Adjustment of Children and Adolescents in Stepfamilies

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This chapter presents the aims of the research, the qualitative approach of the study, and the Method section.

Aims of this Study

As discussed in the previous chapter, the influences that shape the development of stepfathers’ roles and relationships are an area of stepfamily research that warrants further study. The overarching aim of this study is to understand stepfathers’ perceptions of the stepfather role, and examine the influences that shape the kinds of roles that stepfathers develop in stepfamilies. A secondary aim of this study is to develop a preliminary model of the influences on the stepfather role. This model may be of use to researchers and also to clinicians who work with stepfamilies.
The first aim of this study will be achieved through the use of qualitative research methods to facilitate a greater understanding of stepfathers’ experiences of developing stepfather roles in relation to their stepchildren. For the scope of this study, I planned to give particular emphasis to men who are stepfathers; in particular focusing on how men interpret and give meaning to events and processes contributing to their roles as stepfathers. The second aim, to develop a preliminary model, will be achieved by connecting the results of this study to the existing literature and findings about stepfamily processes and relationships outlined in Chapter One. The preliminary model will be presented in Chapter Seven.

Qualitative research

A qualitative research approach has been used in this study. Qualitative research has been called for in stepfamily research in order to further understand the dynamics of stepfamilies and shed light on the diversity of stepfamily experiences (Sweeney, 2010). Qualitative stepfamily research is also beneficial because it provides insight into the meaning of family interactions and relationships for individual stepfamily members and is therefore informative about relational processes – in this case, stepfathers’ views and experiences of developing a stepfather role and the experiences that influence this (Ganong & Coleman, 2014).
Qualitative research is grounded in the assumption that reality and meaning are not static concepts, nor measureable phenomena, but that meaning and reality are constructed by individuals in their interaction with the world (Merriam, 2002). In contrast to traditional positivist research, there is no presumed underlying or inherent reality; rather reality is in flux, has multiple perspectives, and meaning is actively constructed by people as they engage with and interpret the world (Crotty, 1998; Merriam, 2002).
The focus of qualitative research is on understanding phenomena and provides researchers with the opportunity to generate hypotheses, develop theories, and build concepts to be tested in areas where theoretical knowledge may be limited (Merriam, 2002). Qualitative research can also complement quantitative research by attempting to understand and explain results from qualitative studies (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). The data produced by qualitative research is intended to be richly descriptive about the inner experience and perspectives of the people who have or are experiencing the phenomena of interest (Merriam, 2002). The goal of the researcher then is to interpret meanings, to synthesise and make sense of individuals’ experiences of their own reality and to identify patterns, or themes across the data (Merriam, 2002). This particular study is based on an interpretive approach, which seeks to understand how individuals interpret and make sense of their experiences at a particular time or in a particular context, and the meaning they derive or construct based on those experiences (Merriam, 2002).
The study makes use of an online data collection method using Survey Monkey. Online data collection essentially offers an electronic method of otherwise familiar research techniques and participant interaction (Merriam, 2002). In a comparative analysis of online questionnaires and traditional paper-and-pencil research methods in psychology, Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava, and John (2004) provided evidence that internet samples are relatively diverse with respect to socioeconomic status, geographic region and age, and produced findings consistent with those from traditional methods. The authors also noted that internet studies were not adversely affected by non-serious or repeat responders. Furthermore, previous qualitative stepfamily studies in New Zealand have successfully employed online questionnaires to facilitate qualitative research into stepfamily experiences and processes (Cartwright, 2010a; Miller, 2015).



Ethics approval from the University of Auckland Human Participants Ethics Committee was given for the study. The study was advertised primarily through a New Zealand television news item on One Network News. The study was also advertised in a weekly e-newsletter, Tots to Teens, which is circulated to 21,000 parents in New Zealand (see Appendix A). The advertisements provided potential participants with a link to a website ( where they could access information about the study (see Appendix B) and a link to the online questionnaire. Men who had been stepfathers for at least two years to at least one school-aged stepchild for at least some of the time were invited to participate.


A total of 159 stepfathers began the online questionnaire, and 108 participants completed all questions. Of those who completed all questions, there were 86 stepfathers who met our selection criteria and provided sufficient responses to be analysed. Participants ranged in age from 25 to 74 years, with a mean age of 43 years. Of the 86 participants, 73 identified as NZ European/Pākehā (85%). Eleven participants identified as Māori (13%). Seven identified as European (8%), and four participants identified as other ethnicities (5%). Participants were able to select more than one ethnic identity.
The sample included 38 stepfathers who were married (45%), ten who were remarried (12%), and 37 were cohabiting (de facto; 44%). Stepfathers self-identified the length of time they had been a stepfather, with an average length of seven years. The majority of participants (n = 49) had their own children from previous relationships (57%). Of those with their own biological children, five had their children living with them full time and eighteen had a part time arrangement. Most participants had between one and two stepchildren (n = 67). Nineteen stepfathers in this study had between three and six stepchildren. Around one third (n = 27) of participants had at least one new child with their current partner. When asked how much time they spent living with their stepchildren, 68 said that they lived with their stepchildren full time, and eighteen had a part time arrangement.

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Development of the online questionnaire

The development of the online questionnaire (see Appendix C) began with a brainstorm of the kind of information I would need to achieve the study aims. I then generated an initial list of questions. Upon review and editing with my supervisor, the questions were finalised and presented in an order that appeared logical for participants to follow. The questionnaire was comprised of two parts. The first part contained questions about basic demographic information, such as age and ethnicity, as well as questions about the composition of participants’ stepfamilies. Participants were asked about how long they had been a stepfather, the ages of their stepchildren, about the number of children and stepchildren from current and any previous relationships, and related living arrangements.
The second part of the questionnaire contained questions intended to encourage participants to write about their perceptions and experiences relating to the development of their roles as stepfathers, and relationships with stepchildren. The questionnaire elicited participants’ attitudes about the stepfather role, perceptions about social expectations for their behaviour towards stepchildren, and role models for being a stepfather. Stepfathers were prompted to write about the kinds of roles they had, things they might like to change about their relationships, and the influences that shaped their roles. Participants were also asked about their experiences of seeking advice about being a stepfather, or their reasons for not doing so. A final question allowed participants to add any further comments they wished to make.
Participants were thanked for completing the questionnaire. They were then invited to contact me via e-mail if they wished to express their interest in participating a potential follow-up to the study involving face-to-face or telephone interviews. Participants were assured that I would not be able to identify their responses from their e-mail message, and that their responses would remain anonymous. Twenty stepfathers responded to this invitation. However, upon review of the data with my supervisor it was determined that there was enough data to conduct the analysis. I sent a standardised e-mail reply to these participants thanking them for their expression of interest and informing them that, due to the response to the online questionnaire, the follow-up study was no longer necessary.

