Cruel, proud and haughty, stepmothers came to associated with a string of negative traits and by the time The Brothers Grimm penned their own version 150 years later, the villainous character of the second wife was firmly established.
But a new study suggests that stepmothers have been much maligned. In fact, after a divorce they are often the glue that holds a family together, and prevent children from experiencing the negative effects which can accompany a split, say researchers.
Cara Zaharychuk, of Athabasca University in Alberta, Canada, reviewed dozens of articles dealing with family conflict following divorce, and found stepmothers provide a valuable support system to youngsters.
“Society’s view of the wicked stepmother needs to be challenged to accommodate the changing formation of the family unit,” she said. “Stepmothers should not be stereotyped as wicked, distant or cruel.
“Stepmothers can aid in reducing negative repercussions. Effectively incorporating them into the family can aid in a healthy transition.
“When the stepmother has a clearly identified role within the family, the overall family function is improved.”
After a divorce, stepmothers can help create harmony again, say researchers Credit: Rubberball/Mike Kemp
There are around 115,000 divorces each year in England and Wales, involving around 95,000 children under the age of 16.
Divorce has been linked to emotional, behavioural, and psychological problems, such as sleep disorders, aggression, resentment, poor school performance, confusion and fear of abandonment.
But researchers now think that much of the damage is actually caused by the conflict which led to the split, rather than the split itself.
So helping children to live in a home which is free from conflict can help to overcome some of the negative effects of divorce, academics believe. And academics think that a stepmother can help.
Zaharychuk found that remarriage was one of six major turning points that made children feel like they belonged to a family again. The birth of new half-siblings was also seen as beneficial. Many stepmothers also reported that their new role was unexpectedly rewarding.
“Almost all the stepmothers involved in this study reported feeling like a mother figure, and attempted to nurture and protect their stepchildren,” she said in an article in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage.
Most damage to children during a divorce is caused by the conflict before rather than the split, researchers now think Credit: Getty images
New research from the University of York also found that children are more likely to be harmed by the environment before their parents split, rather than what happens afterwards.
Children from divorced families are known to have lower mental and behavioural skills on average than children from intact families. But the new study – which analyses data from 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000 found that most of the damage was done before the parents divorced.
For example, around 50 per cent of the behavioural skills gaps could be explained by feuding parents while 35 per cent was the result of strained family finances. It suggests that just 15 per cent of the lower cognition scores are linked to divorce.
Dr Gloria Moroni, of York University, said: “Conventional wisdom and a large literature from multiple disciplines tell us that parental divorce is bad for children.
“But the negative relationship between divorce and children’s outcomes may be explained by pre-divorce circumstances and, for example, parents who decide to divorce may also be lower educated or poorer, or they may have a more conflictual relationship.
“Indeed, interparental conflicts may be even more harmful to child development than parental divorce itself.”
The York study was presented at the Royal Economic Society’s annual conference in Bristol.