Not What I Call “Close”

Most stepparents want a close relationship with their stepkids, but many don’t know how to get there, or if it’s even possible. So it’s not surprising that KJ Dell’ Antonia’s recent post “What Makes a Successful Stepfather?” was shared widely in the stepparent community.

Based on a study in the journal Social Work, Dell’ Antonia set out to tell us “what stepchildren think makes for a good relationship with their stepfather” and how mothers and stepfathers can “make that happen.”

At first I was delighted to see new stepfamily research in the mainstream media. A lot of current recommendations come from outdated findings, though it’s doubtful if they still apply. A new study from the kids’ point of view could give us the information we need to help today’s stepfamilies to form real and lasting bonds.

Unfortunately, this was not the study to do that – although the recommendations in “What Makes a Successful Stepfather?” made it sound like it was.

For starters, the Social Work study may have been published recently, but the surveys were given to the kids in 1994. The children, age 10-16, came from white, Protestant backgrounds and lived with their mothers, who had sole custody, and their stepfathers full time. If our intention is to give helpful recommendations to modern stepfamilies from a range of backgrounds, this study is poor match for that goal.

Even if we assume that stepfamily concerns haven’t changed that much since 1994 (a shaky assumption, at best), there’s another problem with using this study to give advice to stepfamilies. The authors defined a stepfather’s closeness based on his level of involvement with the children, rather than the quality of his connection with the kids.

Stepfathers were rated close to their stepkids if they knew where they were when they weren’t home, showed up for their events, were included in conversations about important ideas and decisions, and listened to their side of an argument. Only one question in the survey asked about closeness per se. And the kids’ “closeness” ratings were included in the results, even if they only answered two of the seven questions.

It’s not clear why the authors chose to equate stepfather involvement with closeness. In many cases, a stepfather’s ability to participate tells us more about the mother’s (or others) willingness to support his inclusion, than it does about how the kids actually feel. Maybe the authors assumed that stepfathers aren’t capable of being anything more than a one-way support to their stepkids. Or, maybe they assumed that all men are incapable of emotional closeness, that involvement is as good as it gets? I can’t mind-read the authors’ motivation – I can only say that in my view, becoming involved is part of the process of developing a deeper relationship, but it is not the same thing as being close.

If these were the only problems with the Social Work study, we might be able to use the results to learn something about stepfather involvement. But we can’t do that either, because the survey that measured involvement was only given to the kids once.

All families, step or otherwise, go through periods of involvement and distance, especially those with teens – and it can take many years for stepfamilies to form firm bonds. So there’s no way that we can learn anything about the progress of stepfamily relationships, from a study that only asked the kids about this once.

The way that studies are conducted has a major impact on the usefulness of their conclusions, but mainstream media reports rarely share these details. Stepfamilies need updated information, but they also need a way to evaluate new recommendations, so they can see if they’re supported by the evidence or likely to help with their goals.

In the case of “What Makes a Successful Stepfather?” Dell’ Antonia quoted the study author as saying, “Moms need to let their children know that it’s O.K. to talk if they have a problem with their stepfather,” but she didn’t tell us that this advice, offered as a blanket guideline, was based on old data from a study of stepfather involvement – not closeness – that had many flaws in the design.

This advice may be a useful starting point for some families. Kids do need to know that they can go to their moms for support early on. But whether this increases or decreases stepfather involvement over time depends on how mothers handle their kids’ complaints. If they’re anxious about their kids’ ability to adjust or they enjoy these heart-to-hearts, they may give the kids the message that the family’s old way of doing things is permanent, and it’s okay to shut the stepfather out. The mother has to gradually encourage the kids to bring their complaints directly to the stepfather, if the family is going to bond.

Despite the implication that stepfathers and stepchildren can’t form emotionally close relationships, there are many who do. Those stepfathers who “succeed” don’t just spend time with their stepkids. They also find a way to move past the “showing up” stage, to become a real person in the room. Stepfathers who stay in the role of one-way support may enjoy stepparenting less than those who develop more reciprocal relationships – and kids who receive this kind of support, may learn that relationships are all about what they get, and never what they give. As I said in a previous post, what helps in the beginning may not help in the long run, and anything that has the potential to do good, has the potential to harm.

It’s not easy to come together as a stepfamily. Even when stepparents allow themselves to be vulnerable and take emotional risks with their stepchildren, there’s no guarantee that the children will reciprocate immediately, if at all. It’s just that allowing yourself to be real with your stepkids is the best advice we have right now for forming authentic, lasting bonds.

Below is the survey given to the kids in the Social Work study:

1. I discuss important decisions with my stepfather.

2. My stepfather listens to my side of the argument.

3. My stepfather knows where I am when not at home.

4. I spend time with my stepfather.

5. My stepfather often misses important events or activities (scored in reverse).

6. I feel close to my stepfather.

7. I share important ideas and talk about important things with my stepfather.

4 thoughts on “Not What I Call “Close”

  1. I wish I had had you as a resource when I was a clinician and worked with stepfamilies! I’m going to share your blog on my personal FB page as I know a lot of my younger friends are in step-family roles and will benefit from your blog.

  2. I appreciate your insightful posts. It seems like we all need a lesson in interpreting studies. Sometimes I quote studies, and even as I do so, I wonder if I’m forcing a reading on them.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Sarah. I think we’re all tempted to forward studies in the popular press without too much analysis when they fit our assumptions. This seemed like a useful example of why we need to use caution in understanding this information, since often the advice that’s given really doesn’t fit the facts.

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