This week before Father’s Day is a good time to look at the importance of stepfathers and foster fathers in families. If our children have biological fathers involved in their lives, we need to do what we can to encourage that relationship. If the relationship is not safe or otherwise healthy, then stepfathers and foster fathers can help fill in the spaces. The spaces that need to be filled in are not discipline, but emotional support, warmth, and caring. It is those close relationships that our children need, even more than structure and material support.
I’ve written before about how difficult greeting card holidays can be for foster and stepparents. Kids will overlook us and take us for granted, but that reaction is just built into the dynamic of raising other people’s kids. Stepfathers, no less than stepmothers, have to just process the pain and concentrate on being committed to our kids. No matter how they treat us, they need us to not disappear from their lives.
Most of the attention in popular literature and research studies goes to mothers raising childen, especially single mothers. Emerging evidence, however, shows that fathers have a uniquely important place in their children’s lives. In some ways, their contribution is more important than mothers.
A 2003 study of almost 3,000 British teenagers, for example, found that while involvement by both fathers and mothers impacted the teens’ happiness, father involvement had a stronger effect. A later study of maltreated children found that close, emotionally supportive relationships with fathers (but not mothers) are associated with lower levels of substance abuse. Another similar study found lower levels of alcohol abuse among emotionally abused children who had close relationships with their fathers. Another study of children in foster care found high levels of resilience among children with more emotional support from their fathers. Finally, a very recent study found a correlation between father involvement in young children with high adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and high levels of resilience among the children.
These studies involve biological fathers, and remind us that our first obligation stepparents is to encourage whatever relationship our children an have with their biological fathers. When that relationship is not available or healthy, then our foster or stepfamilies can fill in some of the gaps.
It is important to note that, according to the available research, the best role of a stepfather is not to provide structure or discipline. Our children likely will not accept correction from a stepparent until they have an emotional connection. Children want to know who loves them and who has their back. They won’t listen to any adult who they don’t believe meets those two qualifications.
Several studies flesh out how important emotional support is in building good relationships between children and stepfathers. In one of the studies of fathers mentioned above, there was no correlation between the quantity of involvement and avoiding substance abuse. What mattered was the quality of the relationship, i.e., “the level of closeness, trust, emotional support, and affection in the father-child relationship.” On the other hand, a study of only stepfathers found that the children rated the relationships as having higher quality when stepfathers spent more time with them, such as doing chores, playing sports, or just hanging out. Those family interactions seemed to give more opportunities for stepfathers to build warm and supportive relationships.
The takeaway from all of these studies is that fathers, and by extension father substitutes, matter in children’s lives. Our kids need as strong a relationship with their fathers as we can help them build. When that relationship is not possible or safe, we need to be prepared to fill in the empty spaces. In those cases, discipline is not always our most important priority. Certainly, we have to establish enough structure to keep our kids safe. But beyond that baseline, what children need most from stepfathers and foster fathers is love, caring, and emotional support. They need to know that, no matter how many stupid mistakes they make, there is still a father who loves them.
Of course, they may not accept your love and concern right away (or ever). Also, as I’ve discussed before, unlimited acceptance does not mean unlimited commitment. We have to set healthy boundaries on our relationships with our kids. But when they are willing to accept our boundaries, they want and need to know that there will be a father waiting there to love them.