Prior research has questioned whether stepfathers contribute anything positive to children?s well-being. Children in stepfamilies generally have lower levels of well-being than do children in two-biological parent households and show little or no advantage over children in single-parent households. Most studies, however, have implicitly adopted a deficit perspective and ignored the quality of relationships that children develop with stepfathers. Indeed, a great deal of variability exists in the quality of stepfather-stepchild relationships, with some children developing close bonds to stepfathers and others not. Yet little is known about the factors that promote strong stepfather-stepchild ties, or how such ties can promote children?s well-being.
Intellectual Merit. This project draws on four waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health?a nationally representative study of adolescents followed into young adulthood. The first aim is to identify factors that foster strong stepfather-stepchild relationships, both during the transition to stepfamily living and in subsequent years. The study draws on an ecological-contextual theory that emphasizes the social construction of fatherhood. Specifically, this perspective assumes that stepfathers have the potential to form positive or negative relationships with stepchildren, depending on a variety of contextual factors?many of which have received little or no attention in prior research. For example, the study will test the hypothesis that positive stepfather involvement with stepchildren (as reflected in the frequency of shared activities, open communication, and emotional closeness) is greater when other family relationships (mother-stepfather, mother-child) also are close. Other family contexts that may influence stepfather involvement include race and ethnicity, child gender, years lived with a stepfather, number of prior stepfathers, living in disadvantaged contexts, and the extent of nonresident biological father involvement. The second aim is to assess the importance of positive stepfather involvement for children. A social capital framework suggests the hypothesis that high-quality stepfather-stepchild relationships are positively associated with multiple forms of child well-being. The study will examine three core dimensions of well-being: externalizing problems (e.g., delinquent and antisocial behavior), internalizing problems (e.g., depression), and academic achievement (grades). The benefits of stepfather involvement are likely to depend on a variety of contextual factors. One relevant hypothesis is that stepfathers who enter families in which children have experienced one or more prior stepfathers have a relatively difficult time establishing close relationships that translate into positive adolescent outcomes.
This project focuses on adolescence and the transition to adulthood?critical points in the life course for accomplishing key developmental tasks and avoiding risky behaviors that can lead to long-term problems in adulthood. The project will expand the scope of prior research in the following ways: (1) Contrary to most prior studies, this study will pay attention to the quality of stepfather involvement, not just whether a stepfather is present in the household, (2) This study will be the first to examine how stepfather involvement changes between adolescence and young adulthood and the implications of these changes for children, (3) The availability of nationally representative data with minority oversamples will allow an examination of White, African American, and Latino stepfamilies to a degree unprecedented in the literature. Understanding how race and ethnicity moderate processes within stepfamilies is particularly relevant at a time when the racial-ethnic diversity of the U.S. is increasing rapidly.
Broader Impacts. Findings can aid in the creation of effective programs and policies to promote positive stepfather-stepchild relationships and enhance the well-being of children growing up in stepfamilies. These findings should be especially relevant to federally funded fatherhood initiatives. In addition, the use of existing national data to provide a broad portrait of stepfather involvement should place researchers in a stronger position to develop new instruments for future surveys of stepfathers and stepfamilies. In addition, the project will facilitate the mentoring, training, and professional development of graduate students who participate in the research.