Stepfamilies: Research Informing Practice​

Stepfamilies are a common aspect of American family life. In fact, recent estimates indicate about one-third of children in the U.S. will live in a stepfamily at some point prior to their 18th birthday (Copen, Daniels, Vespa, & Mosher, 2012). Relationships within stepfamilies can be multifaceted. Children can simultaneously be biological children and stepchildren, while adult couples can have biological children from a prior relationship, shared children, and stepchildren all within the same household (Stewart, 2007). Because of this complexity, stepchildren often do worse than children from biologically intact families on a number of outcomes, such as: school performance, internalized problem behavior, externalized behaviors, and risky behaviors (Coleman et al., 2000). Likewise, adults in stepfamilies often have poor family experiences, themselves. For example, stepparents are more likely to be depressed than biological parents (Pace & Shafer, 2015) and nearly 70% of stepfamilies will break-up through divorce (Sweeney, 2010).


Importantly, not all stepfamilies are created equal. The implicit assumption of many researchers and clinicians is that stepfamily experiences are negative and as a result growing up in a stepfamily has negative effects. However, recent evidence suggests significant variability. For example, there are significant differences in stepfamily quality, the influence of growing up in a stepfamily, the quality of the parent-stepparent remarriage, and important stepfamily process variables. Further, contact with biological parents, the nature of divorce, and differences between actual and ideal behavior in stepparents have been shown to affect children substantially (Amato, 2010; Margolin et al., 2001). As a result, this conference will discuss the complexity of stepfamily life, best practices in clinical work with stepfamilies, stepfamily strengths, and current research on improving stepfamily outcomes.​