Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Stable stepfamilies can benefit children

Gannett News Service

Kids may become more depressed in the first few years they live with a stepfather, but being a part of a stepfamily can significantly improve their lives in the long run, suggests a national study reported this week.

"Stepfamilies are kind of a mixed bag," says UCLA demographer Megan Sweeney. She compared 870 children living with mothers and stepdads to 1,700 living with divorced or single moms. All youngsters were in grades 7 to 12.

Research on stepchildren often mixes together kids whose mothers never married the children's fathers with children whose parents divorced.

But divorce spawns its own issues, and children whose parents never married are a growing, under-studied group, says psychologist James Bray, a stepfamily expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

About 600,000 U.S. children are born each year to parents who never marry, he says.

Sweeney's work is unusual, and helpful, Bray says, because it separates out the kids of parents who never married. She looked at how they fared when moms stayed unmarried compared with marrying and forming stepfamilies.

Sweeney also looked at how children did if their moms stayed divorced or created new stepfamilies.

Among key findings:

• Children's depression symptoms tend to increase for a few years after stepfamilies are formed, but the longer they're in a stable family the fewer symptoms they have.

• Teens are more likely to have parents at home to supervise them if they are living in stepfamilies rather than with single moms.

• Kids are much less likely to be living in poverty if they're stepchildren.

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