Biology, Meaning of Words

Cinderella Effect: the Startling Truth of Stepfamily Parenting Style

Stepfamily parenting style

Named after the popular fairy tale, the Cinderella effect has anything but a happy ending. Statistics suggest a strong correlation between stepparents and higher incidences of child abuse cases. Hence the Stepfamily parenting style.

Stepparent relationship or stepfamily parenting style

A variety of different evolutionary and social theories offer explanations for the connection, though the very emotional nature of stepparent relationships or stepfamily parenting style makes such issues difficult to discuss.

Cinderella effect

The Cinderella effect was first summarized in the early 1970s by P. D. Scott, a forensic psychologist who made a shocking observation about a small sample cases in which a child was killed out of anger: 52 percent of them were committed by the child’s stepfather.

Further evidence compiled from official reports of child abuse cases and homicides, clinical data, and victim reports showed that non-biologically related parents are up to 100 times more likely to be abusive than biological parents. A stepfamily parenting style came to be. The strongest evidence supporting the Cinderella effect appears in households with both genetic and stepchildren. In two separate surveys of abuse cases, parents in such households exclusively targeted their stepchildren with abusive behavior: 90 percent in one survey, 86 percent in the other.

Studies have also suggested that stepparents are less likely to display positive behaviors toward their children than biological parents, including investing time in those children’s education and do have a different and defining stepfamily parenting style.

But why?

Evolutionary Explanation for Child Abuse Cases by Stepparents

Martin Daly and Margo Wilson, evolutionary psychologists, suggest and evolutionary basis for the Cinderella effect. Citing the evolutionary theory of inclusive fitness and parental investment theory. They expect parents to discriminate in favor of their genetic children and invest less time in children in their care that aren’t biologically related as a means of insuring their genetics are passed on to future generations. There seems to be  biological bassis for the stepfamily parenting style.

Parallels exist in the animal kingdom. Daly and Wilson cited lions in their famous example. Adult male lions entering a pride have been known to kill cubs fathered by other males. This serves two purposes: they guarantee more of the pride’s limited available attention for their own cubs and speed up the timeline for female fertility.

This phenomenon is a bit more complicated in humans and may be an extension of mating behavior. Since humans risk losing their partners by refusing to tolerate children unrelated to them but related to those partners, they invest the minimum time and resources necessary to meet their partner’s expectations. This explains the tendency of abusers to spare their biological children and have a different stepfamily parenting style.

Stepchild to stepparent relationships are also strained: children are less likely to approach their stepfathers for advice and support than their genetic fathers.

Alternative Theories and Criticisms

While the evolutionary theory is the forerunner for explaining the existence of the Cinderella effect, these theories provide alternative explanations for the effect:

The selection theory offers bias in the individuals involved as an alternative to Daly and Wilson’s evolutionary theory. It argues that the people most likely to become stepparents, divorcees, are more likely to be violent. They are more likely to have aggressive impulses, self-esteem issues, and emotional disturbances, and these biases, rather than evolutionary relationships, predispose them toward abuse. Child abuse cases that result in the child’s death have been correlated to parental factors such as lost custody battles, prior convictions for violent crimes, drug abuse, and mental health concerns. The stepfamily parenting style is more defined by the identity of a person more likely to become a stepparent.

The social theory suggests that stepparents are less likely to invest in unrelated children because such investment costs time and resources that could be directed toward their biological children. The stepfamily parenting style is now influenced by economic reasons. Further, stepparents are less likely to feel bound to their stepchildren by attachment or parental love, which are both factors in the emotional mechanisms that allow parents to tolerate the costs of investment in their children.

Other alternate explanations for the Cinderella effect or the stepfamily parenting style point to additional stress inherent in step families. In cases of sexual abuse, the normative theory posits that the strong social taboo of incest is overcome by the lack of genetic consequences to relationships with unrelated individuals.

Research about the Cinderella effect using runaway and juvenile detention data has shown that the correlation between stepfamilies and abuse transcends the trends in social and economic backgrounds. Critics, however, argue that the stepparent relationship isn’t necessarily the defining factor in the higher occurrence of child abuse cases in those situations. Other factors include the family’s social and economic situation, the child’s age, and disabilities.

Daly and Wilson expect parents to discriminate in favor of their own children over unrelated children in their care. Evolutionary theory provides the scientific framework for that expectation, though a variety of other explanations complement and compete with it. Despite this understanding, the higher rates of child abuse cases in step families is a painful reality for parents.

Stepfamily parenting style
Cinderella Castle at night with moon
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