Stepfamily Communication: Implications for Mental Health in Stepchildren
At the turn of the century, an estimated 11.8 million children lived in stepfamilies, of which 4.9 million lived with at least one stepparent. Indeed, the stepfamily has captured the attention of counselors, researchers, and practitioners due in part to the relational challenges associated with adjusting to post-divorce and remarried family life.
Despite the prevalence of this family form, however, researchers have been challenged to adequately describe the complicated dynamics and complex configurations of stepfamilies, often because important distinctions between different types of stepfamilies have been ignored. At the same time, most of the challenges associated with stepfamily relationships and children's adjustment to post-divorce family life are highly communicative in nature.
A recent survey of more than 500 stepchildren conducted by Dr. Paul Schrodt, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University, revealed five types of stepfamilies that differ in terms of family functioning, communication competence, and mental health. First, bonded stepfamilies were described by stepchildren as having low levels of family dissension and avoidance and relatively high levels of family involvement, flexibility, and expressiveness. Stepchildren in bonded stepfamilies were most likely to refer to their primary stepparent (i.e., the stepparent they have lived with the longest, or known the longest in the event that they have never lived with their stepparent) as “Mom” or “Dad,” and they reported having relatively positive and close relationships with their stepparents. Second, functional stepfamilies were described by stepchildren as having moderately low levels of family dissension and avoidance, as well as moderately high levels of involvement, flexibility, and expressiveness. Both functional and bonded stepfamilies functioned relatively well, though in functional stepfamilies, stepchildren tended to think of their stepparent as more of a friend than a parent.
In contrast, ambivalent stepfamilies functioned less well, as stepchildren reported slightly above-average levels of family dissension and avoidance, as well as slightly below-average levels of involvement, flexibility, and expressiveness. Stepchildren in ambivalent stepfamilies reported neither overly positive nor overly negative sentiments about their stepfamilies, though they did indicate having slightly below-average levels of positive regard for their primary stepparent.
Despite functioning less well than bonded or functional stepfamilies, however, ambivalent stepfamilies functioned somewhat better than the two remaining stepfamily types, labeled evasive and conflictual stepfamilies. Stepchildren from evasive stepfamilies reported relatively high levels of family dissension and avoidance and relatively low levels of involvement and flexibility, as well as the lowest level of family expressiveness among the five types. In essence, stepchildren from evasive stepfamilies viewed their family members as struggling with stress, conflict, and strife, and as responding to such tensions by avoiding each other physically and communicatively. Stepchildren in conflictual stepfamilies reported similar struggles as well, though they viewed their family members as responding more openly and negatively about their feelings toward each other. Conflictual stepfamilies were reported as having the highest levels of family dissension, an absence of family unity, and a general aversion to spending time with each other as family members. Moreover, stepchildren in this family type reported the least amount of respect and positive regard for their primary stepparent.
Schrodt also found that stepchildren in different stepfamily types reported differences in communication competence and mental health. First, stepchildren in bonded and functional stepfamilies viewed themselves as being more communicatively competent than those from ambivalent and evasive stepfamilies. Intriguingly, stepchildren from conflictual stepfamilies did not report having significantly more or less communication competence than those in the remaining four types. Second, mothers from bonded and functional stepfamilies were viewed by their stepchildren as being more competent than mothers from ambivalent stepfamilies, though mothers from ambivalent families were viewed as being more competent than those from either evasive or conflictual stepfamilies. No significant differences in perceptions of fathers' communication competence were found among the five stepfamily types. For primary stepparents, however, stepchildren reported significant differences in communication competence corresponding with each stepfamily type, with stepparents in bonded stepfamilies rated as being the most competent, followed in successive order by stepparents in functional, ambivalent, evasive, and conflictual stepfamilies.
Perhaps the most important set of findings to emerge pertains to stepchildren's mental health symptoms. Stepchildren in conflictual, evasive, and ambivalent stepfamilies reported more mental health symptoms than stepchildren from bonded and functional stepfamilies. In other words, stepchildren who reported living with well-functioning stepfamilies reported fewer mental health symptoms than those living with poorly functioning stepfamilies. Although the effect of stepfamily functioning on mental health was relatively small, this finding is meaningful given the length of time that most stepchildren had been members of their respective stepfamilies (i.e., an average of more than nine years).
Clearly, the results of Schrodt's investigation identified different types of stepfamilies that function in relatively unique ways. Likewise, his findings further confirm the idea that communication plays a central role in stepfamily functioning, and by extension, in children's adjustment to remarried family life. Most importantly, this study brings a sense of optimism about stepfamily development, as all too often, stepfamily researchers have focused solely on the problems and challenges associated with stepfamily development. Indeed, nearly 50% of the stepchildren in this study were classified as members of either bonded or functional stepfamilies, families that functioned quite well despite the challenges associated with stepfamily development. Nevertheless, continued research is certainly needed and as communication scholars uncover additional insights into the communication processes that facilitate stepfamily functioning, such knowledge may prove useful for establishing healthy communication norms for stepfamily life.
About the author: Paul Schrodt is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Texas Christian University. His research program focuses on the communicative cognitions and behaviors that facilitate family functioning, with a specific interest in stepfamilies and in stepparent-stepchild relationships. This essay is based on the research article: Schrodt, P. (2006). A typological examination of communication competence and mental health in stepchildren. Communication Monographs, 73, 309-333.