Stepfather-Stepson Communication

Social Support in Stepfamily Worlds

by Jonathan Pettigrew (Author)
©2014 Monographs XII, 192 Pages
Series: Lifespan Communication, Volume 3


This book offers a novel analysis of communication in stepfather-stepson relationships and is one of the first to examine the ways stepfathers communicate and to integrate the perspectives of adolescents into research on stepfamily communication. In order to understand the complex dynamics of stepfamilies, Jonathan Pettigrew presents six case studies of different families. They are written as engaging narratives – including interviews – that offer flavorful accounts of family members and their relationships with each other. Pettigrew then looks across cases to identify, describe, and examine patterns of stepfather support. This book builds upon current understandings of stepfamily life by providing a descriptive and heuristic model of supportive stepfather-stepson communication, making it valuable for those who study and work with families.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Series Editor’s Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Part One: Stepfamilies, Stepfathers, and Communicating Support
  • Chapter One. Why Study Stepfamilies?
  • Family Structure, Family Process, and Youth Outcomes
  • Overview of the Volume
  • Chapter Two. Fathers, Stepfathers, and Support
  • Fathering and Stepfathering
  • Stepfathering as a Relational Act
  • Stepfathering Requires Involvement
  • Stepfathering as Distinct from Fathering
  • Conclusions about Stepfathering
  • Supportive Communication
  • Defining Social Support
  • Support as a Symbolic Process
  • Parent-Child Support
  • Conclusions about Social Support
  • Conceptual Framework for the Volume
  • Research Framework for the Volume
  • Part Two: Meet the Families
  • Characteristics of Participating Families
  • Chapter Three. The King Family
  • Nick’s Role as Stepfather
  • Nick’s Relationship with His Dad
  • Losing Jonah
  • Attitudes and Actions
  • Responsibility
  • Family Chores
  • Boy Scouts
  • Relational Culture of Support
  • Chapter Four. The Jacobs Family
  • Darren’s Role as Stepfather
  • Early Experiences
  • Employment
  • Masculinity versus Momma’s Boy
  • Darren’s Perspective
  • Karen’s Perspective
  • Brad’s Perspective
  • Reconciling Viewpoints
  • Attitudes in Action
  • Dog Incident
  • Video Games
  • Hunting
  • Culture of Support
  • Chapter Five. The Fisher Family
  • Role of the Stepfather
  • Father Again
  • Interactions with Sam
  • Interactions with Alan
  • Relational and Family Actions
  • Asking How the Day Went
  • Bowling
  • Culture of Support
  • Chapter Six. The Weliver Family
  • Role of the Stepfather
  • What Is a Stepfather?
  • Early Tinkering Experiences
  • Work Schedule
  • Discipline
  • Actions
  • Woodworking
  • Learning about Evan
  • Culture of Support
  • Chapter Seven. The Holland Family
  • Buck’s Role
  • As Stepfather
  • As Nonresident Father
  • Caroline’s Illness
  • Actions
  • Church Involvement
  • Building a Cannon
  • Culture of Support
  • Chapter Eight. The Jones Family
  • Stepfather Role
  • Relationship Conductor
  • Jake’s Nonresident Father
  • Daniel’s Issues
  • Connecting Rituals
  • High-Low
  • Movie Night
  • Gaming
  • Culture of Support
  • Part Three: Patterns of Communicating Support
  • Chapter Nine. Types of Supportive Communication
  • Emotional Support
  • Encouraging and Saying “I Love You”
  • Showing Support without Words
  • Spending Time Together
  • Claiming
  • Informational Support
  • Transferring Knowledge
  • Moral Guidance or Advice
  • Instrumental Support
  • Providing for Needs
  • Providing for Wants
  • Providing “Good Times”
  • Converging and Conflicting Messages
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter Ten. Stepfather, Stepson, and Stepfamily Patterns
  • Stepfather Patterns
  • Predominant Type of Support
  • Motivation
  • Previous Experience
  • Stepson Pattern
  • Stepfamily Pattern
  • Fluctuating Household Composition
  • Co-Parenting
  • Comparing Stepfathers with Biological Fathers
  • Summary of Patterns
  • Chapter Eleven. Picturing Stepfather-Stepson Communication
  • Conceptual Model of Supportive Communication
  • Stepfather
  • Stepson
  • Messages
  • Relational Culture of Support
  • Nonresident Family System
  • Strengths and Limitations of the Model
  • Ecological Development
  • Relational
  • Familial
  • Historical
  • Cultural
  • Summary
  • Part Four: Lessons Learned
  • Chapter Twelve. Concluding Thoughts on Support in Stepfamilies
  • Interpreting Findings
  • Sample of Stepfamilies
  • Objectivity/Confirmability
  • Validity/Trustworthiness
  • Reliability/Dependability
  • Generalizability/Transferability
  • Moving Forward
  • Stepchildren’s Negative Outcomes
  • Stepfathers Matter
  • How to Communicate Support
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix: Methods for Studying Supportive Communication
  • Designing the Study
  • Finding Families
  • Learning about Supportive Communication
  • Family Orientation
  • In-Depth Interviews
  • Observational Research
  • Self-Report Measures
  • Analyzing Data
  • Field Analysis
  • Armchair Analysis
  • Strengths of Analytical Methods
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index


