203: Stepfamily Relationships with Patricia Papernow, Part 1

Welcome back to The Couples Therapist Couch! This podcast is about the practice of Couples Therapy. Each week, Shane Birkel interviews an expert in the field of Couples Therapy to explore all about the world of relationships and how to be an amazing therapist.

In this episode, we’re talking Part 1 of stepfamily relationships with Patricia Papernow. Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and your other favorite podcast spots, and watch it on YouTube – follow and leave a 5-star review.

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The Couples Therapist Couch 203: Stepfamily Relationships with Patricia Papernow, Part 1

Find out more about the Couples Therapist Inner Circle: https://www.couplestherapistcouch.com/inner-circle-new

In this episode, Shane talks with Patricia Papernow for Part 1 of a 2-part interview on stepfamily relationships. Patricia is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on “blended families” and received the 2023 award for Distinguished Contribution to Family Therapy from the American Family Therapy Academy. Hear why stepfamilies are a fundamentally different structure, how to have a healthy relationship with your stepfamily, the impact on the children, her 5 major challenges for stepfamilies, and how to navigate disciplining children.

This episode covers everything from stepfamilies to parenting. Here’s a small sample of what you will hear in this episode:

  • Why is there a lack of research on stepfamilies?
  • How can you have a healthy relationship with your stepfamily?
  • Should you describe a new romantic partner as a "friend" at first?
  • How do kids adjust to having stepparents?
  • Should you have these conversations without the children present?
  • How important is psychoeducation?
  • What age is most difficult for stepchildren?
  • How often should stepparents talk about parenting?

To learn more about Patricia, visit StepfamilyRelationships.com

Check out Patricia’s books at StepfamilyRelationships.com/Books

Check out the episode, show notes, and transcript below: 



 Show Notes


What is The Couples Therapist Couch?

This podcast is about the practice of Couples Therapy. Many of the episodes are interviews with leaders in the field of Relationships. The show is meant to help Therapists and Coaches learn how to help people to deepen their connection, but in the process it explores what is most needed for each of us to love, heal, and grow. Each week, Shane Birkel interviews an expert in the field of Couples Therapy to explore all about the world of relationships and how to be an amazing therapist.

Find out more about the Couples Therapist Inner Circle: https://www.couplestherapistcouch.com/inner-circle-new


Please note: this transcript is not 100% accurate.

Patricia Papernow 0:00
Stepfamily structure makes stepparents stuck outsiders and parents stuck insiders.

Intro VO 0:10
Welcome to The Couples Therapist Couch, the podcast for couples therapists, marriage counselors, and relationship coaches to explore the practice of couples therapy. And now your host, Shane Birkel.

Shane Birkel 0:23
Everyone, welcome back to The Couples Therapist Couch. This is the podcast that's all about the practice of couples therapy. I'm Shane Birkel, I'm a licensed marriage and family therapist, and I'm here to bring you have the most up to date information on how to help people have better relationships. So whether you're a therapist who's interested in learning more about working with couples, or a person who wants to have better relationships, I'm hoping this information will be valuable for you, I try to have conversations with many of the leaders in the world of couples therapy. So if you're interested, definitely subscribe and click the Like button. In this episode, I spoke with Dr. Patricia Papernow who's the author of the best books on step family relationships that I know of. One is called Surviving and Thriving. The other one is called The Stepfamily Handbook. And we talk more about that in the episode. But as a couples therapist, one of the most challenging situations that I've faced is when either one or both partners are bringing kids into the relationship. And there's a lot to consider with this, which is why I was so grateful to have this conversation with Patricia. And actually, we got to the end of the first meeting time. And we just wanted to keep talking. So we scheduled another time. So there's actually about two hours that we recorded. So I broke it up into two different episodes. Hopefully, my podcast editor can kind of smooth it out at the end of this one and at the beginning of the next one. But if you enjoy this episode, you can definitely tune in next week for the second part of the conversation. And as I said, I'm so grateful to Dr. Papernow for taking the time to teach about this. This is really almost like a mini workshop about working with couples who are in a step family situation. So without further introduction, here's the episode with Dr. Patricia Papernow. And she's the 2023 recipient of the award for Distinguished Contribution to family therapy from the American Family Therapy Academy for her work on stepfamily relationships. Hey, Patricia, welcome to the show.

