The “Evil Step-Parent”

Only the Evil Stepmother, or are Stepparents All Evil?

By: Brooke Axelrod, McKenna Hansell, Hayley Mulford, & Sam Paitsel

Step Parents 

     Change is a continual process that happens in everyday life. Some changes can be extremely stress inducing and hard to accept. Unfortunately, a common stressful change that most households undergo is re-marriage. The addition of a new parent can be extremely hard to cope with, as entire family dynamics shift dramatically. Studies have found that the step-parent’s influence can have consequences on children in those families. These consequences aren’t always negative, but could dramatically affect children raised in these step-parent homes during their formative years.

     Many of us have heard the anecdotal phrase “a parent’s love is unconditional”.  However contrary to this, as children many of us were exposed to Disney fairytales, unveiling the evil wrath of the princess’s stepmother. Consistent with these “cartoonish” depictions, research has indicated that a step-parent home can be more dangerous for children: children can be at higher risk of abuse or even homicide by a step-parent compared to a biological parent.

     How can parents be both the benevolent caregiver and the abusive totalitarian? One explanation for this could be genetic relatedness, or the extent to which someone’s genes are similar to your own. In most of the hyper-sensitized Disney depictions, an abusive totalitarian step-mother condemns her step-child while adoring her biological children simultaneously. A perfect example of this is the tale of Cinderella; a young girl’s mother dies and her father remarries, bringing two additional children into the picture with the introduction of a step-mother. Suddenly, Cinderella’s life is dramatically changed as she becomes likened to a handmaiden for these new family members all the while watching her step-sisters be adored by her step-mother. Does this give any weight to the idea that the less genetically related you are to your parents, specifically to your mother, the less parental care you receive? 

Are Step-Parents Depicted This Way for a Reason?

     Evolutionary theorists have suggested that ancestrally, whether or not you were genetically related to a child made a big difference in decisions to invest and care for that child. As we’ll get into shortly, this is because the alternative–investing in all children, regardless of relatedness–would have been a very costly strategy, and therefore selected against strongly by natural selection. This is not to say that people can’t care for unrelated children (clearly they do!), but simply that being unrelated presents one potential barrier to care. Also, it is not an excuse for hostility or abusive behaviors by step-parents (or any parents), but understanding the mechanisms that can sometimes make step-relationships difficult might better enable us to understand the unique difficulties in these relationships and actually help us to promote more positive relationships in blended family households.

    As we just mentioned, evolutionary theorists suggest that cues to relatedness are important in activating parental feelings and motivations toward children. This is because ancestral men and women had to deploy their limited time and resources carefully, in a way that maximized their own genetic interests.  Our ancestors had the obscure problem of ensuring that they were investing in their own child and that their offspring would make it to reproductive age. Since this investment was at a large cost, they would not want to put this into the offspring that do not have the propensity to carry on their genetic makeup. This cost is different for males and females; while females are investing care and time, males are investing resources and the losing the possibility of producing more genetic offspring. This is not to say that a step-father cares more for their step-children, but rather that a step-mother has greater shoes to fill for those children.

    Now, we live in a world that is starkly different in many ways from that ancestral environment, but we still possess these adaptations that shaped our ancestors. By recognizing these adaptations, we are better able to account for their effect. To counteract the sex difference in step-parent relationships, we suggest that bonding with the children is integral. Recognizing these adaptations doesn’t mean we are beholden to them, but rather gives us the opportunity to break free of them. 

  So, Is One Step-Parent Really Worse Than The Other

      The word stepparent conjures up a different image in everyone’s heads, but we all typically envision the same story: evil woman marries the rich widower dad, the dad disappears due to work related things and leaves his biological child behind with the new stepmother, the stepmother then begins to treat the step-child terribly while treating her own biological children well. But is there any truth behind the negative stigma of the “wicked stepmother”? One theory that arises from evolutionary psychology in an attempt to explain this is the mother-child bond, which is believed to be the “intrinsic biological ownness” that mothers share with their children. The logic following this is that biological mothers have a very direct set of “cues” to their relatedness with their children–they carry the children, go through labor, and nurse them. These reliable cues to relatedness are strong triggers of maternal feelings. Without these cues, mothers to unrelated children, like step-children, may have a harder time forming this emotional bond with their children. This sets the scene for step-mothers to experience more difficulty bonding with their step-children, or developing parental feelings toward them. Indeed, evidence suggests that step-mothers are about half as likely as step-fathers to experience parental feelings toward their step-children.

