Remarriage causes stress for kids.

10 12 2008

Ladies, I’ve come across some research you have to know about. In fact there is so much in it that I will do several posts on the issues raised in the study. Stepfamily researcher and author Constance Ahrons published a study last year called Family Ties After Divorce: Long-Term Implications for Children in the journal Family Process. Click on the link if you’d like read the entire paper.

“Drawing on the data from the longitudinal Binuclear Family Study, 173 grown children were interviewed 20 years after their parents’ divorce. This article addresses two basic questions: (1) What impact does the relationship between parents have on their children 20 years after the divorce? and (2) When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family?”

This passage struck me as particularly powerful because it relates directly to our role as stepmoms:

“Over the course of 20 years, most of the children experienced the remarriage of one or both parents, and one third of this sample remembered the remarriage as more stressful than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both of their parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.”

Two-thirds!!!!! This is deeply distressing. Why do these children find Stepmom and Dad’s marriage so stressful? And what can we stepmoms do to ease this transition not only for ourselves but for the children we take on in our remarriages?

Here are the findings Constance reports:

“When a parent remarries or cohabits, how does it impact a child’s sense of family? Twenty years after their parents’ divorce, most of the adult children had experienced the remarriage of at least one parent. Of the 89 families in this analysis, at least one remarriage occurred in 95% of them; 72% (n = 64) of the mothers and 87% (n = 77) of the fathers had remarried at least one time. In 64% (n = 56) of the families, both parents had remarried. In only 4 families had neither parent remarried. More fathers than mothers remarried, and they remarried more quickly after the divorce. In this sample, 24%, 60%, and 70% of the fathers had remarried at 1, 3, and 5 years postdivorce, whereas fewer mothers had remarried in each of the times, 12%, 38%, and 49%, respectively.

Remarriage represents another dramatic change in the divorced family’s reorganization, and children vary in their responses to this change. When asked whether the divorce or a parent’s remarriage was more difficult to cope with, more than half of the adult children reported that the divorce was most difficult, and approximately one third remembered the remarriage of one or more parents as creating more distress than the divorce. Of those who experienced the remarriage of both parents, two thirds reported that their father’s remarriage was more stressful than their mother’s.

The adult children’s reports of the impact of their father’s remarriage were associated with their reports of changes in father-child relationship quality. Specifically, those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive impact on their lives were more likely to report that their relationship with their father got better postdivorce compared with those who reported that their father’s remarriage had a neutral or negative impact on their lives. A disproportionately high number of those reporting that their relationships worsened with their fathers after divorce had experienced his remarriage within one year postdivorce (Ahrons & Tanner, 2003).

The majority of children in the study reported that at the time of the interview, they had good relationships with one or both of their stepparents. Most noted that this was not always the case in the beginning but that relationships had improved over time as they came to know their stepparents better. Some gender differences emerged, with two thirds reporting a close relationship with their stepfathers, and somewhat less than half felt close to their stepmothers. For those children who feel that their relationships with their stepparents were close, two thirds considered their stepfathers as parents, and somewhat fewer felt the same way about their stepmothers. The others, who felt close but did not consider their stepparents to be parents, describe their stepparents as friends or mentors. It is important to note that although there were some differences in their feelings toward their stepmothers versus their stepfathers, these differences were not related to the child’s gender. Boys and girls both viewed their stepparents in similar ways.

The age of the child, the personality match between a stepchild and stepparent, the relationship with each biological parent, and the amount of time spent with a stepfather are major factors that influence the role he takes in their lives. Because most mothers are still the primary residential parent, most stepfathers live with their stepchildren. Although some children who are close with their stepfathers have poor relationships with their biological fathers, others who have poor stepfather relationships are close with their biological fathers. Still others are able to maintain good relationships with both, and a small group of children have poor relationships with both.

The findings also show an association between relationships with their father and relationships with their father’s kin. When relationships with their fathers got worse over time, they reported poorer current relationships with their stepmother, her children (their stepsiblings), and their paternal grandparents. This was most salient when the father remarried shortly after divorce. Adult children who reported that their father’s remarriage had a positive effect on their lives also said that they had better relationships with their stepmothers, stepsiblings, and paternal grandparents. This is important because it relates to the long-term implications of the adult children’s sense of family after divorce. Because children have two sets of kin, whether and how they relate to them carries implications for the continuity of family relationships (Ahrons & Rodgers, 1989).”

So what does this mean in real terms? Clearly, helping to foster strong relationships between your stepchildren and their Dad is the most important action you can take. I will post separately about steps we can take on a daily basis to make sure that our families are the ones that have a positive effect on the children.




