— When John Vanek told his girlfriend’s teenage son that the couple had decided to get married, the 13-year-old Ian rushed over to hug his future stepdad.
But it didn’t take long for the relationship to fray. Ian soon became sullen and combative. Soon Vanek, a 49-year-old police sergeant from San Jose, and Ian were thrashing out their differences in family counseling.
"This is a test," said the teen, explaining why he was giving his stepdad such a hard time. When Vanek asked when the test was going to end, Ian responded simply, “I don’t know.”
From age-old fairy tales like Cinderella to modern movies like "Enchanted," stepmothers have gotten a bad rap. But a new study finds it's often the stepfather who can have a tough time adjusting to his new, blended family.
While stepparents of either gender tend to be aloof, stepdads are more likely than stepmoms to fight with teenage children, especially if the child is a boy, says Erini Flouri, lead author of the study and a researcher at the Institute of Education at the University of London. Stepdads were more likely than biological fathers to see their stepteens as hyperactive or badly behaved, the researchers found.
A more critical eye
The British researchers interviewed 435 fathers of youths, ages 11-18, who were attending one of three secondary schools in the south of England. One school was from the inner city, two were suburban.
Because the study only included information from fathers, Flouri says they couldn’t be sure that stepteens were actually behaving worse than kids with biological fathers or whether it was just that stepdads turned a colder and more critical eye towards their non-biological kids.
Child development experts say that teens often do behave worse for a stepdad than for a biological dad. If kids sense that their mother isn’t going to give unqualified support to the stepdad in an argument, they are more likely to resist efforts at discipline.
In the study, dads were asked about their relationships with their kids and about the teens’ behavior. The men were asked to rate their children in several categories, including whether the youngster is “constantly fidgeting or squirming,” “steals from home, school or elsewhere,” “often seems worried,” or is “solitary, tends to play alone.”
Fathers were also asked to rate themselves as parents. Specific questions addressed discipline, teaching and encouragement, as well as how often they spent time talking alone with their kids. Compared to biological fathers, stepdads reported more hyperactivity and conduct problems in their teens — whether or not the biological dads lived at home. On average, stepdads tended to spend less time praising their teens than the biological fathers did.
But Flouri and her colleagues also found some good news: attentive dads of any sort could have a big and positive impact on their kids. Teens with attentive dads were less likely to be described as hyperactive or badly behaved than those whose fathers were more distant.
As stepfamilies become increasingly more common, knowing how to navigate the tricky terrain of a second marriage can help keep potential problems from arising. Because there's been little research on how men parent, child development experts welcomed the British study.
“In a lot of the studies, researchers ask the moms for this information,” says Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois in Chicago. “It's good that men are starting to get a chance to talk about fathering."
Parents need to recognize that stepfamilies have a whole different dynamic from other families, says Alan Kazdin, director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University and president of the American Psychological Association. “These relationships are riddled with conflict,” he says.
Tolan agrees. “There are a lot of stresses in families with stepchildren, and that is why there’s a higher rate of divorce in stepfamilies."
Parents can cope with the stresses of being in a stepfamily by recognizing and talking out tension points before they blow up, Kazdin adds.
Even with all the complications, some endings can be happy. John Vanek adopted Ian and eventually the two became quite close.
Ian’s in college now after a stint in the air force. “I think we all passed the test,” Vanek says.
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.