Fueling ancient feuds, folklore and modern TV shows, tricky stepfamily dynamics are a tale as old as time.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln communication scholar Dawn O. Braithwaite is an expert in these dynamics, and her newest research explores how positive stepfamily relationships were formed – from the perspective of the stepchild, as an adult.
Using in-depth interviews with 38 adult stepchildren between the ages of 25 and 52 who reported having a positive relationship with their stepparents, Braithwaite and her colleagues at Nebraska and Arizona State University identified important turning points and communication behaviors in the relationships that impacted them in a positive way.
The surveyed stepchildren collectively named pro-social actions – out-of the-ordinary efforts from their stepparents – as the biggest factor in building positive relationships. Study participants described pro-social actions 18 percent of the time as a positive turning point.
A stepdaughter shared an example of when her stepfather volunteered to paint her bedroom red, recalling, “He’s the only parent that’s ever said, ‘I just want to make you happy.’”
“That’s really heartening because pro-social actions are really just ways of communicating and being kind that are meaningful to the stepchild,” Braithwaite, Willa Cather Professor of Communication Studies, said.
Closely following pro-social actions was quality time, which represented 17 percent of turning points noted by the stepchildren. Quality time created opportunities for favorable interactions, the participants said.
“My stepdad was more present, or the one I trusted more to do that,” one participant said of asking his stepfather to teach him to drive.
“Those first two turning points are really encouraging because you don’t need money or expertise,” Braithwaite said.
Other positive turning points included developing rituals, overcoming family crises, seeing adult relationships change in positive ways and problem-solving. Among some of the negative turning points were conflicts and disagreements and unmet expectations. But the study demonstrated that conflicts and disagreements aren’t always a negative turning point, as some participants noted that the way the stepparent handled the conflict actually strengthened the relationship.
Braithwaite said the findings will help stepfamilies navigate their situations but emphasized that it takes cooperation from all adults in the different households to make stepfamilies work. The research team is currently studying the role of forgiveness in creating positive stepfamilies.
“And it takes time,” she said. “Many of the stepfamily relationships did not start out positive, and it took time for hurt feelings to be less prominent.”
The study was published in the Journal of Family Communication.