Are Stepchildren at Higher Risk for Abuse Than Biological Children?

According to sociobiology, genetic preservation is at the core of human behavior. Because it is inherent in our genetic structure to ensure survival, individuals are predisposed to take measures to guarantee their genetic survival. In other words, they favor strategies and methods that will increase the likelihood of their family lineage being carried on. This is done through positive and negative methods. Positively, people have children so that their genetic tree can be extended to further generations. Negative methods of preserving genetic lineage also exist and include violence and aggression toward people who are not blood relatives. Based on these theories, it could be assumed that stepchildren are more likely to be abused by parents than biological children. In fact, some research has provided evidence of a 5-fold increase in risk of child abuse for step-children compared to biological children.

There is abundant evidence that children living in stepfamilies are more likely to experience sexual abuse. And children living with unmarried parents are also at risk for abuses including physical, sexual and emotional abuse. However, it has not been clearly established if stepchildren are injured as a result of their abuse more often than biological children. To get a better look at abuse rates among biological and stepchildren, Stewart J. D’Alessio of the Deaprtment of Criminal Justice at Florida International University recently examined data from more than 130 cities that was used as part of a larger study on abuse incident reporting. He looked at the biological status of the children, as well as the socioeconomic condition of their environment, as it has been suggested that disadvantaged communities have higher levels of stepchildren abuse.

D’Alessio found that children living in disadvantaged communities were more likely to experience abuse than those in socioeconomically advanced environments. He also found that the age of the perpetrator was influential of abuse. Younger parents were more likely to abuse children than older parents. However, there was no evidence suggesting that stepchildren were at increased risk for injury. “Contrary to expectations,” said D’Alessio, “Our results showed that the effect of a child’s genetic status on the likelihood of physical injury was in the opposite direction as predicted by sociobiology.” In fact, the stepchildren were less likely to be physically injured than the biological children. D’Alessio notes that these findings raise more questions for future research, and that that exploration should consider that many incidents of abuse are never reported. Methods to ascertain more reliable and valid abuse rates should be investigated in future work in this area.

D’Alessio, Stewart J., PhD, and Lisa Stolzenberg. (2012). Stepchildren, community disadvantage, and physical injury in a child abuse incident: A preliminary investigation. Violence and Victims 27.6 (2012): 860-70. ProQuest. Web.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • howard

    April 9th, 2013 at 8:57 PM

    c’mon! step parents are not monsters by default! I love my two step children and there is no way I could harm them.

    there are so many examples of biological parents abusing their children and step parents taking very good care of their step children. it just wouldnt be right to make such an assumption! whats needed is not a biological link but a genuine concern and care for the welfare of children. that is the yardstick a parent should be rated on.

  • sarah

    August 23rd, 2015 at 12:27 AM

    Hi Howard,

    Agree with you. Being a step parent the kid’s are taken good care, but they are the one being abusive towards me. Life is not easy when we are truthful and they are not.

  • john

    April 10th, 2013 at 3:53 AM

    so there are a lot of factors being examined here

    step children are more likey to be abused

    so are kids from single parent homes

    so are poor kids

    looks to me like there are a lot more kids being abused than just those from step parent homes. step parents can be very loving and inclusive and i think just pointing at them can give that dynamic a very bad name that it may not deserve in many cases

  • Bree

    April 10th, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    I suppose that in some families the old Cinderella story holds true, that the biological children are favored and the step chid is left high and dry. I have to say, though that this was not the case in my family. I have a step father who has always been my dad and he and his whole family have never made me feel like anything else than a real part of them. I may not have always appreciated that but as a step parent with my own children now it made me apprweciate those lessons that they taught me far more than any of them will ever know. I learned not to pick favorites or to do more for my children than I do for his because I don’t see things that way- his children that he had first are just as much mine as his and I know he feels the same way about my daughters. That is the lesson that I learned coming from a family with a step paremt and I only wish that this was the case with everyone who has this experience.

  • Raegan

    April 11th, 2013 at 4:05 AM

    All depends on the couple and the family dynamic that was already present even before the children enter the picture. If someone is volatile before, then chances are this will continue to be acted upon, maybe with a different target.

