Links to Research

Stepfamilies Australia is committed to the development of information, education, support and training resources for stepfamilies and those who work to support them.

We undertake research and evaluation of stepfamilies’ needs to discover what programs are effective and what service gaps exist.

Stepfamilies Australia works with stepfamily organisations in other states, community organisations, government and research institutes to better understand and meet stepfamilies’ needs.

Here is a collection of some research articles you may find useful, please contact us with specific queries.

Research findings for single fathers and single mothers by Bronwyn Harman:

Stepfamilies and the child support system

Research conducted by drummond street as part of Child Support Policy series for the Department of Social Services (2012-2014) highlighted the difficulties the child support system has in responding to the needs of the wide range of circumstances that exist for stepfamilies.

By definition stepfamilies are made up of two adults at least one of whom has children from a previous relationship. It may be that each adult has children, and it may be that ex-partners have also re-partnered. The new partnership may also have an ‘ours child’. The child support agency makes a clear distinction between parents and step-parents in terms of who has financial responsibility for a child. A child is considered the responsibility of its primary parents. A child is not considered the financial responsibility of its step-parent. Step children and spouses are, in nearly all cases, not considered in cases of child support – for either the paying parent or the receiving parent. This is the case even where an ex-partner is not paying child support, and where a step-parent is contributing substantially to their step-child’s care costs. So, in a nutshell, child support payments are decided on the incomes of the two primary parents, and the amount of time the child lives with each parent. This might seem straightforward, but imagine this scenario:

The child lives primarily with a parent A who thus receives child support payments from parent B. Parent A is re-partnered with person X who has no children, earns a very high income, they live in a big house, drive a nice car, and live very comfortably. Parent B has a low-mid level income and has re-partnered with person Y who has three children, they live in a small house, share one car and struggle to pay bills (with the ex-partner of Y paying minimal child support). Parent B is required to pay a significant portion of their income to Parent A for the care of the child. No consideration is currently able to be given by the Child Support Agency (CSA) to step-parenting responsibilities.

This is a scenario that shows that regardless of the make-up of a household, or the household income, child support payments are made from the one family to the other based solely on the two parents’ income and percentage of time the child is with each parent.
Although the theory that the duty to support a child lies with the primary parents of the child makes sense, in reality the facts are that many step-parents do financially support their step-children and their spouses. This can lead to a great deal of financial pressure being placed on many stepfamilies.

It should be noted that there are opportunities within the current system to contest amounts of child support paid based on being financially responsible for a new spouse or step child in ‘special circumstances’. An example of this might be where the disability of the child, or the spouse, means that the spouse is not able to be in the paid workforce and therefore the step-parent has an obligation to contribute to their care financially.

Keeping this in mind, we can imagine a second scenario where a paying parent, parent A, has been able to reduce their payments based on their step-parenting responsibilities. In this case let’s say that the receiving parent, parent B, has not re-partnered, and is living on a low income. Now having CSA payments reduced, parent B has increased financial hardship as a result of the CSA recognising parent A’s step-parenting responsibilities.
Clearly for some families the levels of financial distress are high, and the system is not working for them. It would be interesting to discover how many families are in the various situations described above.

The difficulty with altering the system to make things easier for some families is that of course, things become harder, or seem unfair, to other families. There are no easy answers in the area of stepfamilies and the child support system. In our paper, we highlight the need for the CSA to take into account the relative income of each household, and perhaps more importantly, the level of financial hardship being experienced by either parent in their decision-making rather than taking a one-size fits all approach. This may help make the system fairer for step-families, while at the same time not disadvantaging other groups like single parents.

The CSA does not currently collect data about family structures, ‘household’ incomes or levels of financial hardship, having this information available would also assist the CSA in their policy decisions.

