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David H. Demo, Spring 1997

For many years researchers have compared the behavior and adjustment of children living in stepfamilies to that of children living in first married, two biological parent families. In general, although statistically significant differences are commonly reported, few studies have shown sizable or dramatic differences. But the evidence suggests that children in stepfamilies are often disadvantaged because their relationships with stepparents are characterized by less closeness and greater conflict than parent-child relationships (Furstenberg, 1987; Ganong & Coleman, 1987). Other studies document considerable variation within stepfamilies, both in terms of how well children and stepparents get along with each other, and in children's and adolescents' social and psychological well-being (Acock & Demo, 1994; Hetherington & Jodl, 1994).

Few studies have compared children's family relationships and well-being across a variety of family forms. Once a marriage ends (or even before it ends), it does parents little good to know that their children will be disadvantaged by living in a stepfamily, particularly since most divorced mothers and fathers will remarry and form stepfamilies! More useful is information specifying which children are at greatest risk, the factors that place them at risk, and what can be done to protect and support them. In a series of recent studies I conducted with my collaborator, Alan Acock, we sought to answer these questions by examining a national sample of adolescents (ages 12-18) living in the four most prevalent family structures in the United States: a) intact, first-married family units; b) divorced, single-parent families; c) stepfamilies; and d) continuously single-parent families, one of the fastest growing types of households (Acock & Demo, 1994; Demo & Acock, 1996). We examined several features of families, such as levels of parental support, conflict between parents, and parent-adolescent conflict, that may account for differences in adolescent well-being across family types.

Our analyses reveal a consistent pattern. Adolescents whose mothers and fathers are both in their first marriage have the fewest problems with academic performance and socioemotional adjustment (willingness to try new things, keeping busy, being cheerful, obeying, getting along well with others, and doing responsibilities). Adolescents whose mothers are divorced or remarried experience more problems than their counterparts in first-married families, although these differences tend to be small. Adolescents whose mothers have never married are generally at an intermediate level of adjustment.

Importantly, many of our comparisons across family types showed differences that failed to achieve statistical significance. In other words, the differences in adolescent well-being within family types are greater than the differences across family types, suggesting that family processes are more important than family composition. Still, many adolescents in divorced families and stepfamilies are vulnerable. Across the four family types we studied, adolescents in divorced families and stepfamilies experienced the highest levels of mother-adolescent disagreement, the lowest levels of mother-adolescent interaction and maternal supervision, and the lowest levels of socioemotional and global well-being. Adolescents in divorced families had the lowest grade-point averages.

What accounts for the lower well-being of adolescents who have experienced parental divorce? Our findings provide strong support that family conflict plays a pivotal role. Multiple forms of family conflict--including frequent disagreements with parents, parental aggression, marital conflict, and conflict between mothers and nonresidential fathers--consistently and adversely affect adolescent outcomes. For many adolescents in divorced families and stepfamilies, conflict has been a routine part of their lives. Adolescents can suffer lingering effects from experiences in their predivorce families: frequent marital conflict, aggression between spouses, inconsistent parenting, and parental aggression toward children. These problems are then compounded by persisting postdivorce tensions and hostilities between parents. Adolescents are drawn into conflicts, feel caught between parents, and are either pressured to take sides or try to remain close to both parents and experience loyalty conflicts.

We know that many family conflicts are minor, necessary, and adaptive. Through conflicts, family members express themselves, learn more about each other, and renegotiate their relationships. But the message in our findings is that, regardless of family type, when family conflict is frequent and intense, adolescents suffer. Adolescents in happy and supportive stepfamilies tend to be better adjusted than adolescents in conflict-ridden first-married families. We also know that adolescence is a time when settings outside the family, particularly peers and schools, are increasingly important and that these settings consume much of adolescents' time, interest, and energy. Our research, consistent with many other studies, suggests that family relationships retain their important influence during adolescence. Many adolescents need more parental attention, more supervision, and more guidance on life's everyday decisions. Parents (including stepparents) also need to listen. Adolescents report their parents talk to them a lot, give them rules and lectures, but they don't listen to what the adolescents are saying and don't try to understand the adolescent's feelings.

Teenagers want to spend time with their friends, and developmentally, they need to do this. Parents need to understand this and not feel that, as parents, they're being rejected or shut out. Simply stated, time apart can be healthy, but regardless of family type, enhancing the quality, the consistency, and the emotional richness of time together will help adolescents to feel comfortable and secure in their search for their own identity and happiness.