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It’s Time to Rethink the ‘Evil Stepfather’ Stereotype

They’re still pariahs in pop culture—but the truth about stepparent abuse is far more complicated

A full 16 percent of families are blended—but if stepfathers are out there crushing it on the job, we don’t seem to hear a lot about it.

Pop-culture depictions give us the occasionally perfect stepdad, such as Mike Brady in The Brady Bunch, but the rest tend to fall somewhere in between the abusive Bill in Boyhood and the outright horrifying Humbert Humbert in Lolita.

But recently, Slate noted cautiously that there were small, barely detectable signs in Hollywood that the perception of stepfathers might be changing—critically, into something other than “moron, molester or maniac.” This is important, because in one previous study of portrayals of stepparents, nearly 60 percent were portrayed negatively, and the rest made “no evaluative comments.” In other words, the number of positive portrayals was zero.

Maybe that’s a reflection of the greater paternal investment overall in children these days, stepdads included. Maybe it’s a sign that remarriage and blended families are losing some of that old stigma, because families increasingly take so many forms.

What’s more, a new study finds that the so-called Cinderella effect — the phenomenon identified in the 1970s that kids with stepfathers in the home are more likely to be abused or killed by them — has increasingly been shown to be misunderstood and exaggerated.

Could this all point to stepfathers finally joining the ranks of legitimate fathers in the public eye?

It all depends on the sort of stepdad we’re talking about, and just like bio parents, there are good ones and bad ones.

This Is What Makes Being a Stepparent So Damn Tough

Stepparenting is difficult enough in general, but stepfathering is a complex scenario with multiple factors that aren’t always easy to tease apart:

  • How good is the relationship between the mother and the stepfather?
  • The stepfather and the child?
  • At what child age does the stepfather enter the picture?
  • Are there other children from a previous marriage floating in and out?
  • What are the income and education levels of the parents involved?
  • What is the mother’s expectation of the stepfather in terms of parenting and engagement?
  • And where’s the bio dad during all this?
  • What was the split from the mother like?

And so on.

In a 2014 study looking at the impact of a stepfather’s investment in his stepchildren, the researchers note that generally, “stepfather presence has been associated with detrimental effects on child development.” In other words, previous research they cite finds that stepfathers invest less in their children than they would their biological children, and as a result, those children experience more behavioral issues and worse educational outcomes. It’s bad enough usually that single-mother households with no adult male figures involved often rank better on these metrics than ones with stepdads.

That’s all due to the same Cinderella effect, which doesn’t have to result in abuse or murder to apply as the motive in bad stepfathering, but is the most established psychological theory for why stepchildren sometimes fare poorly. You can’t research stepfathering without bumping into it. The idea here is that that stepfathers often don’t invest the same resources financially or in terms of engagement into their stepchildren because the lack of genetic relatedness between them drives indifference at best. In other words, the theory goes, we invest in our kids only because they insure a genetic foothold for our offspring. Why would we bother with an evolutionary dead end? This can lead to anything from benign neglect to, in the worst cases, abuse.

But all this makes it sound like stepchildren are screwed. That’s not the case.

How to Stepparent Right

Other studies on stepfathers have found the opposite: Stepfathers can invest just as much in their stepchildren and provide care, support and presence in the same manner as they would for their biological children.

When they do, educational outcomes for those children improve. Another study found that when three factors align, stepfamilies can be successful: The couple doesn’t argue a lot; the mother is an available outlet to express frustrations about the stepfather or stepfamily issues; the mother and stepdad agree on how to parent.

In other words, engaged parents in general make a positive difference, whether they are biological or not. Yes, it takes more work for stepfamilies, but yes, it can be done.

James Bray, an expert on stepfamilies, told Fatherly last year that “the vast majority of kids in stepfamilies do quite well” and that when stepfathers are engaged, the stepchildren are behaviorally better adjusted, too.

So what makes a stepfather engaged to the degree that can have a winning impact? This is the critical part: They can’t roll up on the scene acting like a biological dad at first, trying to be a disciplinarian or set rules. They have to actually connect with the children first as friends before they can expect that child to listen to them or think of them as a legitimate authority.

Family communications researcher Dawn Braithwaite told Fatherly it takes about six months to two years for this to happen, and if the stepfather doesn’t wait this out and build the rapport first, the child will absolutely resist. (Depressingly, some experts suggest it actually takes 10 years to blend a stepfamily.)

Of course, one can imagine that many stepfathers could lack such skills or never consider any approach at all, which is why there are those horror stories.

The Truth About the Cinderella Effect

Research on the Cinderella effect has tried to further get to the bottom of why stepdads are sometimes the culprit in abuse cases. Around 2011, a Swedish team of researchers found that stepfathers are not, in fact, threatened by the genetic missed opportunity in having stepchildren. They are just more likely to be criminals, and divorced women have worse mating options. In this theory, a stepdad is just more likely to be the abusive type.

But the new study on the Cinderella effect takes a different angle: Stepfathers don’t abuse their stepchildren because of genetic unrelatedness, and they don’t do it because they’re already criminals. They don’t do it as often as we think, but when they do, it’s because they’re too young to be good fathers.

Here, researchers at the University of East Anglia argue that when you expand the age range of stepchildren from 5 years old up into adulthood, you’re just as likely to find a father as a stepfather as the culprit of abuse, which is still a rarity. The only commonality left is the age of the stepfather or father, which tends to be younger. This builds on other new research that finds that closer examination of filicide rates finds that only 11 percent of all victims over three decades were stepchildren.

“In general, the data indicates that younger fathers are more likely to abuse or kill their children than older fathers, regardless of whether they are stepfathers,” lead author Gavin Nobes said in a statement:

Also, the population surveys show that stepfathers are, on average, much younger than genetic fathers. This means that the Cinderella effect can be at least partly explained by stepfathers’ relative youth, rather than not being genetically related to their victims. There are many possible reasons for the link between parental age and child maltreatment — young parents are more likely to be on low incomes, perhaps less well-educated and possibly less equipped to cope with the stresses of parenthood.

Research has long shown that younger biological fathers are at a much higher risk of abuse as well.

But again, what all this research stresses — the good, the bad and the atrociously ugly — is that we can spend a lot of time guessing why stepfathers might end up falling short when it comes to their job as stepparents. Regardless, it’s the parenting skills that are critical. Those can be learned, and when there’s love and commitment to a family, they work incredibly well toward raising happy, well-adjusted children, whether there’s a matching shred of DNA involved or not.