How the Child Support System Works for Stepfamilies

Our research suggests that stepfamilies are beginning to be recognised as a unique and important contemporary family form, however social policy development in Australia does not yet adequately address or support stepfamilies’ unique needs relates to stepfamilies, in order to ensure the laws, policies and processes are relevant and effective for this significant family type and the variety of circumstances which may relate to this family type. We hope that this paper will contribute to stimulating discussion and consideration of reform of current legislation and procedures within the CSA.

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Disenfranchised Grief in Stepfamilies

It is generally known that stepfamilies are ‘born of loss’. Whether formed by separation and divorce, as most are today, or the death of a parent, more common in previous times, it is clear that loss in both cases is the precursor to:

  • Stepfamily Life. (2002) I. Gerrard
  • Stepfamily Stages (2002) M. Howden

So common is the experience of the highs and lows experienced by stepfamilies that a theory of emotional stages and adjustment has been developed to explain the process…

Hell…p! I’m a Stepmother – Book Review

(2002) A. Penman
Ridden takes a fresh and honest look at the challenges of step-parenting, and, in particular, how a stepmother can find fulfilment in her role. Writing succinctly with warmth, and as one who has ‘been there’, she illustrates the strength of emotions in stepfamilies. Has ideas for stepmothers and stepfathers.

Men in Stepfamilies – work in progress

(2001) S. Martin
This article reviews some of the challenges men often confront as they move into stepfamilies, and are faced with the need to adapt to changes which permeate through their lives.

Stepfamilies in Australia

(2000) S. Martin
Stepfamilies currently have an ambivalent status in Australian society. Everybody knows someone in one, but few show up on official statistics.

Unacknowledged Change

(1998) S, Martin
This is a paper documenting the experience of the Stepfamily Association working with stepfamilies.

Schools supporting families through change and transition

Schools are often the first place to recognise changes in a child’s conduct.

More often than not they are in the frontline as one in three families with school age children undergo transitions ranging from death, separation or divorce to repartnering.

Links to Other Articles

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has some great articles to browse:

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An interesting article about stepfamily challenges and tips for managing:

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New Perspectives on Stepfamilies: Step is Not a Four Letter Word

This is a great article about couples taking the reigns and designing the kind of family they want and has some interesting ideas about step parenting of teenagers. It’s from 1994 – but has some classic messages and remains an interesting perspective.

By Susan Gamache, M.A., R.C.C.*

There are many things to consider when “blending’ two families, it is a complex process that takes time, energy, commitment, and sometimes a sense of humor! The payoff is that it can also be rewarding, satisfying, and enriching.

Watch Out For the Nostalgia Trap

Many of our notions about second marriage families are based on hypothetical comparisons to an idealized form of the nuclear family. For instance, many people believe, even if they don’t come right out and say it, that divorce is caused by personal failure in the relationship. It is as if we now have the legal, but not the moral, right to divorce. What is not talked about is that divorce is also a function of our increased life span. In 1850, it is estimated that life expectancy was about 40 years. For those born in 1990, life expectancy is about 80 years. This gives us a substantially longer time “til death do us part.” The average length of marriage in the late 1700’s was 7 years, because one of the spouses died. (Ironically the contemporary average length of time between marriage and divorce in the U.S. is also 7 years.) Also, given the short life spans of our ancestors, second marriages were very common. In fact, 100 years ago, 20-30% of marriages were second marriages, just as they are today. Traditions for remarriage varied across religious and cultural groups. Some advocated remarrying immediately to have the “best” results, others suggested waiting one year. Whatever the arrangement, stepfamilies were an important group in the community.

It has only been in the 20th century that more people have ended marriages by choice (i.e., divorce) than by death. Sociologists tell us that “conjugal succession” is becoming a normal part of adult development given the 50 to 60 years that most of us will have in which to be adults. American demographers suggest that by the end of the 20th century, half of the children and young adults in the U.S. will be stepchildren.