  • Katherine Palmer

    April 12th, 2013 at 7:22 AM

    Thank You for sharing article and those who share in the comment section. Unfortunately, i grew up in a home where the ‘step-children’ were abused by the step-father. I’ve learned over the years it being the ‘step-child’ that made me a target for abuse – it was because he was an adult-child of an abuser and an alcoholic. In the end i believe he abused his own two children with my momma [even though they appeared ‘favored’] because they saw the abuse he visited upon us and their Momma. imho, When abuse is present in the home no one escapes scarring the ‘favored – child/ren’ nor the abuse child/ren.

  • amanda

    April 14th, 2013 at 9:05 PM

    Well, I dont know what to say. Besides I would give my life to protect my baby, but when it comes to my 14yr old SD I wouldnt. She has even told me to my face she would never want me to go out of my way for her. An her mother isnt in the picture.

  • Donna Brewer

    June 18th, 2013 at 11:13 PM

    I totally disagree! I always try to be fair to my stepchildren! I have two stepchildren and as a matter of fact, I often times give my stepchildren the upper hand in things and punish them less harshley than my own children, because they are the stepkids. So I do not agree with this article!!

  • Dianne

    September 22nd, 2013 at 7:48 PM

    This article is not suggesting all stepkids are abused. But some definitely are just as adopted, foster, and bio-kids are abused. The question is the degree, intensity, and duration of abuse experienced by stepchildren and the situation in which the abuse occurred. We need more research to answer these and other extremely important questions. There are thousands of stepfamilies who struggle with highly complex, confusing, and challenging issues and dynamics. There are many warm,loving and positive stepparent-stepchild relationships and many who have an intensely negative relationship with one another. As Amanda pointed out, and something we must all recognize, there is a tremendous difference between the birthparent-birthchild emotional bond – that begin developing at birth – and those that form later in life between a stepchild and their stepparent. I am a birthmom. Over 25 yrs ago my husband and I merged our families and together we have a total of 7 children – stepparenting continues to be both rewarding and challenging.

  • Al

    April 3rd, 2014 at 7:28 PM

    Step-parenting is very challenging, speaking from own experience. But let’s be absolutely be honest you fell in love with your new spouse first, not the kids. If you fell in love with the kids you would be an adoptive parent, not a step-parent. Some steppers make that crossing and seem to get this adoptive love for their step children as well, however the majority will struggle. We just need to drop this political correct nonsense and face the facts, the majority of step-parents struggle and are more challenged by the complex situations than compared to a biological parent. The face the legal issues of not having any rights unless they adopt the kids. Not saying there are loving relationships to blossom but also building frustration for the step-parent and their spouse can mount quickly and put an end to fairy tale.

  • Lynne I.

    August 18th, 2014 at 12:25 PM

    I got married to I thought was a great guy. After honeymoon he turned into a monster. My exhusband treated my children abusively. I was dragged across the room by my long hair. He changed into a monster. I told him he had no right to touch my kids. He told me as long as they live beneath his roof they do what they are told. There was investigation by social services. He told them they made up stories. When I wanted to know the results of their, being their biological mom…they would not tell me anything..they said it was because of comfidentiality!!!! You figure. My 15 yo daughter said she caught her step dad peeking in on her changing her top!!! I should of shot him in his sleep and buried him in the back yard. I divorced him so he moved on to the next girlfriend who won’t marry him. Smart woman. I remember he took hinges off the door because they closed bedroom door visiting friends!!! I tried and tried but social services would not intervene. I was told by our Pentecostal pastor I had to submit to husband and go to hell if I divorced him and answer to God if I did. So….I divorved and he had his friend come to house to threaten me. I was chopping wood when this guy came instigating an argument!! I went after him with a maul and ran his butt off my property. Now this guy has a trial coming up for running a drug house selling drugs ten times to undercover officer. I regretted marrying the idiot. Think twice before marriage and take the time needed to know his character. I wished I had.

  • kishore

    January 13th, 2016 at 3:32 AM

    Frankly all are monsters, my mother in law in love with a paramour treated her children like commodities. Women who have paramour to BFs are really demons in guise of parents.

