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Think. Discuss. Act. Family

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Review: Step By Step

B. Kantrowitz & P. Wingert. (1990, Winter/Spring special issue). “Step by step.”¬†Newsweek, p. 24.


All of us will soon face the reality that “stepfamilies are families too,” and will deal with the many related implications. Some demographers predict that as many as one third of all children born in the 1980s may live with a stepparent before age 18. “As their numbers grow in the next few decades, stepfamilies will become even more prominent.” Another important issue facing stepfamilies is emergency health care. A stepparent has no legal rights to be able to help. Even more difficult are issues of loss from divorce or death or separation from a parent or spouse.

It may be helpful to define a stepfamily. “A stepfamily is a family in which at least one parent has already been married in the past. It may involve children from a previous family. Most research is done in the context that the stepfamily had children from a previous marriage due to the fact that only 10% of stepfamilies did not have children from a previous marriage.”

This information is crucial for working with youth in the 1990s. As the divorce rate across the country grows, it is inevitable that remarriages will also increase. It is important to remember that our desire for companionship will never disappear unless it is suppressed. So, as people are separated from their first married companion, it is natural for them to move toward finding a new one. From data on divorce, evidently many divorced homes have children. This means that as parents remarry they bring with them confused and hurt children.

In the article, according to 1985 U.S. Census figures, nearly 70 million children lived in stepfamilies. “Demographers expect that half of all people entering marriages in the 1970s and 1980s will eventually divorce.” The majority of them will remarry. “We will all have to change our internal maps of what a family should be,” says Mala Burt, a Baltimore family therapist and president of the Stepfamily Association of America. “All kinds of institutions will have to adjust to special needs of stepfamilies. Schools, for example, give only two tickets to parents for graduation. In emergency care situations, stepparents may be full-time parents, but the law requires a biological parent or legal guardian for consent.”

Even more important, explains John Visher, “is the experience that each family brings into the second marriage. Each family member has experienced the tragedy of divorce or death or separation from a parent or spouse; the aftershock can linger for years.” “The myth is that you are remarried, you ride off into the sunset and everybody lives happily ever after,” says Emily Visher. “It’s not that way at all.”

Research shows that adjusting to new households is difficult. “Stepchildren have more developmental, emotional, and behavioral problems than children in intact families. At least half the children living in stepfamilies are likely to face an additional trauma-the birth of a half sibling to their parent and the new spouse.” Not all stepchildren are troubled. Some studies show that youngsters who come from families with higher incomes and educational levels do better. The child’s age may also be a factor. “Youngsters in early adolescence, roughly ages 9 to 15, do the poorest.”

Stepfamilies usually have unreasonably high expectations. If both spouses have both been married, they may dream of fixing past wrongs. A spouse who has never been married may try to be a “superman” or “superdad” to the stepchildren. Or the parents may underestimate the time that they will have together, hoping for a honeymoon phase that probably will not happen.

“Children who see their biological parents get remarried will see their fantasy disappear.” They realize that the reunion of their biological parents is no longer possible. Children will mourn the death of their dearest dream. They may also feel threatened by the new stepparent if it has been awhile since their biological parents divorced. Change in any sense is especially hard for children.

“Happy endings mean hard work for everyone involved. The commitment begins with the couple.” It is important for people to seek as much information as possible, so that they know the difficulties that lay ahead. Seeking private or group counseling can help to keep everyone informed as well. Many experts think that the children of the 21st century will rewrite the rules of family life as they grow up. They will look for role models who have made it. And they will sort through the difficult reality of trust.

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. After reading this article review, how do you think that divorce affects kids?
  2. Is there any basis for concern for children’s development and how can this be best helped?
  3. Are support groups and counseling the best resources for most stepfamilies? What are other sources?
  4. How can you now help stepfamilies who have conflict within their family?
  5. Will these issues will have lesser or greater significance in the future? Why?


  1. If society allows the divorce rate to be high, it must also recognize that the stepfamily group will grow.
  2. Those working with kids must be willing to help those experiencing difficult stepfamily situations.
  3. Children of all ages need support. Educate parents on the struggles of blending two families. Equip them to be trainers and leaders of their children. If stepfamilies are not encouraged to work things out and seek help, the divorce rate of stepfamilies will continue to rise as well.
  4. Support and encouragement of stepfamilies are essential for the “family” to continue in the 21st century.

Anne Montague
© 2018 CYS






Center for Youth Studies

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