    An additional difficulty step-mothers encounter pertains to gender roles, in which stepmothers “would have to be nurturing, caregivers, and kinkeepers, monitoring the well-being of all family members and their relationship.” These roles are much more difficult to fill, especially considering the already strained nature of stepmother-stepchild relationships. The step-mother has to work harder towards a relationship with the child to strengthen the feeling of closeness, we use today as our cue towards familial bond. This is not to say that these bonds are impossible to create, as they can be created through purposeful involvement by the step-parent towards the child.

     Now that we’ve discussed step-mothers at length, what about step-fathers? Step-fathers are also predicted to have difficulties to overcome in their relationships, albeit for slightly different reasons. Ancestral men–unlike ancestral women–did not possess the same certainty, on average, that a particular child was actually related to them. Because fertilization happens within females, and thus paternity is never certain for males, ancestral men developed adaptations that promoted bonding based on more indirect cues to paternity, like physical and behavioral resemblance. The use of more indirect cues may help to explain the finding we referenced earlier, indicating that step-fathers are more likely to develop parental feelings toward their step-children. Similarly, one study found that children felt their family function was better with a step-father rather than a step-mother. The children felt more communication and co-living with a step-father than with a step-mother. The step-mother has much more relationship to build because of the cues that promote maternal bonding.  Therefore, it can be easier for motivated step-fathers to transition into their new roles with step-children. Step-fathers’ use of more indirect cues suggests that purposefully cultivating a relationship can be accomplished through spending time together engaged in activities of shared interest between parents and children, and finding points of similarity.

Does culture matter? 

    Is this stigma of being an “evil” step-parent attributed universally, or is this localized to only western culture? Most of the research conducted on this subject mainly focuses on families in western culture. Family dynamics are significantly different in western and eastern culture. Families in western cultures tend to be more individualistic and this may play a role in some of the results found. However in eastern communities family dynamics tend to be more collectivist. It would be interesting to see if eastern families who have a step-parent present would yield the same results. Researchers could also look into homes where neither biological parent is present (adoption), and see how they compare to families with either a step-parent present, or both biological parents present. Something else that could be taken into account is the dynamic between half-siblings and their opposing step-parent.

Making Blended Families Successful

     As we said before, the fact that these difficulties have evolutionary roots doesn’t constitute an excuse for abuse, and it also doesn’t mean that all step-relationships are “doomed.”  There are ways to consciously work on building a stronger relationship, and some of these follow predictably from evolutionary theory, like seeking out points of similarity between step-parents and children–especially in the case of step-fathers. One study found that socialization with the child is the most important because it allows them to adopt and share moral values. Another found that the most important parts of step relationships are positive regard for the step-parent, authority accepted by the step-child from the step-parent, and certainty that the child feels they have a relationship with their step-parent. These three things are crucial to build a positive relationship with the step-parent, and can be cultivated through intentional work

Another lesson we can take away from evolutionary perspective on this issue is that those involved in step-mother relationships should be patient with themselves if the relationship does not form naturally or easily. There can be additional barriers in this relationship that may take more time to build, but that doesn’t mean that the relationship will never be built. The theories simply suggest it requires more conscious effort.

    Additionally, there may be some unique perks to growing up in blended families. Interestingly, a study found that children in step family homes actually have better social competence and that there is definitely not a difference between types of families. Social competence enables children to interact and bond with other children better, which is definitely an advantage in the tumultuous terrain of middle school. Thus, there can be really positive outcomes for these kind of families and the children who are raised within them. 

Sadly Cinderella’s relationship with her stepmother is the stereotype everyone thinks of regarding step-mothers. However, this is not the right picture to paint. Step-parents can be very involved, supportive, and real family when the effort and relationships are there.