite paradigm for the definition of roles within a stepfamily. The different roles required within a stepfamily for example are not clearly defined within society. Because this is the case, the requirements for competence in these roles are also not clearly defined. This is the troublesome point, since maladjustment is often the result of a lack of specific guidelines offered by the experiences of others. It is therefore left to the members of the family themselves to cope with the process of adjustment. The difficulty here, as explained by Dunn et al. (2001), is that family members are human. As human beings, and without clear official guidelines, family members differ in their role expectations. These may lead to conflict situations when role expectations and role fulfillment differ widely.

Wilcox Doyle et al. (2002) on the other hand address the variability of adjustment of children within stepfamilies. According to this author, providing theories for maladjustment problems are useful only in homogeneous cases, whereas in practice these problems affect different children in different ways. According to studies, some children are as well adapted to their stepfamily environment as their peers from biological families, despite experiences of strain in terms of social stereotyping and strained social capital.

Wilcox Doyle et al. cite the transitional events theory to account for this variability. According to this theory, the experiences of a child within a family transition vary in number and nature, and this is why the reactions to these experiences also differ so widely. Furthermore, the abilities of a child to handle these stresses are variable, which also influences the outcome of a child's adjustment to the new family situation.

According to Hetherington et al. (1998), explicating the individual factors influencing adjustment or indeed the lack thereof, is not necessarily as useful as is claimed by some critics.

The reason for the skepticism regarding these methods is the conflicting results and controversies that have been part of the conclusions of such studies. The difficulty is not only the variety of factors from sample to sample, but also the analytical methods applied to the data gathered. Other differences, such as individual factors of adjustment resources, have been mentioned above. Thus the authors have searched for different factors to apply to the problem. One of these factors is the influence of outside resources such as friends and family members who are not part of the inner stepfamily circle.

The Stepfamily Situation: Coping Resources and Adjustment Methods

Hetherington et al. (1998) show that close friendships both within and outside of the stepfamily are often a determining factor in developing coping resources in terms of adjustment skills. The study for example shows that there is a significantly lower experience of positive relationships with stepmothers within a family than between a child and a biological parent. The significance of this is that a positive relationship takes more social capital than a mother-child bond that is formed by birth. This may lead to jealousy issues within the home.

Positive feelings among children in stepfamily households have also been shown to be enhanced with a willingness to talk about problems that these children experience with moving between households. Furthermore, when children are given an active role in household decisions, positive feelings regarding this household also increase. It appears then that communication, along with making a child feel important to the household into which he or she enters, is important in creating more positive reactions. The above then appear to be positive steps that stepfamilies can take to simplify the adjustment process for stepchildren.

The main problem identified here by Hetherington et al. (1998) here is that children in stepfamilies are seldom supported communicatively, and are then obliged to find outside sources in the form of other relatives and friends to cope with pressure and stress. This however is coupled with the fact that statistically no more negativity is experienced in terms of general conflict in the home of children with stepparents than that of children with biological parents. It appears therefore that the lack of knowledge regarding how to handle the role of stepparent and child within a stepfamily should be addressed, rather than the fact that negative feelings or conflict occur more than usual.

Hetherington et al. (1998) furthermore identify five factors relating to problems experienced within stepfamilies. These include individual vulnerability, family composition, stress, parental distress, and disrupted family process. In stepfamilies, all of the above factors play a role in the ability or lack thereof in a child to cope with family transitions. The authors suggest that a transactional model be used to predict risk and protective factors that relate to and ensure the well-being of children.

All five factors differ for each individual case, yet Hetherington et al. (1998) suggest that risk factors can be mediated by support strategies for children in stepfamilies in order to help them… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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