Child Health and the Impact of Remarriage

Rising numbers of children face challenges and changes in family life.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, the ratio of second marriages among the total number of marriages was 11.5 per cent in 1991. This increased to 35.3 per cent in 2013, a significant jump. Hence, getting married a second, or even a third, time is now a relatively common occurrence in Hong Kong, meaning that a large number of children - and adults - are faced with the challenges and adjustments to family life that can entail.

In view of this, the Positive Education Laboratory, which is part of the Department of Applied Social Sciences, are collaborating with the Family and Counselling Service of St James’ Settlement to conduct a special research project. The aim was to study so-called intact families with those where there has been a “remarriage” by comparing the relevant children’s physical and mental health. The principal movers are Dr KWOK LAI Yuk-ching Sylvia and Dr LO Yiu-tsang Andrew, Associate Professor and Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences. Besides comparing the children’s mental health and general behaviour, the research is also looking at family structures and relationships and is investigating the risk and protection factors for children, especially those who now live with a stepfather or stepmother. The challenges faced and how they are handled will have implications when it comes to providing social services.

The initial questionnaires were answered by 340 intact families and 47 where there has been a second marriage.

The results show that children in the second group are more likely to have “internalised” problems, as well as “external” problems and depression. They also have lower levels of subjective happiness and self-forgiveness. Besides which, they generally spend less time talking and have a weaker attachment with their parents or step-parents, which may also have negative impact on their overall mental health. Moreover, the parents in these “second marriage” families tend to use more physical discipline or scolding than in intact families, a factor which relates in a negative way to children internalising problems.

In addition to the questionnaire, indepth interviews were conducted with three families with stepchildren. These revealed clear difficulties in meeting the children’s need for attachment and communication, which can be a root cause of later behavioural problems.

Also, some stepmothers who are in their first marriage may be under a lot of pressure. They may have had to assume care and parenting responsibilities immediately after the marriage, with little preparation or ongoing support.

Based on the above findings, Dr Kwok has proposed a number of suggestions which could be put into practice. One is to increase awareness of the possible mental health and behavioural problems and to conduct group sessions to facilitate the adjustment process. Another is to increase the attention given to parent-child relationships in marriages where there are step-parents and to suggest suitable group or family activities. It also helps to promote and strengthen the concept of the “parenting alliance”, with a division of labour and enhanced interaction with birth parents who live elsewhere. Finally, it is important to give support and attention to the psychological health and living conditions of any “incoming” stepmother. This is a good way of promoting acceptance and encouraging mutual support for the benefit of all.