Research on Stepfamilies


Latest findings from UK stepmother research

Here is an overview some of the the findings from my research on stepmums in the UK, carried out between 2005 and 2009. The aim of my research was  to investigate the effect on women's wellbeing of taking on the role of stepmum. It's only by conducting extensive research in this way that we can truly understand the impact; and once we understand the impact we  can focus on how to make changes that improve the outcome! I've included some of the key findings below but all off this (and more!) is covered  in my book 'How to be a happy stepmum'.

'Integrating' everyone into your stepfamily
Stepfamilies  are formed by merging two separate 'biological' families or individuals, each with their own histories and backgrounds. While in the early days if the relationship it can feel more natural and easier to feel protective of your 'own' children, in the long term it's important  for all the individuals in the new family to feel incuded within the new  unit. By including everyone - whether they live permanently in the  family or just visit at weekends, they're all part of your new family.  If you act in this way, others will start to think of you as a family.  So for example, make sure you include all your children (biological and  step) on christmas cards, talk to friends about what all the children  are up to. By changing the way you thing, you can change your behaviour  and the way you think about your new family. In turn this improves your  welbeing, reducing anxiety, depression and increasing your overall happiness within the family relationships.

Defining clear, unambiguous family roles

Role ambiguity is an issue which many stepparents face. There are no rules  or social norms for stepparenting as there are with biological parenting. Psychologists have for many years believed that the stress  experienced by stepmothers was in part caused by the absence of so  called ‘social norms’ or role models to help them define their role  within their stepfamily. As the roles are so vague, it’s difficult for  stepmums to assess whether they are succeeding (or failing) in their  roles, leading to ever increasing confusion and anxiety. Role ambiguity and resentment are often linked closely with stepmothers’ wellbeing, so when feelings of resentment are running high and women are confused about their role, they generally feel more anxious. It's therefore really important that you work out, with your partner what your roles  are in the family. Do you want to be a parent to your stepchildren or perhaps more of a friend? Try and find a compromise that works for  everyone. If you can learn to reduce your feelings of resentment and better define your role in your family you are likely to feel less  anxious and become happier in your new family. 

Stepmother Anxiety

The research found that stepmothers were much more prone to anxiety than women who were just biological mothers. Anxiety can take many forms but feelings of restlessness, excessive worrying, panic, feeling fearful and 'butterflies' can all be symptoms.  Anxiety in itself is a perfectly natural reaction but it's not necessarily a good thing to be anxious for long periods. The aim is to reduce anxiety  to more manageable levels.  The amount of support you get from family, friends and your partner for example can  significantly reduce your anxiety.  Even if you feel you can't discuss your problems with your partner, try and talk to someone close to you who can lend a sympathetic ear.  It can sometimes help you see things  more clearly.  The way you cope with problems can also affect how much anxiety you feel. People use different ways of coping with stress and some are more effective than  others.  'Denial'  such as ignoring something or pretending the problem doesn't exist does not help in the long term and only seems to increase  anxiety. Similarly venting your emotions, such as shouting and getting  angry, with no thought to finding a solution to an issue, does nothing to reduce  anxiety!  It's far better in the long run if you can learn to deal with  problems by facing the problem, sometimes having to accept it (such as the fact that your partners ex will always be a part of his life, even though you might wish she wasn't), or putting a plan into place to deal  with the problem, rather than burying your head in the sand and hoping it will go away!

Social Support

Support from our family and friends is really important for your wellbeing and  acts as a 'buffer' from stressful events in our lives. Without this  support we're in danger of suffering from greater anxiety and  depression. support. Research showed that stepmums often have to rely on  less support than biological mums, particularly from friends and their partner's family. This can be due to factors such as an enduring  relationship between their partner's ex and their in-laws, and the fact that they have less in common with their friends who are often still  single and struggle to understand the demands of being part of a stepfamily. It's really important to recognise the significance of  support from those around us to help us cope with problems. If you find that you don't have the support you need try and find ways of improving the links you do have or finding others who you can turn to when things are difficult.