  • Rose

    February 20th, 2016 at 2:06 AM

    Nowhere does it say “ALL step-parents”…. It says “THE MAJORITY”. And I know this all too well because I was the step-child being abused. I was young when my dad remarried my step-mom. She got knocked up out of wedlock and her family is highly religious. So my dad married her out of obligation. I was happy at first, because she treated me like a little sister or a best friend (I was 4 or 5 at the time, she was 18; my dad in his 30s). As soon as she had my half sister, our relationship slowly started to skew. As did her family’s relationship with me. Her sister was always shitty to me and my dad, but the rest of her family joined in.
    Things only got worse as I got older. My half sister was never told “no”, so she not only started stealing my personal items and doing with them as she pleased (ripping apart stuffed animals from my family, cutting up shirts of mine, gluing pictures of my family (the side she has no relation to) on her “art projects” (after busting the picture frames), throwing glass figurines from my biological mother on the ground, just to use a tiny piece in some weird thing she was making…. She also started stealing from stores, if she didn’t get her way.
    My step mom had another kid with my dad, and they would often leave for hours, making me watch these kids while they were out getting high. There was one time I was grounded because they stayed out til past midnight on a school night and I went to bed, after trying to get my unruly half sister to bed. They came home to her breaking shit and my half brother eating cat poop from the litter box. My step mom yanked me out of bed by my hair and proceeded to beat me while my dad tried pulling her off.
    Her kids were physically abusive little demons, too. They’d do things like throw knives and rocks at me, run by and punch me and my half sister lived biting, punching and pinching my boobs, saying she deserves them. When I started defending myself from these things, my step mom would swoop in like a mama emu and beat the crap out of me, tell me how worthless I am and proceed to ground me. Should her daughter mess up, it was literally, “sweetie, you can’t do that…. No-no.”
    I was forced to clean up after her disgusting children. If I didn’t, I was berated and grounded. I’ve had to clean up weird “concoctions” her daughter made that would smell disgusting and grow mold, I’ve had to clean up her pubes and drenched period pads. Cinderella doesn’t have shit on me. In fact, one time my step mom was doing her berating, degrading me and telling me to clean her daughter’s messes and I said, “yes, your highness. Anything else, since I’m your slave?” She made me scrub the floors with a toothbrush, wash the cabinets down with my bare hands, then dry them with a single Kleenex (which obviously didn’t work well), scrub dishes that she purposely caked food onto with my hands, pick up her daughter’s pads with my bare hands and throw them in the garbage (outside), one at a time, made me pick up her dog’s poop with my bare hands, had me clean her daughter’s room, then made me clean both bathrooms with the strongest chemicals she could find, vents off, doors closed, with my dirty clothes. Once I was thru and crying my eyes out, she said, “how’s it feel to be Cinderella, slave?” And proceeded to ground me for several weeks.
    I kept to myself most times, but there were still instances where she’d bust in and say I’m grounded. Usually her kids screwing up and her “being fair” by punishing me, too (despite not doing the opposite). I remember her flinging my door open once, screaming, “WHAT DUD YOU DO IN THE KITCHEN?!” I said, “I didn’t do anything! I’ve been in here all evening!” She yelled back, “EXACTLY! You didn’t do ANYTHING! There’s sugar all over the counter and you did NOTHING!” I said, “well, I assume one of your ‘Angels’ did it, and I didn’t even notice, anyway, since I haven’t left my room since I got home”. Still got grounded.
    In high school, my dad brought me to a therapist because I was cutting and made a few suicide attempts. They asked why I was cutting, but I couldn’t think of a reason because anytime my step mom was in public with me, she tried acting like we were soooo close. If I cried for help, she just came fluttering over, smiling and hugging me, only to whisper in my ear, “shut up now, or I’ll deal with you once we get home”. Not only that, no one ever believed me, as I never had any physical bruises. My half brother would get beaten by his sister and I’d get blamed. CPS was called, it was so bad. My step mom always claimed I did it, when I rarely left my room. So, I got it in my head that I was the problem. That’s what happens when you have a narcissistic step-parent. It wasn’t until I left home for the first time that I realized exactly WHY I was so messed up.
