Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Social Perceptions of Stepfamilies

According to Ganong and Coleman (1997) stepfamilies are stereotyped in a mostly negative way. In several studies evidence was suggested that stepmothers are looked at more negatively than mothers in a nuclear family. In the movie St. Elmo's Fire, Demi Moore's character referred to her stepmother as "stepmonster." Ganong and Coleman also found that stepmothers were perceived as "not being family-oriented, disinterested and unskilled in raising the children, as well as unsuccessful marriage partners" (p. 95).

While stepmothers have been portrayed as evil in most fairy tales and folklores, it appears that most stepfathers have not been portrayed in disfavorable ways. However, Ganong and Coleman (1997) found that stepfathers do not escape that easily. Stepfathers are also looked upon more negatively or less favorably than fathers in a nuclear family. Researchers believe that fathers escape negative connotations in fairy tales, because women are often the central focus of the "cognitions and beliefs about families due to the culturally gendered nature of family roles and responsibilities" (p. 95).

The media helps foster our beliefs that stepfamilies are what Leon and Angst (2005) refer to as an "incomplete institution" (p.3). The term incomplete institution is intended to recognize that stepfamilies lack clear social norms or guidelines for role performance. The term "incomplete" has a negative connotation. One media portrayal was the Brady Bunch family who demonstrated instant love between all family members. This is a common and yet unrealistic expectation for stepfamilies to hold. Most cultural beliefs concerning stepfamilies, though, come from the many fairy tales and folklores about a wicked stepmother. Society and stepfamilies themselves have come to integrate many of these myths into their lifestyles or beliefs.

Stepchildren also have not escaped the social stigmas. The relationship between the stepchild and stepparent is often portrayed as conflictual with the stepchild appearing to be oppositional. In addition, the stepparent may appear neglectful or overly critical of the stepchild. It is important for the helping professional to examine his/her own stereotypes and personal experiences regarding stepfamilies. These may impact the clinician's effectiveness with a family/family member.

A crucial issue for a remarried couple is related to the developing roles of parenting or step parenting. The children as members of a stepfamily may be afraid to like or accept their new stepparent for fear they are being disloyal to the nonresidential parent. A prime example is depicted in the movie Stepmom, when the former wife criticizes her ex-husband's new fiancé when speaking to her children. In this movie, the little boy talks to his mom about some good qualities that the fiancé possesses and, in response to this, the mother only criticizes her more. The little boy then responds, "If you want me to hate her, I will." His statement demonstrates how children commonly express their loyalty to their biological parent(s) (Leon & Angst, 2005).

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies