Cinderella vs. Princess Fiona: Actual and perceived functioning in stepfamilies and biological families

Planitz, Judith (2007). Cinderella vs. Princess Fiona: Actual and perceived functioning in stepfamilies and biological families PhD Thesis, School of Psychology , University of Queensland.

       
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Author Planitz, Judith
Thesis Title Cinderella vs. Princess Fiona: Actual and perceived functioning in stepfamilies and biological families
School, Centre or Institute School of Psychology
Institution University of Queensland
Publication date 2007
Thesis type PhD Thesis
Supervisor Professor Candida Peterson
Abstract/Summary The present research program investigated actual and perceived functioning in stepfamilies and in biological families from the perspective of young adult members of such families. A substantial body of research has evaluated functioning in stepfamilies, and further literature has assessed the negative perceptions (or stereotypes) of stepfamilies; however, actual and perceived functioning have rarely been studied within the same framework. In the present studies, four specific aims were addressed: the first aim was to assess whether there are differences between young adults’ reports of stepfamilies and biological families on a number of key dimensions of (actual) family functioning; the second aim was to assess an integrative model of these family functioning variables; the third aim was to investigate whether and to what extent stepfamilies are stereotyped; and the final aim was to assess the theoretical perspectives (nuclear family ideology, biosocial perspective) that are most appropriate in explaining actual and perceived functioning in stepfamilies. A further aim (relating to the fourth aim) was to assess how attachment theory can be integrated as an explanation of actual and perceived functioning. The present research program also contained several important features. First, young adults in stepfamilies and biological families were compared on a number of key relationship dimensions, enabling a comprehensive coverage of important aspects of family functioning. Second, a broad overview of the negative perception of stepfamilies was obtained; this provided an overview of what the stereotype is, why people stereotype and whether those in stepfamilies have been subject to discrimination. Third, theoretical perspectives were used to explain actual and perceived functioning, and to determine whether potential discrepancies between actual and perceived functioning exist. Finally, quantitative data were complemented with short-response data, to obtain a broad picture of stereotypes of stepfamilies. These features are an important and novel contribution to further our understanding of stepfamilies. Study 1 assessed actual functioning in stepfamilies and in biological families as reported by a sample of young adult university students (􀀱 = 102) who belonged to one or other of these family types. (The principal stepfamily contained a biological mother and stepfather.) Overall, findings suggested that stepfamilies and biological families were similar on many dimensions of family functioning, particularly on individual and family adjustment. Further, participants in stepfamilies and in biological families were similar on many reports of parental relationships, although relationships with stepfathers were reported as being more avoidant, as having less mutual conflict resolution styles, and as being less satisfying than relationships with biological parents. However, where differences between the families existed, the effect sizes were generally not large; this supports the assertion that there is substantial overlap in functioning between the families. In addition, more support for the social stigma hypothesis of stepfamily functioning was obtained; the social stigma hypothesis argues that stepfamilies are stigmatised; however, actual functioning in stepfamilies may not be as negative as the stereotype. Study 1 also provided a comprehensive assessment of attachment in stepfamilies (i.e., attachment functions, attachment dimensions and attachment figures were assessed). In Study 2, a similar sample of young adults (􀀱 = 106) from stepfamilies and biological families were assessed on both actual and perceived functioning. (Participants in stepfamilies reported on relationships with up to four parents: biological mothers, biological fathers, stepmothers and stepfathers, where applicable.) Results largely replicated those of Study 1, with participants in stepfamilies and biological families reporting substantial overlap in functioning. Further, participants from these family types reported a negative stereotype of stepfamilies, particularly on perceived care, satisfaction, mental models, and conflict. These results generally suggest support for the social stigma hypothesis. That is, stepfamilies are perceived negatively but actual functioning is not as negative as the stereotype. Further, the attachment perspective was used to explain both actual and perceived functioning. The third study replicated and extended the previous studies by assessing actual functioning, stereotypes, and family identity. (Participants in stepfamilies again reported on relationships with up to four parents.) Data from young adults (􀀱 = 160) in biological and stepfamilies again suggested that differences between stepfamilies and biological families are generally minimal in terms of actual functioning. Regarding stereotypes, data again suggested that a negative perception of stepfamilies exists; participants suggested cultural issues and a negative emotional climate as the predominant reason for the stereotype. Finally, those in stepfamilies reported identifying with their own families, but not with ‘stepfamilies’ in general. These results are addressed in regard to the theoretical perspectives. The social stigma hypothesis received more support than other hypotheses of stepfamily functioning. The combined results (obtained across the three studies) were also assessed. Results suggested that, in general, those in stepfamilies and those in biological families did not substantially differ on many variables (assessing reports of parental relationships and individual and family adjustment). An integrative model of these variables assessing differences between stepfamilies and biological families was also assessed. Satisfaction with the biological father was found to mediate the relationship between family type (stepfamily or biological family) and family cohesion, and to partially mediate the relationship between family type and model of other. These results highlight the need to study stepfamilies as a system and to study multiple relationships within this system. Overall, the present studies extend previous research by suggesting that stepfamilies are negatively stereotyped although actual functioning in stepfamilies may not reflect this stereotype. A more complete understanding of actual and perceived functioning from the perspective of young adults in stepfamilies and in biological families was achieved. Further, the findings on actual and perceived functioning are discussed in relation to theoretical perspectives (specifically, the social stigma and incomplete institutionalisation hypotheses), and implications for future research.

 
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