Stepfather-Stepson Communication: Social Support in Stepfamily Worlds

Thomas J. Socha
Old Dominion University

Stepfather-Stepson Communication: Social Support in Stepfamily Worlds by Jonathan Pettigrew offers an important and much-needed addition to the story of communication as it is taking place in the ever-evolving lives of contemporary families. Since the early days of family communication studies in the 1980s, family communication scholars have labored to develop inclusive ways to think about and conceptualize “families.” And, most writers of family communication textbooks, for example, have created definitions of “family” using inclusive language and often lengthy prose to create a big tent. But, to date, we have not yet fully heard the voices of all family members. So, for all those who study, teach, and live family communication, this volume breaks new ground and offers us a better understanding of the rich discursive details of the generational voices of male family members labeled as “step-” as they attempt to manage the complexities, challenges, and opportunities of these important family relationships. Professor Pettigrew paints a compelling portrait of the current state of conceptualizing communication in “step- father/son” relationships that not only will inform contemporary societal discursive struggles with meanings of familial terms, but will become a much-cited work in the future.

Like this volume, the book series, Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging invites communication scholars to view communication through a panoramic lens—from first words to final conversations—a comprehensive communication vista that brings all children, adolescents, ← ix | x → adults, and those in later life as well as lifespan groups such as the family into focus. By viewing communciation panoramically it is also my hope that communication scholars and educators will incorporate into their work the widely accepted idea that communication develops, that is, it has a starting point and a developmental arc; changing as we change over time. And further, that developmental communication arcs are historically contextualized. As infants we begin our communication education in unique historical and familial contexts that shape our early communication learning as well as the foundations of our communication values. Children born in 2014, for example, will begin their communication learning in a time where humans are seeking to remake themselves to fit a rapidly changing and increasingly complex landscape that features a wider variety of types of family relationships. Of course adults caring for these children—who could have been born anytime between the 1930s to the late 1990s—have experienced vastly different developmental communication arcs, but yet must discursively span the generations, pass along their communication knowledge and values, as well as teach children how to communicate effectively within the current historical context, whether their relationships are grounded in birth or social agreement. Historically contextualized lifespan thinking also raises important new questions such as, what is to be passed along from one generation to the next as “timeless” communication knowledge and practices? Or in contemporary digital parlance, what is to become memetic, that is, analogous to genetic information, what survives to become the communication inheritance of future generations?

It is my hope that Stepfather-Stepson Communication: Social Support in Stepfamily Worlds, and all of the books published in the Lifespan Communication: Children, Families, and Aging series, will offer the communication field new understandings and deeper appreciation of the complexities of all forms of communication as it develops across the lifespan as well as raise important questions about communication for current and future generations to study.

—Thomas J. Socha


← x | xi → Acknowledgments

Primarily, I thank the fathers and families who participated in the project; without their willingness to share their stories, insights, and experiences, this book would not be. Thank you, sincerely.

