Your Questions Answered: Measures of Success

10 06 2009

Q. Dear Jacque, I just read this and it’s very concerning:

The Children’s Society contributes to the existing body of research on absent fathers with a finding from their own study of U.K. runaways, noting that “children living with one birth parent are twice as likely to have run away and children in step families are three times as likely to have run away as those living with both parents.”

(source: http://www.vision.org/visionmedia/article.aspx?id=15472)

 I think at some point you had cited a statistic about academic achievement for children in stepfamilies being lower than for children in single-parent or dual-parent families (can’t remember if this was grades, test scores, college attainment, or what). But now this statistic about child runaways has got me thinking: do kids in stepfamilies have worse outcomes on EVERY possible measure of life success? I’ve been living with my boyfriend for a while now and we plan to get married eventually. Does my mere presence in his household bring down his kids’ success rates? It’s extremely disheartening! I want to know the “why” behind these statistics. I want to know what commonalities are shared by the families where these kids are running away. Is this only happening in families living out the worst stereotypes – the wicked stepmother or abusive stepfather? Or is the “slightly baffled by children but very well intentioned non-wicked stepmother” a good enough reason to make the kids get out of dodge?

A. What a fantastic question. It is extremely challenging to get at exactly why kids who are living in single-parent or stepfamily households are behaving the way they do, but you’re absolutely right. The research is stacking up that says kids from divorced households don’t fare as well in all of the categories used to measure the well-being of children.

I have seen research and articles coming at this topic from many angles. Some writers argue that kids are faring so badly because they don’t have access to their fathers. Some think it is the nature of single-parent households–there are fewer people with much less time to look after kids to make sure they are okay. Other writers say that it’s the nature of stepfamilies causing it–that the common stressors of stepfamily development mixed with the anger and grief over a divorce or the death of a parent cause children to act out in dangerous ways. Kids in stepfamilies can fall through the cracks a lot easier when parents feel guilty and act permissive and stepparents don’t feel like they can get involved. It’s enough to make your head spin.

So what can you do about it? The fact that you are conscientious enough to be worried about the kids leads me to believe that your stepchildren will be just fine, but here are a few tips that can help up your stepkids’ success rates:

Pay Attention. Kids need parents and stepparents who are paying attention. They need their parents to pay close enough attention that when a kids smells like smoke, they ask if they had a cigarette and demand to talk about it.

Continue Parenting. Kids need their moms and dads to parent them the same way they always did–riding them to get their homework done, expecting polite behavior, etc. They need rules and boundaries, not ice cream and trips to Disney Land. It is extremely difficult to parent and stepparent a troubled kid. A teen who is already exhibiting destructive behavior needs you, but you might not ever see any thanks for the efforts you put in. And the bio parent should always take the lead with a troubled teen.

Read About Stepfamilies.I know I say this one all the time, but it’s absolutely critical in my mind. If you know what is normal behavior for kids in stepfamilies, you won’t overreact when it happens to you. Plus, you can tell the kids that whatever they’re going through is normal. They’re not freaks. And it will pass.

Encourage One-On-One Time With Dad.I’ve heard from a lot of adult stepchildren who said they felt their stepmothers were jealous of the time they spent with their dads. I’ve also heard stepmoms admit to feeling that way. But the research is really clear. Kids do FAR better when they have a strong relationship with their dad. Send the stepkids off for a fun day with dad while you hit the spa.

Reduce Loyalty Conflicts.Kids from divorced families often feel stuck in the middle of their bio parents and duel households regardless of anything you say or do. Still, do what you can to mitigate loyalty conflicts for the kids and it will help in the long run. Don’t badmouth Mom. Don’t make a kid chose between Mom and Dad. And remember, sometimes loyalty conflicts are hidden. One stepmom couldn’t understand why her stepdaughers were so angry that she replaced the living room couch. Turns out it was one of Mom’s favorites.

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