    I got braver in high school. I started standing up to her. I had a friend that almost always picked me up to hang out after school. She would try grounding me, but couldn’t do much since I was never home. Which really made he mad. She complained that I was never home, to my dad and he talked to me about it. I just kept doing it.
    Once I hit college, we were constantly at each other’s throats. One day, she told me to take an eyebrow piercing I had out. I did. My dad noticed, asked why I did it and said I could put it back. The next day, while he was at work and I was walking outside, she cornered me and told me to immediately take it out. I told her no, because my dad said it was fine. She pushed me into a tree, pointed her evil pointer at me and said, “find your own damn way to college, because I won’t drive you anymore!” So I called up some friends, packed some bags and left. As I was doing this, dad came home. Alarmed, he asked what I was doing. I just burst into tears and kept walking and packing.
    Some time later, I had to temporarily move back. Step mom got rid of me as quickly as possible. Lived with an ex and ad to look somewhere else when he decided to move. Asked me dad if I could come back, temporarily.
    I get to the house, my step mom looking particularly sour, then she proclaimed, giving me a terrible glare, “it’s time for a family meeting”. They had all of us (me, my dad, my half brother and sister and evil step mom) meet in their room. Step mom stared crazily at me and said, “ok. Anyone have anything they want to say to this f*** up? Tell her what you REALLY think about her! Go ahead! [half sister], what don’t you like about your sister?” She went on to say she hated my tattoos (I was 19 at this time, so it’s not “illegal” for me to have tattoos), thought my piercings were ugly and they make me ugly. She glared at my half brother and he proceeded to tell me he hates how I constantly “abused” him, when 1: I hadn’t lived in that house for 2 years at that point, 2: tended to keep to myself when I DID live there and 3: wasn’t the one that “abused” him. And the word “abuse” was, in itself, abused. Those kids would hurt me, and as soon as I turned their way, start crying and yelling, “ABUSE, ABUSE, ABUSE!!!” (And I’d get grounded).
    My step mom proceeded to try getting them to go on about what they hated about me, my dad looking sadly at the floor. Step mom started in with her insults (basically those that had already been said), then said, “if you want to stay in this house, you’re going to have to live by rules… MY rules!” I started crying, said “f*** this” and walked outside.
    I started calling every friend I thought may help. My dad walked out and said not to listen to her. He said she told him shed divorce him if he let me come back and he told her to go f*** herself, write up the papers and he’d sign. “I’m not throwing my kid out on the street”, he told her. He asked what she’d do if he kicked her out and her parents wouldn’t take her back. Apparently she had nothing to say. He also commented on how he has noticed how terrible she and her family treat me.
    I moved in with another friend, then met a guy and lived with him for the longest. He had to move to his home state because his dad was dying, so I moved back in with my dad. Step mom spent the next week at her parents. Locked herself out of the house and beat on the door as loud as possible, calling my dad names. He unlocked the door and threw HIS car keys at her, as she’s a broke ass and has no car or desire for a job to get one.
    I stayed with them for a few months. Me and her didn’t talk unless we absolutely had to. I was saving money to move states to be with my guy. When I was getting ready to go, my dad urged me to tell my step mom’s family goodbye. I didn’t really want to, but her father actually treats me like family. He’s the only one I won’t call my “step-“. My alf sister was living with them. When she saw me, she laughed hysterically and said, “my mom’s gonna burn all your stuff when you leave! She said she’s waiting til dad leaves for work and is going to have me and [her aunt] help her burn it all!”
    So, I close by saying DO NOT marry someone with kids. As the kid, going thru ENOUGH trauma from a mother that wasn’t in the picture, unless you want to be almost solely (if not solely) responsible for COMPLEYELY screwing up a human to the point they think death is the best option, keep away…. If I had control over any one thing in my life, it would be that that evil woman was never my step mom….. Most other things, no matter how negative, I see as a learning experience. No human should have to go thru even a portion of what I had to! The only good to come from this is my guy’s mother is just as much of a witch as my step mom. She steps out of line and he says nothing (he’s like my dad), I know how to handle the situation. Find someone else! Don’t ruin a child’s life for your own selfish desires!

