Abstract: Stepfamily Processes, Stepfather Relationships, and Children's Stress and Adjustment (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Stepfamily Processes, Stepfather Relationships, and Children's Stress and Adjustment

Saturday, January 16, 2016: 9:00 AM
Ballroom Level-Congressional Hall A (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Todd M. Jensen, MSW, LCSWA, Doctoral Student, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Kevin Shafer, PhD, Assistant Professor, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT
Background and Purpose: Stepfamilies are one of the fastest growing family forms in the United States. Nearly 4 in 5 stepfamilies are composed of a stepfather and biological mother. Thus, it has become increasingly likely that men will transition into a stepparental role. The unique stressors associated with stepfamily life influence both adults and children in stepfamilies, and increase the likelihood of adjustment problems among stepfamily members compared to individuals in first-time, continuously intact families. Drawing from a normative-adaptive perspective, family systems theory, and the divorce-stress-adjustment perspective, we examined the associations between stepfamily formation processes (i.e., relationship quality, shifts in economic resources, relocation), perceived stress, and subsequent indicators of adjustment among emerging-adult stepchildren, with particular attention paid to the influence of stepparent-child relationship quality—a central feature of stepfamily stability.

Method: The data came from STEP, a nationally-based retrospective survey of 1,593 emerging adults (i.e., age 18 to 30) who spent time living in a stepfamily. After adjusting for over-sampling, our final analytical sample was restricted to 1,181 participants who lived in a heterosexual, married or cohabiting stepfamily following parental divorce. Endogenous constructs were depression (10 items), alcohol-related risk behavior, and drug-related risk behavior. Exogenous constructs/variables were parent-child relationship quality, stepparent-child relationship quality, stepcouple relationship quality, family relocation, and stepfamily household income. The key mediating variable was a global indicator of stepchildren’s stress associated with stepfamily formation. Six covariates were also included in the model. Analysis: Structural equation modeling in Mplus 7.11 was conducted with a mean- and variance-adjusted weighted least squares (WLSMV) estimator and a polychoric correlation matrix to adjust for the non-normal and ordinal nature of the construct indicators. Missing data were handled with Full Information Maximum Likelihood estimation. The model yielded adequate fit: χ2(574) = 2120.838; CFI = .96; TLI = .96; RMSEA = .048, 90% CI [.046 , .050] (Bowen & Guo, 2012).

Results: Results indicated that greater stepparent- and parent-child relationship quality were negatively associated with stepchildren’s stress at the time of stepfamily formation (b = -.93, β = -.35, p < .001 and b = -.85, β = -.32, p < .001, respectively). Stepfamily stress was positively associated with stepchildren’s depression (b = .15, β = .56, p < .001) and drug-related risk behavior (b = .08, β = .25, p < .001) during emerging adulthood. The model explained 78%, 31% and 7% of the variance in stepfamily stress, depression, and drug-related risk behavior, respectively.

Implications: Stepfamilies are an increasingly common social context in which children and adolescents develop. Our results indicate that processes associated with stepfamily formation can be stressful (or conversely, stress-reducing) for children. Among these processes, the stepparent-child relationship—a relatively malleable factor—is prominently associated with stepchildren’s stress and subsequent adjustment. Thus, stepparents—most commonly stepfathers—may play a crucial role in promoting the well-being of children in stepfamilies. Social workers and other helping professionals should help foster parent-child relationship quality and mutually satisfying stepparent-child relationships when working with stepfamilies.