Kevin Shafer, Social Work, and Erin K Holmes, Family Life
The Stepfamily Experience Project (STEP) is a data set made up of approximately 1,500 emerging adults (aged 18-29) that was collected in 2013. STEP was motivated by a research literature which argues that stepfamilies are worse off than two-biological parent families (sometimes called biologically-intact families). While, on average, this may be true, STEP researchers thought that this research ignored what makes a successful stepfamily. This is unfortunate, because stepfamilies are of immense worth which can positively impact men, women, and children. As a result, we collected data, with the support of BYU and generous donors, to find out exactly what makes a good stepfamily experience and what kind of parenting behaviors and family environment helps contributes to happy, well-adjusted stepchildren. This data is very unique in family research—large, diverse, and representative, ultimately providing us with some of the best insights into stepfamily life to date.
One advantage of STEP is that it asks a diverse set of questions related to stepfamily functioning, which makes it a rich data source for understanding the positive and negative aspects of stepfamily life. For example, STEP researchers have addressed questions about stepfathers, how stepfamily experiences shape risky behavior, the experience of stress in stepchildren and how it contributes to functioning later in life, and the unique stepfamily experiences of American Indians. Furthermore, we have made the data available to other BYU researchers in recent months. One such project involves how stepfamily experiences contribute to the functioning of military members. We expect that faculty and students in the School of Social Work, School of Family Life, and other departments at BYU will continue to benefit from the generous gifts provided by donors to make this data and project possible.
Below, we have provided a list of research projects that have been completed with STEP in the past year. We will continue to use STEP in the coming years and we hope that we will be able to expand its scope in the near future. Our discussion of future goals with STEP follows. Finally, we have letters of gratitude from students and faculty who have been employed by or are using STEP to complete research projects.
As with any new project in the social sciences, it sometimes takes time to get the research up and running. However, we were able to collect data using Qualtrics and had student employees work on the data to make it usable for researchers. This process took several months. After that initial period, however, we were able to utilize the data. The following is a brief synopsis of the research projects that we were able to complete in the past year using STEP.
Do attitudes about cohabitation mediate the effects of parental cohabitation and remarriage happiness on attitudes about sex in emerging adults? Nathan Stoddard (SFL Graduate Student) & Erin K. Holmes (SFL Assistant Professor)
- Paper presented at the 2014 Fulton Conference
- Paper will be presented at the 2014 National Council on Family Relations Conference
- Target journal: Journal of Marriage & Family
This study focused on differences in how parental cohabitation and remarital happiness influence risky sexual behavior in emerging adults raised in stepfamilies. The sample was divided by race and gender. The paper shows that stepfamily factors and remarriage influence sexual behavior in emerging adults, although there are significant differences by race and gender. The paper helps us understand important cultural differences in stepfamily life and more culturally appropriate practice with stepfamilies from different backgrounds.
The influence of non-residential father relationships on stepfamily experiences. Kevin Shafer (Social Work Assistant Professor), Todd Jensen (UNC Graduate Student), Douglas Wendt (MSW Graduate Student)
- Paper to be presented at the 2015 Society for Social Work Research Conference
- Target journal: Family Relations
This project focuses on how non-residential father warmth and parenting quality influence adjustment to living in a stepfamily. Our findings show that greater contact with a biological father who does not live with the child reduces stress from living in a stepfamily, improved stepparent relationships, and improved the positive influence of the stepfamily. This suggests that maintaining positive relationships with a non-residential father after divorce can improve stepfamily functioning and outcomes for children.
Transitioning to stepfamily life: The influence of closeness with biological parents and stepparents on child stress. Kevin Shafer (SSW Assistant Professor), Todd Jensen (UNC Graduate Student), Erin K. Holmes (SFL Assistant Professor)
- Paper under review at Child & Family Social Work
We tried to understand how social support in stepfamilies might affect stepchildren. More specifically, we found that greater closeness to residential stepparents and residential biological parents reduces stress caused by transitioning to a stepfamily. These findings highlight the importance of residential relationships to a stepchild and the benefits of parents as a source for social support.
Differences in stepchild expectations of stepparents and stepparent behavior. Nathan Robbins (SFL graduate student), Kevin Shafer, Erin K. Holmes
- Target journal: Journal of Family Issues
This project focuses on gendered expectations of stepparents by children. The results show that children believe that their stepfathers and stepmothers should be warmer to them than they actually are and that stepchildren have similar warmth expectations of stepmothers and stepfathers. However, stepparents are highly resistant to controlling behaviors by stepmothers, but expect more controlling behaviors from stepfathers.
Approximately 25 first-year MSW students are also using STEP to write research papers with faculty mentors. These students have noted that they would like to present their papers at the Fulton Conference, national research conferences, and to publish their papers in high-quality peer reviewed journals. These projects include:
- An examination of how stepfamilies are formed (divorce or death) and influence a child’s attitude toward their stepfamily and relationships with their stepparent. Dustin Higginson (MSW student) and Kevin Shafer
- The stepfamily formation process, family functioning, and substance abuse in Native American families. Lauren Cousin (MSW student) and Gordon Limb (Social Work professor)
- Stepfathering practices and self-esteem in emerging adults. Kevan Baker (MSW student) and Erin K. Holmes
- Stepfamily relationships, military experience, and adult attachment. Ryan Turner (MSW student) and David Wood (Social Work Visiting Professor)
- Differences between American Indians and other racial/ethnic groups in stepfamily experiences. Kayla Atkin (MSW student) and Gordon Limb
Mentoring Outcomes to Date
STEP has provided many current and former BYU students with the opportunity to learn the research process by researching the family—our most important social institution. The immense contributions that the STEP project has made to the educational experiences of these students cannot be overestimated. We have been able to employ seven students from Social Work and Family Life in the past year with the funds provided by BYU and private donors. We were also able to provide a research internship to an MSW student interested in fathering and family dynamics—providing them with a good foundation for research into the effects of non-residential fathers and stepfathers on the lives of their children. These students, in addition to having valuable employment during their educational experience, have also had important professional experience because of STEP. Two students were able to present at the annual Fulton Research Conference in April 2014 using STEP data. In the fall, students presented at the Council on Social Work Education and National Council on Family Relations annual meetings with projects using STEP. STEP will also allow them to travel to these conferences and present their research at national conferences—a truly unique experience for a Master’s level student at any institution. In winter, a former and current student will present in an invited presentation at the most prestigious social work research conference using the STEP data.
Student Participants and Outcomes
We continue to work on the data, which will lead to future publications and presentations. However, current student outcomes are as follows:
- Nathan Stoddard (SFL): 2 research papers, 1 professional presentation (NCFR)
- Aaron Parks (SSW): 1 research paper, 1 professional presentation (CSWE)
- Ryan Turner (SSW): 2 research papers, 1 professional presentation (SSWR)
- Doug Wendt (SSW): 1 research paper, 1 professional presentation (SSWR)
- Nathan Robbins (SFL): 1 research paper
- Kayla Atkin (SSW): 1 research paper
- Lauren Cousin (SSW): 1 research paper
- Dustin Higginson (SSW): 1 research paper
Exact budget expenditures are hard to know because of other funding streams for STEP. Estimated expenditures were:
- Wages $15,000
- Travel for students $ 2,000
- Travel for PIs $ 2,000
- Materials $ 1,000