Patricia Papernow 2:31
I'm glad to be here.

Shane Birkel 2:32
Yeah, I was really excited to talk to you today about stepfamily relationships. But why don't you tell everyone a little bit more about yourself?

Patricia Papernow 2:40
Well, I got into this because I was about six or seven years into my first marriage where I had two stepdaughters who were five and nine when I met them. And by then they were 11 and 15. And I was interested in how things had changed over time. And I knew it was partly that the kids got older, but it's something shifted in our family. So that was my dissertation in my first book on stages of development becoming at that point, we call it a remarried family. We don't call them that anymore, because many of them are not remarried, many are not married. And and I got hooked. So I've been doing this for decades now. And I keep learning more, and we keep learning more about what works and what doesn't and these families.

Shane Birkel 3:25
That's great. And I know that your book is one of the only ones that I could find out there on this. And you were just telling me before we started recording about there's such a lack of research on this or something, can you speak to that? There

Patricia Papernow 3:38
is actually a lot of good research, what there isn't, is good clinical training. This is as we'll talk about a bit. Stepfamilies are a fundamentally different structure. It creates some intense challenges for kids and adults and therapists. And if you use your first time family map, you're a little bit like trying to drive around New York City with a map of Indianapolis, a lot of wrong turns a lot of well meaning guidance that's wrong and sometimes destructive. I'm glad to be here because 42% of Americans have a close step family relationship, and there is almost no clinical training. Wow.

Shane Birkel 4:21
And can you mention the title of your I think, I don't know if it was your first book, the one that you authored by yourself? Or I don't know both your logist both your books, I guess so that people can know where to find that. Okay,

Patricia Papernow 4:36
to two books to look for surviving and thriving and step family relationships, what works and what doesn't. That was published in 2013. That has a lot of clinical work in it for those of you who are clinicians are in helping professionals about I wrote it for both step family members and helping professionals was and it seems to be useful to both. And the other publish more recently is the step family handbook with Karen Bonnell from dating to getting serious to forming a blended family and quotes we put always put quotes around blended family. And that one's written for the public in a breezier style. As you can hear in the title, it starts earlier and go step by step. There's no clinical work in it. No research is mentioned. They're both good. And my clients like to read both. And they are both on audio tape.

Shane Birkel 5:33
Oh, great, great. What are some of the let's dive into it? What are some of the things people need to consider when we're talking about step family relationships and helping people have healthy relationships with their step families?

Patricia Papernow 5:48
Well, I think the first thing to know is, here's the overview. Step families are fundamentally different from first time families. So we'll let's talk a little bit about what those differences are. And those differences make. I talked about five major challenges. Stiff family dynamics are pretty intense and complex. But having a map of those challenges help. And we have a lot of good, good research and clinical work now about what works and what doesn't, to meet them. Right. So let's start with how they're different.

Shane Birkel 6:21
Yeah, sounds good. Yeah, exactly. All right. And

Patricia Papernow 6:25
in a first time couple, I talked about first time families and sent families and first time couple has time together. Time to build trust, we call it attachment, time to feel comfortable with each other time to get to know how we need to develop some ways of doing things and to get to know I hate how he loads the dishwasher. But you know, to get used to the fact that he loads the dishwasher differently from the way I do. And kids in a first time couple enter the couple's established relationship. And really important for our story, kids in a first time family enter hard wired for attachment to both parents and vice versa. And over time, a first time family builds ways of doing things, values, how we do things, the second kid enters that developing network of attachment and ways of doing things. Also hard wired for attachment in both directions. When if that family splits up, you know how, in the in the States, usually two single parent families. And the stepparent enters as an outsider to that already established parent child attachment and ways of doing things not only between parents and children, but between kids and a parent outside the household, and all kinds of understandings about how we do things that no longer have language until somebody does something that isn't the way we do it. So stepparents have to build a relationship from scratch. And it is really quite different.