“Yes, but what about those kids?” I hear you say. Of course, we must find ways to keep children safe and secure through the divorce and remarriage of their biological parents. However, concerns about children are also heavily influenced by nostalgia. Let’s not fool ourselves about children’s lives in the past. In the 1800’s, estimates are that 23% of children had lost one or both parents by age 5, 50% by age 13, and 70% by age 24. Very few people lived long enough to meet their grandchildren.

“But Isn’t the Nuclear Family the Best for Children?”

Researchers consistently tell us over and over again that the structure of the family (i.e., nuclear, single parent, stepfamily) does not determine how happy, how academically proficient, or how socialy well-adjusted our children will be. There has been no consistent evidence from these or many other indicators, that children from nuclear families fare better than those from single parent or second marriage families. What researchers continue to find is that exposure to prolonged conflict is harmful for children and that it is the quality of relationships, not the type of family, that makes a difference to the psychological well-being of children.

This is not to say that divorce is an easy event in the lives of those involved. It is not. We need to get a lot better at working out the painful or difficult aspects of these transitions in order to provide secure family lives for our children and to enjoy the remainder of our longer lives. We also need to get a lot better at working out the relationships of all the individuals involved in stepfamilies. Given that most of us will experience one directly or indirectly, we must learn how to support and nurture them.

Accepting and Supporting the Second Marriage and the New Family

This then is the challenge. How do we go about creating a second marriage or stepfamily in a way that maximizes the benefits and minimizes the difficulties for everyone involved? What does the “successful” or “happy’ stepfamily look like? What is the best way to “parent” other people’s children? How long does it take to feel like “family?” Answers to these questions can directly benefit current or potential stepfamily members.

David Mills, a therapist/educator/scholar has addressed many of the common concerns in stepfamily living. His guidelines take a common-sense approach.


    The new couple is the architect of the stepfamily. They must decide on the long term goal for the stepfamily structure in accordance with the needs of all the stepfamily members. What is the vision of the family for each of the adults? Specifically, is it the goal of the new adult to establish a parent-like role with his or her partner’s children? Are there other roles that are more appropriate, such a ‘friend of the family,” coach, mentor, favourite aunt or uncle? Mills stresses that the “parent” role is not the only possibility. Equally, if this role is chosen, what this really means in the long term needs serious discussion. Also, the couple relationship is the newest relationship. It has a lot of pressure on it right from the start. There is not much private time or space to simply be together. Arranging some private time for each other is essential. Preferably, this would not be after an exhausting day when the kids have gone to bed. An afternoon or evening alone, away from the kids, can provide important time for the couple to continue to develop their relationship.

2) ft seems that the time it takes for children to accept another adult in a parent-like role has been misunderstood and, at times, greatly underestimated. Mills suggests that this process takes children a period of time equal to their age at the time of transition. Using this formula, a child of six months would need six months to accept the new adult in a parent-like role. For a child of six years, by the time she/he is twelve, this new adult could be considered in a parent-like role. However, if the child is 12 or 14 at the time of transition, he/she would have to be 20 or 24 to fulfil this formula.

By this time, the young person is a young adult and not generally in the market for new parents. Using this formula, it is not recommended that potential stepparents assume a parental role with children who are teenagers at the time of transition. In general, it seems that teenagers are not available for any more parents. in fact, at times they are hardly available for their own. This does not mean, however, that older children cannot develop and benefit from a relationship with a new adult. What it does mean is that another model of relationship, such as coach, friend of the family, favourite aunt or uncle, may be a better fit with their availability at the time. Remember, the developmental task of adolescence is to experiment with independence from parents, not to take on more parents.

This formula also liberates stepfamilies to use a flexible model that responds to the difference between establishing a relationship with a 6 month old baby and a 16 year old teenager. Equally, different models can be combined. The same kind of relationship style does not have to be used for all the children. For instance if there are two stepchildren, one 5 and one 9 at the time of transition, it is likely that the 5 year old will accept the new adult as a parent-like figure long before the 9 year old.

