Andy Ho, Senior Writer

Healthy stepfamilies are good for children

Where there are more divorces and remarriages, the number of stepfamilies is also likely to increase. Children in stepfamilies are likely to worry about the durability of their new families, having experienced the trauma of divorce. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Where there are more divorces and remarriages, the number of stepfamilies is also likely to increase. Children in stepfamilies are likely to worry about the durability of their new families, having experienced the trauma of divorce. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Where there are more divorces and remarriages, the number of stepfamilies is also likely to increase.

Last year, a quarter of all marriages in Singapore involved at least one divorced party, from 20 per cent a decade ago. There will likely be more stepfamilies here as we go along.

Children in stepfamilies are likely to worry about the durability of their new families, having experienced the trauma of divorce. Over a third of cases seen at Fei Yue family service centres involve stepfamilies, up from a quarter five years ago. Then there is PPIS Vista Sakinah, set up in 2011 to focus on Malay-Muslim families, which has a heavy caseload of stepfamilies too.

Still, remarriages ought to be encouraged because empirical research in the West clearly shows that, overall, remarriage is better for the children involved than single-parent families or ones where the adults only cohabit. If so, heightened public support and state subsidies for remarriages may also help the children.

The evidence that children from two-parent families do better in general than those from single-parent ones is strong.

In her 2000 book, From Partners To Parents, law professor June Carbone of the University of Missouri at Kansas City reviewed the studies available then and found that the children of two-parent families fared better. The studies reviewed came from the 1990s, which did not settle why this would be so.

A large and rigorous study published in the Journal Of Marriage And Family in 2003, entitled Are All Dads Equal? Biology Versus Marriage As A Basis For Paternal Investment, showed remarriage was associated with a measurable benefit to children's well-being.

The study found that stepfathers investing quality time and material resources in the children, biological or not, accounted "for over half the difference in school dropout rates", compared with children of one-parent families.

Regardless of socio-economic status, "marriage per se confers advantage in terms of father involvement", the study concluded, "whereas biology does not".

When it was a cohabiting relationship, the adult male invested less time, energy and resources in the children, who had higher rates of juvenile delinquency.

Another large and rigorous study published in the same journal in 2003, entitled Adolescent Well-Being In Cohabiting, Married, And Single-Parent Families, re-affirmed the findings above.

It found that teens living with their biological mother and a cohabiting male were significantly more likely to be delinquent than teens living with their biological mother married to a man who is now their stepfather.

Marriage per se doesn't change the man to the benefit of children's well-being. That an unmarried father invests less in the children may be attributable more to his intrinsic lack of ability to form enduring spousal and parent-child relationships. Thus, the study suggested, a man's willingness to marry may simply signal that he has that personal trait of being willing and able to form stable family relationships needed for children to develop normally.

Where cohabitation arose from a single mother's unwillingness to marry a single father and how that might impact children's well-being were not studied, perhaps because there was empirically a dearth of such cases.

That a father figure has a big impact on children's well-being has been shown in many good studies. A 2008 paper in Acta Paediatrica reviewing 24 long-term, follow-up studies published between 1987 and 2007 covering families in the US, Britain, Sweden and Israel found that "overall, children reap positive benefits if they have active and regular engagement with a father figure".

In the study entitled Fathers' Involvement And Children's Developmental Outcomes: A Systematic Review Of Longitudinal Studies, such children got into trouble with the police less often, did better at school and developed good friendships with both sexes.

In particular, girls who grew up with a good father figure fared better mentally and physically in adulthood, when they also had better spousal relationships.

Likewise, a 2006 US Department of Health and Human Services review of available studies found that married fathers had a positive impact on the cognitive ability and educational achievement of their children as well as their psychological well-being and social behaviour.

It found that a father in a good relationship with the mother spends more time with their children. Likewise, a mother who feels affirmed by her husband is likely to be a better mother.

It argued that the marital relationship affects both their parenting behaviours: Those in a good marital relationship co-parent their babies with more affection, their defiant toddlers with more self-control, and their teenagers with more emotional support.

Fathers who treat their wives with respect model that for their boys who grow up knowing how to treat women properly. These fathers also model for their daughters how men ought to treat them, so they are less likely to couple up with unsuitable males.

Overall, the evidence supports the idea that single parents should be encouraged to remarry.

But it is hard to get stepfamilies to work. Remarriages may dissolve after problems pile up as no one is taught to handle the complexities of stepfamily life. These complexities may include: disagreements over parenting authority and responsibilities, step-sibling relationship problems, conflicts arising from the children's loyalty to the non-present biological parent, former-spouse jealousy issues, visitation and financial support issues, vacations and so on.

Studies show that stepfamilies take four to seven years to gel together - or fail before that. There are no studies to show what will definitely help, but it is reasonable to argue for public support and state subsidies of educational seminars and workshops for remarrying couples to acquire the skills needed to sustain a healthy marriage the second time around.

Such public support, especially before remarriage and also in the early stages of stepfamily formation, can help remarriages work.

During this difficult period, family therapists who can understand their conflicted feelings and suggest what to do next may help them succeed. Public subsidies for such family therapy and fatherhood programmes would be a form of investment in the children's futures as well.

andyho@sph.com.sg