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.

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