It’s important to note that not accepting an adult as a parent-like figure does not mean that children don’t care deeply about that person. I have heard many young adult stepchildren say things like “My stepdad is a great guy. He’s not my real Dad, but it’s great going fishing with him.” Sometimes the greatest asset of a step relationship is its distance from the biological relationship. A step relationship can offer a more neutral perspective during highly emotional times. For example, this distance can sometimes allow teens to talk about things they are not quite ready to address with their biological parent.

3) For the new couple to achieve a positive transition, Mills suggests that the biological parent remain completely in charge of decision-making and limit-setting for biological children. Stepparents can remind stepchildren about Mom’s or Dad’s rules, but not create them. Children will recognize their parent’s bottom line. The stepparent’s role for the first year is to intentionally nurture the children in non-threatening activities. The goal of this process is to bond with them. Mills suggests that this time period mimics the first year that a biological parent spends with a baby, nurturing and supporting without concerns of discipline or limit setting. While the biological parent remains in charge of limit-setting and decision-making for her/his children, comfortable rules for living in the home must be negotiated. For young children, the bulk of this can be done by the adults and presented to the children. Opportunities for their input on specific issues can be invited when appropriate.

Older children have often played a large part in running the home during the single-parent family time which immediately preceded the stepfamily. In these cases, family meetings may be more appropriate for developing family rules. Clearly, some issues will be non-negotiable. At the same time, including older children, particularly if there are children from two single-parent families, can provide an excellent opportunity to explore how things were done in the former homes, explain why some things are meaningful and important to different family members, and generally provide a good time for getting to know each other. Scheduling meetings once a month, holding the meetings in a nice location that everyone enjoys could even make them fun, and allowing a limited amount of time at each sitting to explore tender territory, can make the transition time more respectful for everyone.

4) Relationships with the other biological parent should be supported. Although this may be difficult, it is important that children have an opportunity to know all their parents. The task for former spouses is to establish a parental coalition that can keep children’s concerns front and centre. As difficult as it may be to remember, children are adversely affected by exposure to prolonged conflict between former spouses. The more often issues can be dealt with in a reasonable manner, the better it will be for all. It is not surprising that this is generally easier for the former spouse who chose to end the marriage than the former spouse who did not want the marriage to end. While these ideas may be useful, it would be naive to believe that this is a simple process.

Stepfamily life challenges us to learn to communicate with our current and former partners in a way that is not required in the nuclear family. Sometimes an objective third party, such as a counsellor or mediator, can help sort out some of the ambivalence and confusion that surrounds these issues. Sometimes a support group can help by listening to your struggles, sharing some of theirs, and getting in a laugh or two about some of the completely unpredictable and crazy things that have occurred. Remember, stepfamilies continue to play an important role in society and have tremendous potential for rewarding long term relationships that will enrich our lives for many years to come.

* Susan Gamache, M.A., R.C.C., is an educator, counsellor, and researcher in private practice in Vancouver, B.C.. Ms. Gamache offers individual, couple, and family consultation and counselling on stepfamily concerns. For further information, questions or comments contact Ms. Gamache at: #412, 2150 West Broadway, Vancouver B.C. V6K 4L9 (604) 737-8145 FAX 737-0143

  • Fox & Ouitt cited in lhinger -Tal!man, 1 987. Glick, P.C. (1980). Remarriage: Some recent changes and variations. Journal of Family Issues, 1, 455-478
  • Glick, P.C. (1989). Remarried families, stepfamilies, and stepchlidren: A brief demographic profile. Family Relations, 38(1), 24-27.
  • lhinger-Tallman, M. & Pasley, K. (1987). Divorce and remarriage in the American Family: A historical review. In K. Pasley & M. lhinger-Tallman (eds.), Remarriage and stepparenting: Current research and theory (pp. 3-1 8). New York: Guilford Press.
  • Mills, D. (1984). A model for stepfamily development. Family Relations, 33. 365-372.
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