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New Research Debunks Negative Stepparent Stereotypes

step mom and daughter walking up some stairs

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Key Takeaways

  • Research on stepfamilies often finds negative outcomes for stepchildren.
  • But a new study found that stepchildren aren't any worse off than their peers from single-parent families.
  • Experts say it's time to focus on the joy that can come from blending families.

We all know the one about the wicked stepmother, but maybe it’s time to rewrite that particular fairy tale and be a little kinder to all the stepparents of the world.

New research conducted by researchers from the University of Utah and published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences found that stepchildren are not at a disadvantage compared to their peers from single-parent households. In fact, they actually experience more positive outcomes than their half-siblings. 

Disputing the “Cinderella Effect”

In evolutionary psychology, the “Cinderella effect” is the phenomenon of higher child abuse, neglect, and mortality risks for stepchildren, due to greater conflict within blended families. 

But the latest research challenges this theory, highlighting that previous studies on stepfamilies have used an “apples-to-oranges comparison” to place blame for the negative outcomes connected to parental loss on stepparents.

For instance, they compare the long-term outcomes of children who have suffered trauma like parental loss through death or divorce with those of children who haven’t had these experiences. But when the University of Utah researchers compared stepchild outcomes with children who have also experienced hardships tied to parental loss, they reported no difference. 

In other words, comparing two children who’ve had very different life experiences and blaming the stepparent for negative outcomes isn’t fair. 

Key Findings of the Study

The researchers analyzed a data set of more than 400,000 children from Utah between 1847 and 1940. They compared the mortality of stepchildren whose parents remarried after the death of a spouse to children whose parents did not remarry and found three key findings.

First of all (and unsurprisingly), the death of a parent has a negative effect on children under 18 years old, especially for infants losing a mother. But crucially, kids whose parents remarried after the loss of a spouse did not suffer a mortality rate any greater than children whose parents did not remarry. Also, stepchildren benefited when a half-sibling was introduced to their new family.

The study also found that children who have suffered parental loss have more in common with their peers from single-parent households, dealing with many of the same inequalities in relation to education and health care.

The researchers hope the study will highlight the need for public policy funding to help families that have suffered parental loss.

The Challenge of Blending Families 

Being part of a stepfamily isn’t always easy, of course. “It involves taking the cultures of two separate families and blending them into a new family dynamic,” says licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC. “Resistance from stepparents and stepchildren can be expected, which is challenging for everyone involved.”

This can often cause resentment and frustration and cause people to focus on the negative aspects of stepfamilies, Guarino adds. 

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Blended families do indeed come with their challenges, but only focusing on the negative aspects takes away from the gains that can come from expanding your family and embracing the change that comes from two families becoming one.

— GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

The media often portrays stepchildren and stepfamilies in a negative light, which may contribute to the stereotype of stepfamilies being difficult to deal with. “These negative stereotypes come from very popular stories and movies in our culture, such as ‘Cinderella’ and ‘The Parent Trap,’” says board-certified psychiatrist Julian Lagoy, MD.

It's important to challenge the negative view of stepfamilies because it’s simply not true, Dr. Lagoy adds. “These false or contrived views can negatively affect relationships among stepchildren and stepfamilies, which is so unfortunate,” he says.

An Open Mind Can Bring Great Joy

“Blended families do indeed come with their challenges, but only focusing on the negative aspects takes away from the gains that can come from expanding your family and embracing the change that comes from two families becoming one,” Guarino says.

If you have negative expectations for a stepfamily relationship, it’s more difficult to form a healthy relationship, she explains. “Expecting that stepchildren will be challenging and stepparents will try to sabotage the family dynamic puts the people involved on the defensive, preventing them from entering the blended family with an open mind.”  

Dr. Lagoy recommends treating stepfamily members the exact same way you would a biological family member. “Don’t treat your stepchild or parent as any ‘less’ and you will be rewarded with a stronger, more loving family,” he says. 

Julian Lagoy, MD

Don’t treat your stepchild or parent as any ‘less’ and you will be rewarded with a stronger, more loving family.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

If you’re trying to figure out life as a blended family, keep in mind that every member of the family will gain and lose things during the process, Guarino says. 

And even though at times it can feel like you’re the only person who is struggling, shutting yourself off from the new members of your family can make things even more difficult. It’s also important to not force relationships onto each other. “Relationships between new family members tend to be more sensitive than other kinds of relationships,” Guarino says. “Whether it is between stepsiblings or stepparents and stepchildren, allowing time and space for each other can help to promote trust.”

Due to outdated stereotypes associated with the Cinderella effect, stepparents are frequently seen in a negative light. Blending families is undoubtedly challenging and stressful for children, but most stepparents have nothing but love and support to offer their partner's children. It might be time to start thinking of stepparents in a more positive way.

What This Means For You

Due to outdated stereotypes associated with the Cinderella effect, stepparents are frequently seen in a negative light. Blending families is undoubtedly challenging and stressful for children, but most stepparents have nothing but love and support to offer their partner's children. It might be time to start thinking of stepparents in a more positive way.

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