Data analysis

Four sets of data were analysed. The main analysis related to the influences on the stepfather role, which is presented in Chapter Six. This set of data used the process of thematic analysis as described by Braun and Clarke (2006). The other three sets of data used a process of categorical analysis (Bowling, 2002).
Thematic analysis is a method of organising qualitative data – to identify, select, and report patterns or themes that are relevant to the research topic (Braun & Clark, 2006). It is a flexible method, which can be used within different theoretical frameworks, and for various purposes or aims (Braun & Clark, 2006). The primary results generated by thematic analysis are themes themselves, which are detailed, and rich descriptions about the phenomena of interest. Given the flexible nature of thematic analysis, the process of identifying themes requires considerable judgement on the part of researchers. The way in which themes are identified as themes may be freely chosen, but must be consistently applied by the researchers (Braun & Clark, 2006).
Braun and Clarke (2006) identify six phases of thematic analysis that were carried out in this study: 1) familiarisation with the data, 2) generation of initial codes, 3) search for themes, 4) review of themes, 5) definition and naming of themes, 6) production of the final report. As suggested by the authors, the analysis moved recursively through the six phases, and the results developed over several months.
The first phase involved immersion in the data. This involved exporting individual participant responses to the questionnaire from Survey Monkey into individual word files. I then printed out the individual responses and began multiple readings of the full data set. From a thematic analysis approach, reading is an active process: a search for meaning and patterns across the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Notes, descriptions of the data, and a list of initial ideas for coding were made alongside early reading of the data. The second phase involved the production of codes identifying individual features of the data of interest and of relevance to the research questions based on initial notes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Codes are a short descriptor for a basic element of an idea encapsulated in the data (Boyatzis, 1998). Identifying repeated codes across the data helps to form the basis for broader themes interpreted by the researcher (Braun & Clarke, 2006). My supervisor also provided regular checks and feedback throughout the data analysis process.
During phase three, I combined related or similar codes and sorted them into potential themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). Thematic maps were created to stimulate thought and discussion around the relationships between codes, themes, and sub-themes (Braun & Clarke, 2006). In phase four, potential themes were reviewed and refined with the assistance of my supervisor. Final themes were combined, divided, or selected based on the strength of the supporting data. Firstly, extracts that were coded for each theme were read together to determine their consistency and overall coherence with respect to the theme. Secondly, themes were considered in terms of their validity, or fit with the complete data set. To facilitate this, my supervisor reviewed a sample of the data that had been analysed thematically; and also reviewed each theme. When it was agreed that revised themes and subthemes captured the majority of data without a large amount of overlap, they were agreed to be the final themes.
The fifth phase required the organisation of abstracts within themes and subthemes into a coherent and internally consistent account, with an accompanying, detailed narrative about what is of interest for each theme and why (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The final phase comprised of the final written analysis presented in Chapter Six.
Three other data sets were analysed using a process of categorical analysis (Bowling, 2002). This process is similar to thematic analysis described above, but is useful when the data falls easily into some clear categories of response – often because there is less depth to the data. In this process, responses were coded and then the codes were placed into related sets or categories (Bowling, 2002). The process of categorical analysis was used to analyse data from the questionnaire related to stepfathers’ perspectives on social expectations, stepfathers’ role types and level of satisfaction, and their reports of advice-seeking. These are presented in Chapters Three, Four, and Five respectively.

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Definition of Terms
Demographic Trends
Adjustment of Children and Adolescents in Stepfamilies
The Importance of the Stepfather-Child Relationship
Challenges in the Stepfather-Child Relationship
The Role of the Stepfather and Adjustment of Stepfamilies
Influences on the Stepfather Role
Non-resident Fathers
Social and cultural influences
Summary and Research Rationale
Aims of this Study
Qualitative research
Development of the online questionnaire
Data analysis
Stepfathers Perceptions of Social Expectations for the Stepfather Role
There are no social expectations
I took no notice of social expectations
You should treat them as your own
Treat them differently to your own
Inconsistent expectations and stigma
Stepfather Role Types and Satisfaction
Stepfather Role Types
Father-like role
Supportive adult role
Uninvolved role
Stepfathers’ Level of Satisfaction
Associations between Role Types and Level of Satisfaction
Stepfathers on Seeking Advice about Being a Stepfather
Stepfathers Seeking Advice
Helpful advice
Unhelpful advice
Stepfathers Not Seeking Advice
There was no need for advice
I had confidence in myself
I went with the flow
I had previous experience
Advice was unavailable
Influences on the Development of the Stepfather Role
How I thought it should be
Treat them as your own
Previous parenting experience
Role models for being a stepfather
Alignment with my partner
Agreements, having permission, and accepting guidance
Being denied a disciplinary role
Discord and stigma
Summary of the Main Findings
The Ambiguity and Heterogeneity of the Stepfather role
What Influences the Role of the Stepfather?
How I thought it should be
Alignment with my partner
Involvement of the biological father
Receptiveness of the stepchild
Wider social response
A summary of the preliminary model

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