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What is the Cinderella Effect?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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The Cinderella Effect is a statistical tendency for child homicides committed by parents to be more likely to involve a step parent. Child abuse in general is more likely to occur with step children than biological children. Researchers have put forward a number of theories to explain this phenomenon and some challenge the Cinderella Effect, arguing that the statistics actually point to a higher likelihood of abuse in step families generally, and biological, as well as step children are at risk.

Researchers began identifying this issue in the 1970s, studying rates of child abuse and homicide in families in a number of developed countries including Sweden and the United States. Researchers found that child deaths often involved step parents, at a rate high enough to be statistically significant. Many also noted that in these murder cases, all children in the family experienced abuse, but step children often bore the brunt of it.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the Cinderella Effect is the result of a lack of interest in step children. Biologically, raising step children confers no obvious benefit, because those children don't carry a person's genetic material. Researchers critical of evolutionary psychology argue other factors may be at work to explain this phenomenon. Poverty can be a noted contributor to stress and violence, and many child murders can be linked with poverty, as well as step families. In addition, researchers note that disabled children in particular, biological or step, are at very high risk of being murdered or abused by a parent.

The findings of researchers interested in the Cinderella Effect are important. Identifying potential risk factors for child abuse and murder can help social workers intervene before a situation turns dangerous and can also play a role in making decisions about child custody in court cases. Making teachers and other people who interact with children aware of the issue can also be helpful, as it allows them to spot signs of abuse early.

Critics warn that the Cinderella Effect should not be taken as an indicator that all step parents are abusive. While there is a statistical link between step families and abuse of children, particularly step children, this does not mean step parents are inherently dangerous to the children in their lives. Many raise children in loving, supportive households very successfully. What the Cinderella Effect does indicate is the need for appropriate intervention in a step family where the parents are having arguments about the children, particularly surrounding issues like discipline.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments

By tolleranza — On Oct 11, 2011

I think this theory and the statistics involved that led to this theory are important for school personnel to know. I know that I work in a school and had not heard of the effect and most important to me I did not know that disabled children are particularly at risk of of abuse.

This is important to me because I work in a school that is actually a very special public separate school, and 90% of the population of our student body is severely disabled.

It will make me look more into this statistic to find out if it is more likely to be a certain disability over others again just to know how to better be aware of the different needs or possible needs of our students.

By discographer — On Oct 10, 2011

@cafe41-- I completely agree with you. I read about the homicide of a little girl by her step-mom in the paper couple of days ago. This woman killed and completely destroyed and buried the body of her husband's little girl. It was such a horrible thing to read about.

The part that made me really angry is that the couple met online and got married very quickly. I don't really want to judge anyone, but clearly the father did not get to know this woman well enough before deciding to marry her and leaving his daughter alone with her at home. If he had been more careful about his choices and more protective of his daughter, perhaps this could have been prevented.

By burcidi — On Oct 09, 2011

I would be interested to know if the step parents who abused their step children were also abused by their husband, wife or other family member?

I agree that step parents might not feel much love for children whom they didn't give birth to. I think it might be easier for some parents to hit or yell at a child who is not their own.

At the same time though, I think there must be some other factors going on as well. For example, perhaps the abusive step-parent is also being abused by another family member and is taking out this anger from the child. If there is abuse in a household in general, I don't think that the Cinderella Effect can account for all abuse towards step-children.

By myharley — On Oct 08, 2011

I have heard of the Cinderella Effect before, and think there is a lot of substance to this thinking, sad as it may be.

Raising kids is not easy no matter what the situation is, but blended families face even more challenges.

My husband and I have four children between the two of us, and a big portion of their growing up years were in our home.

Not only can it be hard for the parents, but there can be conflicts and resentment between the kids, which puts even more pressure on the parents and their relationship.

When it comes to the well being of your kids, I think you need to be very particular about the choices you make as far as who the other parent figures will be in their lives.

There are many times where this turns out to be a positive situation for everyone. It's just that there are too many times when this Cinderella Effect has negative implications for other generations that follow.

By andee — On Oct 08, 2011

After reading this article, it is easy to understand why there is a larger percentage of second marriages that end in divorce than first marriages.

Whenever you add kids to a relationship - especially ones that are not yours - you are adding to the stress of the family dynamics.

This doesn't mean that it can't be done successfully, as many people do every day, but there are more risk factors involved.

It is just so sad that the children and step children have to bear the brunt of these bad choices in so many situations. Some kids are able to deal with it better than others, and really rise above it to become better people and parents.

For other kids, this doesn't happen, and these relationships negatively affect the rest of their lives. When they become parents, it is easy for the same cycle to be repeated.

By Bhutan — On Oct 08, 2011

@Cafe41 - Sometimes a child of divorce gets lucky and the stepparent actually does a better job of raising them than the biological parent does. My mother-in-law had very emotionally distant parents and when she was a young girl, her American mother decided to stay in Cuba and raise her younger daughter while my mother in law left the country with her father and went to the United States to live with him and her stepmother.

Her stepmother was like the mother that she never had. She dotted on her and took her places and really made her feel special. If it wasn’t for her stepmother, my mother-in-law would have had a hard time growing up because she was the only source of light in her sad childhood. So not all stepparents fall into this category, but I do believe that when a divorced parent does choose to remarry, they must choose wisely or the children will pay the price.

By cafe41 — On Oct 07, 2011

I never even knew that this Cinderella psychology ever existed. I do know that many blended families suffer a lot of stress and as a result and usually these marriages have a higher likelihood of divorce than first time marriages with no children.

I think that when you are divorced and have children you really need to analyze your romantic relationship to make sure that it is in the best interest of your child. Some people think this way while many others don’t. They don’t consider the child’s feelings or their perspective when forming a second marriage.

Many parents have unrealistic expectations that their children will fall right in line when they get remarried and it is not the case. I guess this is why when these “Cinderella cases” crop up it is because the stepparent has not formed a bond to the spouses’ child and therefore sees them as a nuisance and someone that is in direct competition for attention from the spouse.

I think that the incidents of these Cinderella cases would go down significantly if the biological parents of these kids stood up for them and put them first. They would immediately realize the mistake they would be making by marrying the person and have a chance to find someone more suitable.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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