One of the principles that I constantly encourage is to realize that, while we as stepparents are not the people who are supposed to be in a child’s life, we should never apologize for the fact that we are the people who are there. We are making a commitment to our children, and we should never underestimate how important it is that we are there.
I ran across a recent study that reinforces how important our role is. According to a new survey of studies of childhood abuse, children are safer in families with stepparents than with unrelated adults. The focus of the study was the effect of childhood abuse on non-victimized siblings. The main findings were in line with previous studies showing that simply witnessing abuse can result in problems such as depression and anxiety. One finding that stood out to me though, was that children living with unrelated adults had the highest risk of seeing abuse. Although households with “non-parental adults” constituted only 3% of those studied, they represented 10% of the assaults that the children reported. Intact biological families, by contrast, represented 66% of the families studied, but only 3% of the cases of abuse.
In the middle of the pack were stepfamilies, constituting 8% of the study population and 6% of the abuse cases. If marriage (i.e. stepparents rather than “non-parental adults”) is a proxy for commitment to a family, then it appears that children are safest with committed adults.
As stepparents, we have made a commitment to our families that is important. We are Plan B parents, but we are nonetheless important in our children’s lives. Children need adults to protect and care for them, and we should never apologize for our role as the adult in the house. Our children probably won’t understand that commitment (they are children, after all), but when they are adults, they may get it. Even if they don’t, it is part of our responsibility as adults. Recognize and embrace the contribution that we are making to our kids’ lives, and find ways to renew that commitment every day.