I also recognize those who helped with the conception, development, and production of this research. I am indebted to Professor Michelle Miller-Day for all of her mentorship, support, and encouragement on this project and many others. I also thank Professor Gail G. Whitchurch for exposing me to some of the classic readings in family studies and communication, and, in particular, introducing me to Family Worlds. There are a number of others who inspired, refined, and encouraged the development of this work. Chief among these, I thank Distinguished Professors Alan Booth and Michael Hecht, whose own research contributions and dedication to students serve as stellar role models. I appreciate Jon Nussbaum and Doug Coatsworth, my mentors and colleagues, who pressed me to substantiate every claim as well as distinguish between fact and inference. I also recognize Tom Socha for his tireless advocacy for family research and for his support of this volume as well as the editorial staff at Peter Lang, including Mary Savigar and Sophie Appel. Finally, I thank three others in particular who aided this work: David and Barbara Paden, who opened their sanctuary home as a serene workspace; my brother, David Pettigrew, for his diligent and insightful support of early iterations of my “analysis;” and my beloved wife, Breanne Pettigrew, who motivated me to achieve, encouraged me to write, reminded me the importance of family, and modeled the warmth, dedication, patience, practicality, and beauty of supportive communication.

—JLP ← xi | xii →

← xii | 1 → PART ONE

Stepfamilies, Stepfathers, and Communicating Support

In 1959, psychologist and sociologist Hess and Handel, published a now famous book, Family Worlds, a description of “typical” everyday family life. They studied “normal” families in the Chicago area and explored psychological and sociological aspects of these families. They describe in detail the behaviors, messages, and perceptions of multiple family members (adults and children). Their analysis centered on five challenges they viewed as common to typical family life. These challenges transcended both time and family structure and included (1) managing autonomy and connectedness, (2) synchronizing images of one another, (3) authoring family themes, (4) defining boundaries around and within the family, and (5) dealing with biosocial realities. The primary means at the disposal of family members to address these challenges is communication.

Family Worlds (Hess & Handel, 1959) gained its prominence as an influential research study through its thoughtful analysis woven into provocative description. In the five decades since Hess and Handel’s publication, however, the “typical” American family has changed (Casper & Bianchi, 2002; Coontz, 2004). Family historian Stephanie Coontz (2005), argues that families continue to experience unprecedented transformation. She and others assert that marriage has ceased to serve as the primary socially prescribed method for organizing sexual conduct, economic production, gender role division, and child rearing. Instead, affectionate bonding (the “soul mate” model of marriage) has become the primary criteria for long-term adult couple formation. Others point out that decreased family size, increased cohabitation, and a decreased age of sexual debut coupled with an increased age of first marriage illustrate these changes in families (Cherlin, 2010; Furstenberg, 2000; Popenoe, 1988). Family has experienced a diversification of form and altered pathways to what was once considered “normal” family development.

Prominent among these changes in American families is an increasing proliferation of stepfamilies (Stewart, 2007). It is estimated that about one ← 1 | 2 → third of children can be considered stepchildren and close to 20% currently live in stepfamily households (Ganong & Coleman, 2004). These children will most likely reside with stepfathers (Stewart, 2007; Ganong & Coleman, 2004).

While Hess and Handel’s (1959) work is far from obsolete—because all families must manage the five transcendent issues the authors identified—given the wide variety of families today, understanding the unique dimensions of particular types of families can aid practitioners and researchers in studying how they manage everyday life as well as how to make it better. Like Hess and Handel, this book uses a qualitative approach to paint an updated picture of “normal” stepfamily life with a keen focus on how support is communicated. But more importantly, the volume offers a contemporary update to Hess and Handel with an up-close and in-depth view of typical family life today from the point of view of an understudied, yet significant family relationship: stepfathers and children.

The first section of the book presents two chapters. Chapter one tells more about why it is important to study stepfamilies. And, chapter two explains what we know about fathers, stepfathers, and support processes as well as provides a conceptual framework for this volume. I conclude this section by sharing about the research methods and framework I used to learn about stepfamilies.


XII, 192
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (January)
relationships dynamics support
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 192 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Jonathan Pettigrew (Author)

Jonathan Pettigrew (PhD, The Pennsylvania State University) is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Tennessee. His work has appeared in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, Journal of Adolescent Research, and Marriage & Family Review, among others.


Title: Stepfather-Stepson Communication