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What Exactly is The Cinderella Effect

cinderella effect

Understanding The Cinderella Effect

Families come in all shapes and sizes.  No matter where you live, you probably know at least one family with only one parent raising the child, one child living with grandparents, and one child that was adopted.

Regardless of the make-up of the family, the caregiver-child relationship is one that is, at least ideally, full of love and a desire to protect the child from harm.  As a parent or guardian, you are charged with raising the child as well as you can, with the child’s best interests at heart.  Sometimes, however, in the case of a step parent and step child relationship, there is a “disconnection” between the love a parent should feel for a child and the actual bonding that takes place between the step parent and step child.

Multiple studies have shown that non-birth parents care for children across many animal groups.  Of course, humans exhibit the step parent and step child dynamic, but animals also have “step parents” as an evolutionary tactic to ensure greater survival.  The problem occurs when the step parent does not have the same interest in protecting the child that a birth parent would have, whether due to a failure to bond or due to an underlying resentment or abusive behavior.  In extreme cases, the caregiver becomes an abusive step parent – this is called the Cinderella Effect.

Definition of the Cinderella Effect – Abusive or Ambivalent Step Parents

The version of the fairy tale of Cinderella most people are familiar with involves a controlling and manipulative step mother, two step sisters that receive all their mother’s love and affection, and a neglected step child, Cinderella, who is forced to cook and clean and isolated from the rest of the family.  Cinderella’s father dies, but instead of embracing Cinderella as one of her own, the evil step mother shuns her and treats her like a servant.  The Cinderella Effect is named after this version of the story.

The Cinderella Effect is the mistreatment of or ambivalence toward one’s step child (or children) due to a lack of the selfless love that birth parents are wired to feel from evolution.  To qualify, this definition is based purely on the scientifically tested hypothesis that step parent ambivalence or abuse will happen more frequently than abuse or lack of affection and caring by one’s birth parent – it does not mean that step parents are incapable of loving someone else’s children, nor does it mean that all step parents abuse their kids.  What it does mean is that there is statistical evidence that shows that children are more likely to suffer from step parent abuse than abuse by a biological parent.  Statistically, more children suffer mistreatment at the hands of a step parent than from a biological parent.

What Causes the Cinderella Effect?

Scientists, doctors, and therapists that study evolutionary biology and psychology agree that the Cinderella Effect probably stems from one person choosing a mate based on the evolutionary desire to pick someone with whom the best possible genetic progeny would be produced – in other words, we are wired to assume that the healthiest and most attractive mate will produce the healthiest and most attractive children, thereby ensuring our species’ future.

When a person chooses a mate based on these factors, but the other person already has a child, the step parent has no “investment” in the offspring, as he or she did not contribute directly to the child.  It sounds harsh, but biologically, the step parent is then less likely to care about the child, and if the person is prone to violence, the person could abuse his or her step child.  The step parent’s lack of paternal or maternal empathy, some sociologists propose, has created a greater number of abusive relationships, neglect, and even homicide than occurs in families with biological parents.

Other Possible Contributing Factors

The Cinderella Effect has been studied the most in Canada and Australia, but as scientists do not have a large pool of data to pull from, there are many untested theories on other factors that may contribute to the Cinderella Effect.  In 1984, Jean Giles-Sims and David Finkelhor, renowned sociologists, proposed five theories that could contribute to the occurrence of the Cinderella Effect:

  1. The Social Evolutionary Theory.  This theory encompasses the above information that, because the step parent is not continuing his or her genetic line with the step child, the step parent is less likely to care for and protect the child.
  2. The Normative Theory.  This theory deals with sexual abuse of step children, and hypothesizes that incest and sexual abuse is less likely to happen with biological children than step children because of the evolutionary taboo on reproducing with a close relative.
  3. The Stress Theory.  Sociologists agree that risk factors for abusive parents, whether they are step parents or biological parents, include stress triggers like money (or more importantly, the lack of money), strained family dynamics (which would likely be present in a step parent and step child dynamic), and various other factors including substance abuse and health issues.
  4. The Resource Theory.  The Resource Theory stems from the idea that the more a person contributes to a family, the less likely that person is to resort to violence to assume control.  If a step parent feels he or she does not contribute as much to the family as a biological parent, the theory assumes that one of the ways the step parent feels necessary is to assume a dominant role through violence or intimidation.
  5. Selection Factors.  The theory regarding Selection Factors is probably the most controversial, because it proposes that the traits that make a person more likely to abuse a child (substance abuse, emotional volatility, aggression, etc.), are also traits that occur more often in people that become step parents.  As Finkelhor points out, this means that the higher number of abusive step parents could be due more to personality issues than the actual step parent and step child dynamic.

Remember, the above theories are not just theories about how the Cinderella Effect occurs; they are theories about the nature of neglect and abuse themselves.  No one wants to make excuses for a person who hurts his or her biological children or step children, but by considering the possible ancillary causes of abuse, perhaps therapists, doctors and social workers can develop better methods in preventing and treating victims of abuse.

What Does the Cinderella Effect Mean for Children and Non-Traditional Families?

The fairy tale of Cinderella has been told since its publication in France in 1697.  There are versions of the Cinderella story in most countries around the world.  Cinderella and her famous evil step mother is not a story about a step parent abusing a step child, however.  It is a story of one person’s persecution – so no one should infer that it is a tale that tries to tell some age-old truth regarding the inherently evil nature of step parents.

Some may read the research related to the Cinderella Effect and glean that step parents are biologically incapable of loving any other child but their own.  Others may assume that, even if the step parent loves the step child, the step parent will react violently to disobedience or as a method of controlling the child.  Neither of these conclusions is true.

What the Cinderella Effect tells us is that, in cases where a parent abuses or neglects a child, the majority of THOSE cases are between step parents and step children.  This does not mean that step parent and step child relationship cannot be loving, fulfilling, and ultimately a wonderful situation for both the child and the adult.  What we can learn is that, genetically and socially, a person may be more disposed toward loving and caring for his biological child than a step child, and that the social and emotional risk factors can be considered if abuse or neglect is suspected.

The concept of nature versus nurture plays in to this controversial theory as well.  How much does the nature of the step parent play into the increased prevalence of abuse and neglect – his or her personality, status in life, personal history – and how much does the societal effects of the step parent and step child relationship contribute to the increased risks of neglect or abuse?  Education and understanding are the keys to preventing abuse and neglect of any kind toward children, regardless of the family dynamics.

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