Gagandeep Kaur, M.D., Kanwarjeet S. Brar, M.D., Steven B. Lippmann, M.D.
Stepmother is a term that refers to a woman not someone’s biological mother (1). The Latin prefix “step” means orphan. A stepmother becomes a legal parent of a child only when the biological mother gives permission, is deceased, or has deserted the child; stepmothers can then seek adoption (2). The new entrance of a stepmother into family life leads to psychosocial and/or behavioral stressors, with complicated relationships. In clinical circumstances, consider the connections between a child and stepmother and about social interactions with the father. Clinical consent procedure for children may be accomplished by the father or conferred to the stepmother, once a legal guardian.
An 8 years old boy presented for evaluation of restlessness, accompanied by his father and stepmother. She provided a past history with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and reports that she is the parent who spends the most time with her son. She says he is not able to sit for 15 minutes while completing homework, is easily distracted, uninterested in school work, and hyperactive; she seemed disappointed in him. Her two biological daughters, aged 9 and 10, do not have such issues.
His father said that the patient has no difficulties when they do assignments together and that there were no school-problems reported. These two get along well. The child was quiet and seemed embarrassed. During separate interviews, the patient admits being afraid of his stepmother because she often gets angry at him, but denied physical abuse. He claims good relationships with his stepsisters, despite being tense.
The parents married a year ago. His biological mother had lost custody because of addiction and neglect. After a divorce, his father remarried one year ago. The stepmother reports wanting to be a good parent and for her son to do well.
The patient was upset about his stepmother’s strictness while doing homework. Being compared to stepsiblings hampers his self-esteem. He avoids her nagging and belittling by being inattentive and turning away.
Despite being well-motivated, the stepmother becomes anxious and easily upset with the patient. They struggle at forming a mutual bond. The father was submissive and avoids marital confrontations.
The entrance of a stepmother into a child’s life often heralds a life of less harmony and more stress (3). The relationship between a child and stepmother depends upon the temperament, adaptability, and ages of the child and stepmother (3,4). Children with a flexible nature are better able to adjust to a stepmother presence. Similarly, well-socialized stepmothers frequently join the family easily. Teenage boys generally accommodate a new mother into their life more easily than many teenage girls; adjustment may be complicated by same-gender competition. Boys tend to spend more time with friends, outdoors, and more apart from family than girls. Younger children are dependent on their parents, but might feel that they are missing past bonds shared with their father.
Relations also depend upon how well the stepmother’s biological children blend into the family (3,4). Stepmothers are sometimes more affectionate towards their own children, the so-called Cinderella Effect (5). Age and maturation levels of children affect parental relationships. Sometimes there are interferences by biological mothers (6). Fathers may struggle with the responsibilities of the new wife, maintaining her happiness, and keeping homelife intact. They may ignore children’s concerns while pleasing the stepmother. There are new financial issues for the family.
Understanding these challenges is important. Children from blended families might present with increased hyperactivity; this might also be from stranger anxiety or medicinal effects by pharmacotherapies of misdiagnosed conditions. Alternatively, they may be withdrawn and/or depressed. During a diagnostic interview/case formulation, always offer family therapy to facilitate family attachments.
- dictionary.com/browse/stepmother. Last accessed: March 26, 2020.
- stepfamilies.info/key-advocacy-issues.php. Last accessed: March 26, 2020.
- Hart P. On Becoming a Good Enough Stepmother. Clinical Social Work Journal. 2009; 37: 128-39.
- Ganong LH, Coleman M, Jamison T. Patterns of Stepchild–Stepparent Relationship Development. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2011; 73: 396-413.
- Tooley G, Karakis M, Stokes M, Ozzaensmith J. Generalizing the Cinderella Effect to unintentional childhood fatalities. Evolution and Human Behavior. 2006; 27:224-230.
- Shapiro D, Stewart AJ. Parenting Stress, Perceived Child Regard, and Depressive Symptoms Among Stepmothers and Biological Mothers. Family Relations. 2011; 60:533-544.