7 responses

11 12 2008

You must be so careful about analyzing this study as there are so many crucial factors that need to be considered. For example, how were the children parented prior to the divorce versus after? How involved was the father before the divorce versus after? In some cases, the parents emotions over the other parents’ remarriage can be what causes stress in teh children. You must look at the predetermining factors. For example, if the child was very close to their mother, their father’s remarriage will be difficult if it is difficult for their mother, and vice versa.

11 12 2008

Lisa, you are absolutely right for pointing out that there are many factors that go into that two-thirds number of children who report that Dad’s remarriage is more stressful than Mom’s. Could be Dad is a deadbeat dad who disappears from the children’s life of his own accord. Could be that Stepmom doesn’t want kids and so she pressures him to give up his relationship with them. Could be there was an affair and Mom’s anger at Dad creates loyalty conflicts for the children who “can’t” like their Dad or Stepmom because it would hurt their mother. In fact biological Mom’s have tremendous power. There is more on this topic within the study that I will write about next week.

There are many, many reasons why kids feel stress at remarriage time, but how can we translate the research into our daily lives? As stepmothers we have limited power, but we do have areas of influence. By encouraging our mates to interact with their children, we are helping in a way that can have tremendous impact on the kids and our husbands in the future. All of the complexities of our families can not be easily summed up by a research study or ten studies or an author like myself. And so the challenge is to take the common mistakes that many people make and what we’ve seen work in successful stepfamilies and pass them on. Each of us then gets to do the daily trial and error on our own. Whether we are successful or not won’t be determined until many years down the road. And so, good luck to all of us! May we all do the best we can!

11 12 2008

Thanks so much for sharing this research and information – I look forward to your posts/advise/strategies/comments in response to it. I live with my fiance and his two children live with us half the time. Their mother is unhappy and bitter towards my fiance for being happy when she is not. The children naturally absorb some of her unhappiness and stress, and it’s hard for them to be really happy when she is not. It’s possible for her to become more bitter as we plan our marriage, and the kids will pick up on that. I’m sure this dynamic is not unique to us, and it makes sense to me why children would remember their parents remarriage as a stressful event, particularly if they are absorbing the negative emotions of their other parent. The question of course, is what and how much can I as the new stepmom do to alleviate their stress level surrounding it?

10 01 2012

Or maybe the child feels like an inconvenience to a woman with no kids of her own. Not to mention daddy is distracted now and no longer spends his few days a month alone with them anymore? Can’t blame everything on his ex wife. She has every reason to boe unhappy.

1 07 2009

I was just in the neighborhood and thought I’d drop by on all the wealth of information provided. LOVE it so much!

I did however; want to add something which I think is also a critical piece to this puzzle between Dads and their children.
Many times, what a father does after the divorce, is treat that child (or those children) like miniture “partners” instead of children. As we all understand, a divorce can be a very powerful time in terms of a father feeling sad, guilt and many other things. This is when (sometimes, not always) fathers have a lot of intense energy within them that they parent intensily and some parent/child boundaries are crossed (unknowingly) There becomes an imbalance in which the “closeness” these children once shared with their father was more of a partnership then a parent/child relationship. In those cases, those children are “missing” something that is actually not healthy to begin with.
So I think without this knowing or digging deeper in this regard, these findings/reports and statistics become a little too general in terms of using a remarriage as a entry point. That isn’t to say that it isn’t stressful because for these children because it totally is. What I would like to know however; is what can we do to not cross over the child/parent boundary so that these children feel like they have the same father at all times. I wonder if it is really the remarriage itself, or if there is more to the story…..

3 09 2009

i feel that stepkids feel stressed becuase they feel like it is thier fault that the father is guilty or they aren’t loved.sometimes your efforts to make them happy are seen as fake and trying to make ourself look better or impress dad/husband

23 01 2012

Or maybe the mother thought the grass was greener on the other side an left the kids and father. Not all devorice is the husbands fault. So now when the kids are with the mother they miss anywhere from 2-3 days a week at school because the mother was out drinking all night and can not get up to get the kids ready for school. May the stress comes from the mother always bouncing around friends houses and dragging them through their young childhood with no strructure and when the go to their fathers house that doesn’t drink, that gets them to school and personally walks them to their classroom door and provides a structured enviroment every day that he has them then what? The only thing I am sad is the kids see their mother fight with boyfriends, hear the harsh words the mother and boyfriend say toward each other and the lack of neurturing the mother provides.

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