Shane Birkel 8:12
Yeah, as you're talking about that, I'm thinking to the whole transitional period, if a parents are going through a separation and a divorce, you know, that whole transitional period where everything that child grew up with, is changing as they're getting used to doing it one parents way and then the other parents way. And that that could needs to take probably a lot of time for children to adapt to the timing must have a big be significant when the new step parent is coming into the situation.

Patricia Papernow 8:46
You are absolutely right. And you've just foreshadow the first challenge. And here are the five challenges. The first challenge is that kids come into a step family very differently than the way they come into a first time family, kids. For kids, the adults are often thrilled. But for kids in a step family, kids often bring a huge sense of loss. They often have loyalty binds, and they're dealing with a huge amount of change. So that's the first challenge. The second challenge is that step family structure makes step parents stuck outsiders and parents stuck insiders. And we'll talk about a little bit more about that in a minute. And the third challenge is that parenting tasks divided parents and step parents. And step parenting and parenting are very different. They're both really important for kids. And we'll talk some we didn't we're learning more and more and more about what a good step parent role looks like. And the fourth challenge is we have to build a new family culture in the presence of at least two already existing cultures. And you already have kids and adults who have had a lot of loss and are not real interested. Sometimes and more brand new. And the fifth, last but not least, is another parent. At least one outside the family is a permanent part of every step family. And so is the ex spouse relationship, for better or for worse? Those are the five challenges.

Shane Birkel 10:18
Yeah, this is great. So is it okay if we kind of dig into them a little bit more? Absolutely.

Patricia Papernow 10:25
So you start with the first one. Yeah. So kids, kids spring losses, loyalty binds, and too much change too fast. So I'll first I'll say, what's what we know about this challenge? Oh, and let me say that I like to, I have a three level framework for working with these challenges. The first is psychoeducation, knowing what's normal, what works and what doesn't. I mean, we're taught to pay attention to process, especially as couples, therapists, and processes, very important in step families. And it's good to have a map, knowing what's normal, knowing what works, and what's not, is really important for step couples. Yeah,

Shane Birkel 11:06
that makes a lot of sense to me. As far as these situations go, because people are, you know, just normalizing their experience so that they don't feel like they're the problem. Like, you know, there are a lot of people who are facing these sorts of same types of issues.

Patricia Papernow 11:20
Absolutely. And, you know, when you're when you're trying to the reason I put quotes around blended, is that it's the wish more than reality. And as critical answers training for blending on top of these challenges, we add a whole boatload of shame and guilt and upset. You're absolutely right. So psychoeducation is really important. The second level is interpersonal connection. Successful step families and struggling step families face the same challenges. Successful step families have better skills, use better skills for interpersonal connection. So really important for you guys, as couples, therapists, whatever your training, this will really be important first step couples. And the third, especially because these challenges divide step by step couples a lot. And the third is inter psychic family of origin, work. And I don't start there in a step couple, the intensity of these challenges often leads therapists without training and step families to start with what in your family of origin makes it so upsetting for you step parent to be an outsider, well, being outsiders upsetting? So I always start with the first two levels, what's normal, what works? And what doesn't? And how can we help you hang in with each other instead of pushing each other away and making a mess? If that doesn't work? If the reactivity stays high or low, then I'm getting interested in what I call them old bruises, what old bruises are making this harder for you? And if we could heal some, you're never gonna like this. It's hard. And you'll have more resources. So it's those three levels. I'm mostly talking about the first today, just because it's so important.

Shane Birkel 13:02
Yeah, that's great. I think, you know, when people come into our office, and they're really struggling and stressed out about their, you know, step parenting situation or something like that, whatever the topic is, you know, I do think that's something that a lot of therapists jump to, to quickly, which is exploring their family of origin, they really just want to figure out how to fix the situation at hand. And we've got therapists, we might have insight that it's connected to other things like their family of origin. But, you know, we're really not speaking, we're not honoring what they're bringing into the moment, if we're just sort of go straight there, instead of really looking at what's in front of us first, I

