This week before Father’s Day is a good time to look at the importance of stepfathers and foster fathers in families. It’s very easy to overlook the important role that father figures play in children’s lives.  Stepmothers get a national day, but stepfathers don’t.  We need to remember how important father figures can be.

If our children have biological fathers safely involved in their lives, we need to do what we can to encourage that relationship.  Many of our children, however, do not have those relationships.  They need stepfathers and foster fathers to fill in those spaces.  Our kids need to know that father-substitutes can provide emotional support, warmth, and caring.  It is those close relationships that our children need, even more than structure and material support.

Our Kids Need Emotional Support

    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.

    One seminal study of positive relationships between stepfathers and teenagers found that most of the teens surveyed reported positive, warm relationships with their stepfathers.  The most common variable in that subset was believing that their stepfather cared about them.

    Several studies flesh out how important emotional support is in building good relationships between children and stepfathers.  In one study of the relationships between fathers and biological children, 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 stepfathers, and by extension foster fathers filling the same role, 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.

Focus on Priorities

        One important finding from the older stepfather study that I discussed above is that teens most often reported better relationships with stepfathers (a) as the length of the parents’ relationships increased, and (b) the mothers reported a solid relationship with the stepfathers.  Strong and enduring parental relationships are associated with better stepparent-child relationships.  Concentrating on your marriage, then, likely will help strengthen your relationship with your stepchildren or foster children.

        The study also found no correlation between closeness to stepfathers and closeness to non-resident biological fathers.  In other words, biological parents are not our competition.  We don’t build our relationships by tearing down those pre-existing ties.  Helping our kids retain and strengthen those relationships not only is our first priority, but it doesn’t damage our relationships with them.

        A final point is that the study found a high correlation between teens’ positive relationships with stepfathers and teens’ relationships with their mothers.  The researchers noted, “These findings are consistent with our assumption that family relationships are good predictors of children’s relationships with stepfathers.”  Thus, our relationship-building skills can carry over with positive results on other relationships in the household.

        A stepfather or foster father can be a positive male role model for a child who doesn’t have a good relationship with his or her biological father. Our marriages can provide the love, nurture, and positive influence that our kids need.  Even if they try to ignore us, they will see the example that we set.  While we cannot replace their parents, we can come alongside them and become an important part of their lives. It will be our kids’ Plan B, but second choices can be pretty powerful if we give them a chance.

    Of course, your kids 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 around our relationships with our kids.  But we also have to remember that our kids want and need to know that there will be a foster father or stepfather waiting there to love them.


Debbie Ausburn

Helping foster parents and stepparents learn how to be the person who is not supposed to be there.