Reconstituted families (RF) are a pervasive social phenomenon in contemporary societies around the globe. In Chinese communities where bloodline-oriented families are emphasized, an increasing trend on the number of reconstituted families has been found in Hong Kong, where remarriages represented 23.4% of all registered marriages in Hong Kong in 2020. From a clinical perspective, the formation of reconstituted families involves some degree of environmental and social changes – separating from non-residential parents, losing existing support network, changes in familial roles etc. Although the effect of family reconstitutions on stepchildren has been studied in the West, this field of study is relatively new. Therefore, this qualitative narrative case study aims to examine the growth experiences of Chinese adolescent stepchildren.
A multiple narrative case study design was employed. Four Chinese adolescent stepchildren in RF were recruited for in-depth case studies [3 participants came from mixed families (a household consisting of at least one biological child of the couple and at least one stepchild of either partner) and 1 participant from a stepfather family (a household consisting of a stepfather living with the biological mother and her children)]. The average length of time RF was formed was approximately 9 years. Interviews elicited the growth experience of adolescent stepchildren in RF. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded thematically.
Data driven by in-depth case analyses has generated three overarching themes related to identity formation during the growth experiences of adolescent stepchildren in RF: (i) role ambiguity, (ii) relational triangulation, and (iii) self-stigmatization.
Role ambiguity denoted the ignorance of relationship building among parents and children in the RF. Due to a lack of blood lineage, participants were hesitant in considering their stepparents as intimate family members. Hence, they found difficulties in establishing new family rules and functioning within the RF, which both parents and children lacked mutual agreement and recognition of identities from both sides, leading to unacknowledged and unfulfilled family relationships and experiences.
Participants also expressed their struggles of being triangulated in conflicts between members of RF and the biological family, as they were caught up with loyalty issues and placed in the role of a “mediator”. For participants who come from divorced families, some found difficulties in managing information between residential and non-residential biological parents.
Lastly, participants experienced self-stigma related to their reconstituted status. During their growth experience, some chose to conceal their family status due to anticipated discrimination from surrounding social networks, whereas some did have positive experience after disclosure.
Conclusion and implications:
The findings highlighted the growth experiences related to the self-identity of stepchildren in RF in the face of role ambiguity, relational triangulation, and self-stigmatization. For this reason, clinical and community work should aim to improve the self-identity of stepchildren by empowering their voices during the formation of RF and normalizing RF in this era of shifting family constitutions.