Changes in Family Systems and Child Well-Being

  • King, Valarie Elizabeth (PI)

Project: Research project

Project Details


More than 30% of all U.S. children will spend at least some time growing up in a stepfamily. Earlier research has raised concerns about the implications of stepfamily formation for children's well-being, suggesting that children in stepfamilies generally have lower well-being than children in households with two biological parents. More recent research suggests that there is greater variability in stepfamily functioning and in the quality of parent-child relationships. Recent research has elucidated factors associated with positive relationships between stepfathers and stepchildren, yet we still know very little about how the transition to stepfamily living affects the quality of mother-child relationships-a factor known to influence children's well-being.

The proposed study draws on two waves of data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health. The primary aim is to understand how children's ties to their biological mothers are influenced by the entrance of stepfathers. To the extent that children's ties to mothers are weakened or negatively affected by the entrance of stepfathers, there is cause for concern. If, however, the entrance of a stepfather improves the mother-child relationship, then child well-being may be enhanced. Multiple dimensions of mother-child relationships (emotional closeness, the frequency of shared activities, open communication, maternal availability, and mothers' expectations for their children's educational attainment) will be considered. The study will compare children living with married and cohabiting stepfathers to see whether parents' marital status makes a difference. The study will also test factors that are hypothesized to moderate the influence of stepfathers on mother-child ties, including race and child gender. This project focuses on children who gain a stepfather during adolescence. As children enter adolescence, many families experience declines in parental involvement and increases in parent-child conflict. These processes can be exacerbated in stepfamilies, especially those formed during this time. However, close, supportive parent-child relationships are thought to be especially important for adolescents in stepfamilies because they are more vulnerable to peer influence and are at greater risk for poor outcomes. The project will expand the scope of prior research in the following ways: (1) The study will examine families before and after they transition to a stepfamily, an improvement over most previous studies, which have relied on cross-sectional data or have observed stepfamilies only after their formation. By controlling for mother-child ties before the entrance of the stepfather-a potentially important source of selection into new partnerships-the study design supports stronger inferences about the effects of a new stepfather on mothers and their children. (2) The study will include cohabiting stepfamilies, a family form we know little about. (3) The study will incorporate multiple dimensions of the mother-child relationship as well as potential moderating factors, going well beyond what has been examined in prior research.

The findings can aid in the creation of more effective interventions and policies to promote positive stepfamily functioning and enhance the well-being of children growing up in stepfamilies. These findings should be especially relevant to practitioners who have been developing programs in recent years to improve family functioning and parent-child relationships in stepfamilies. The project will also facilitate the professional development, training, and mentoring of graduate students who participate in this research.

Effective start/end date4/1/153/31/17


  • National Science Foundation: $83,453.00


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