  • MB

    October 7th, 2017 at 5:07 AM

    @Rose…I’m so sorry you’ve endured that. I was an unwanted stepchild too, and my mom is still with him to this day. I don’t understand how she has been with this person for 20 years when he has mistreated me (and her too, sometimes!)
    You are correct about parents being selfish in choosing bad partners over their own biological children. My stepfather has been allowed to cause a lot of pain in my life, even now that I am grown, yet my mother does nothing about it.
    I always feel that if I HAD to have a stepfather, she should have chosen somebody better than this guy. I think some of the step-parents being defensive need to “step” back and try to understand where we (the stepchildren) are coming from.

    It is VERY difficult to be a stepchild, more difficult than being a step-parent. Being a stepchild often means you are unwanted and unloved…your place in the family is not a secure one if you have a stepfather/stepmother who hates you and doesn’t want you around.
    If you want my honest opinion, I think a lot of step-parents are jealous because the child is a constant reminder that their husband or wife used to be with somebody else.
    That’s really what it comes down to in many cases. They hate the child because the kid isn’t theirs and they want the kid to disappear so they can have the husband/wife ALL to themselves. Pretty selfish, if you ask me.

  • edna s

    September 26th, 2016 at 1:13 PM

    how many stepchildren falsly accuse stepparents of sexual abuse

  • jw chadwick

    February 6th, 2020 at 1:27 PM

    That’s not even relevant in this study, however if a step-child claims it happened?, Chances are more than likely it occurred. My dad, in some disturbing way, had sex with his step daughter all the while her own mother didn’t realize it even though numerous numerous family on her side absolutely hated my father bc they could see a change in their niece. So in turn, bc my father’s horrible treatment to his step daughter, My step mom would just put me through hell, for 15 yrs all bc she’s a Damn Coward.
    To this day, and it’s been 35 yrs since I realized this happened, and about 3-4 since my step sister admitted fully what my dad was doing sometime around 85? I despise both my father, and his 2-faced coward bitch of a wife. He recently died, and bc of him not having a will?, Everything my father owned?, Tools, guns, etc?, That bitch step mother is either selling it, or giving to anyone but me.
    Now, im really hating my o an father for what he did, and just as much despise her as well. She did nothing but Enable him, did nothing to stop him yet took her resentments out on me until 2-3 months ago.
    After 43yrs of listening to this step parent, walk all over me for decades, I told that miserable bitch to take it to her grave, and reminded her what FAILURE of a mother she was to blindly ignore what went on 35 yrs ago, failed to protect her daughter from a monster, a child rapist rapist husband that he was.

  • BigPoppaPump

    July 12th, 2017 at 9:35 PM

    StepParents are BY FAR the #1 reason children will be abused in a home. It’s not opinion, it’s peer evaluated and scientific & empirical evidence to support these facts. Stop being so defensive unless you are guilty. It doesn’t say EVERY Step parent.

  • MB

    October 7th, 2017 at 4:52 AM

    I agree, BigPoppaPump…I wish people would stop denying the truth. And the abuse isn’t always physical or sexual either…it can be verbal, emotional, mental, etc.

  • Brian

    August 9th, 2019 at 11:15 AM

    From my experience as a step child. My stepfather favored my younger half brother and there were times I was beaten to an inch of my life for minor infractions. A stray dog bit my younger half brother and I was beaten up like I was a grown man and thrown down a staircase for not being there to stop it. It seemed like he thought of every excuse in the world to try to murder me “accidentally”. These, and similar studies have confirmed my suspicions of step-parents all along that they at least subconsciously if not blatantly want the children from another parent out of the picture.

  • Joanne V

    November 28th, 2017 at 5:19 AM

    People must not be reading down to this para.: “However, there was no evidence suggesting that stepchildren were at increased risk for injury. ‘Contrary to expectations,’ said D’Alessio, ‘Our results showed that the effect of a child’s genetic status on the likelihood of physical injury was in the opposite direction as predicted by sociobiology.’ In fact, the stepchildren were less likely to be physically injured than the biological children. ” This article is saying via scientific study (and not just by what people assume), no connection could be confirmed between stepchildren receiving more physical injury than the biological children. There are other forms of abuse other than just physical, but unfortunately, those are more difficult to scientifically study, as what one may see as verbal abuse, another may not.

  • Steve N

    December 7th, 2017 at 10:09 PM

    I have a step daughter and there is no way I could ever love her like my own biological kid. However I don’t punish her like I do my own kids and I only suggest to my wife how she should be disciplined. I think she is an unruly and spoiled little brat but I’d never hit her. I just try to ignore her.

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.