Parents often worry how their divorce will affect their children, but what happens between stepparents and their children after a second marriage falls apart? Expectedly, children take their cues from their parents when deciding how to continue step-family relationships, finds a new study from University of Missouri College of Human Environmental Sciences. In particular, the researchers say, stepchildren maintain ties with their former stepparents only when parents encourage them to continue doing so.

“Remarriages end in divorce more often than first marriages,” wrote the authors, “so many stepchildren experience multiple parental divorces and the potential loss of significant family ties.”

To explore these broken hearts, the researchers interviewed 41 young adults who had experienced their parents’ remarriage and subsequent divorce. At one time or another, half of the participants had considered their stepparents as family. The researchers refer to this as “claiming kin.” During remarriage, they explain, judgments are made about whether or not someone is ‘family,’ and if so, expectations about feelings and interactions follow. However, in some cases, there’s ambiguity. This is stressful since everyone is less sure how to act and feel. Subsequent divorce muddies the waters even more. During a second divorce, neither blood ties nor legal ties exist, and so stepparents and stepchildren remain unbound in the two ways commonly used to decide family obligations.

During the study, the researchers found half of the subgroup who had “claimed kin” still maintained relationships with their former stepparents, but the other half had ended these relationships. While a 6-year relationship might be just a tiny portion of an adult’s life, it could occur during an especially meaningful moment in a child’s development and so mean much more to a child than the parent. And though fairy tales often portray stepmothers as "evil," in reality they may be more important to a child than his or her biological mother.

Still, the fact is kids often have little agency or voice within their families and even less within stepfamilies. Whether or not they continue an ongoing relationship with a stepparent depends, largely, on their parents. Consider the fact that until kids are old enough to drive, they often don’t have a way to maintain contact unless their parents facilitate the visits.

In the end, the researchers discovered stepchildren's views of former stepparents primarily depended on three issues: emotional reactions to the divorce, patterns of support or resource exchanges, and parental encouragement or discouragement to continue step-relationships.

Source: Coleman M, Ganong L, Russell L, Frye-Cox N. Step-children's Views About Former Step-Relationships Following Step-family Dissolution. Journal of Marriage and Family. 2015.