Patricia Papernow 13:42
think that's really true. And I do start a genogram, it's on, I have a terrible memory. So it's a piece of paper, I still use paper on the left side of my folder, and I fill it in as we go. But I don't go to that third level until we've done the first two. So let's talk about kids come with losses, loyalty binds and too much change loss. You've mentioned that there's already the loss of divorce already. And study after study is telling us that when parents re couple kids lose parental time and attention. Now why is this First of all, grownups are just as absolutely Gaga when they fall in love as teenagers are. So they're sitting doing homework with their kid texting their sweetie, that they're sitting at dinner, texting, there's we and when that new person moves in, there's somebody new within that hot relationship that the parent is engaged with, that turns the parent away from kids. So kids, for kids, the adults, there's nothing better than finding a new sweetie. And for the kids, there's often a sense of loss. And the second thing is loyalty binds. If I care about my step parent, am I disloyal to my parents? If I care about my stepmother, am I disloyal to my mom? Please? especially in our culture, where we have an idea of family, there's two parents, and kids. In our culture, there seems to be an almost loyalty. Kids often feel loyalty bonds, those soften if the adults are all supporting each other. However, recoupling is often quite upsetting or anxiety provoking to the parent in the other house. And if either parent is bad mouthing, the other loyalty buttons can be really intense for kids. And the third is change, there's been a lot of change, a new step parent is a huge change for kids. And if that person has kids that much bigger, and often people move, and the adults want to move fast, they're in love, and kit for kids. As the pace of change goes up, wellbeing goes down in lots of studies. And for many kids, the adjustment to step family is actually more difficult than the adjustment of divorce. And we think that's partly because the change has piled up. So we often have to help couples slow down. So let's go and talk about how do we help kids with these things? Yeah,

Shane Birkel 16:08
great. Yeah. Well, one thing you said, you know, if parents are really accepting of the other partners relationship, and really explaining it to the kid and communicating well, and I was thinking, well, most people aren't doing that, I'm sure.

Patricia Papernow 16:22
Right, I think there is more understanding in our culture than there used to be that fighting and divorce is bad for kids. So the level of high conflict couples has gone down a percentage, but we still got them. And it is really scary often to you know, have mom Demio, imagine you've got an adult you didn't choose is now closely involved with your kids, and you can't supervise them. A and B, the worry that I'm going to lose my kids to this new relationship. So keeping the conflict down and openly supporting each other really helps kids. But let's go back to loss. Yeah, um, kids need one on one time parent with their parents. You know, step families really do need to spend time together doing fun things. Parents need to spend some one, some regular, reliable one to one time where their kid has their full attention. And that's the last piece, the change pieces, you got to slow down guys. And as therapists, we got to be empathic about this, you know, you're sitting with a couple they moved in within six months, that's great for them, and the kids are a complete mess. So we don't want to just say there's some skill and doing psychoeducation. You know, it's shaming to have information that you screwed up. So important to say, I totally get it, you know, you guys really wanted to move quickly. And it turns out, this is hard for kids. And unfortunately, you're moving with this. So let's figure out a way for you guys to slow down. If the couple has already moved in together, let's up the one to one time with between parent and child. And let's slow the family time. If you guys have not moved in together, maybe let's slow the amount of time that step here and comes over. Let's make sure we tell the kids kids say things happen and adults don't tell them. So lots of information about changes. Karen Bunnell who I know you have interviewed and who is my co author on step family handbook, Karen says, a new puppy is a great surprise for kids Janie's coming over tonight and she's spending the night is not a good surprise for kids and Janie's moving in next week is really not a good surprise for kids. So kids need warning, Janie is coming over tomorrow night, she will stay for dinner and then go home.

Shane Birkel 18:57
Right? And what do you think about there being a timeframe where they don't tell the kid that it's actually a dating situation where they, you know, it's a friend that they're having over for dinner for some period of time.

Patricia Papernow 19:13
That's a great idea. And you may not even have want to have the person if you can, if you can stand it. Not even have the person to dinner for a while, until you know, and everybody thinks a relationship is serious when you first start. We all think that that's how we're wired. But as we all know, it's different hormones when you get involved and when you're dating. So wait if you can until you're fully committed to introduce kids, and start slow, you know, run into each other in the park. A Tanda temple or church event or school event where that other person happens to be And here's another clue when you're with your new step parent, couple, your new sweetie. Pay attention to your kids. And that's hard for step parents good to mourn step parents. It's a not good surprise that when we're the kids, I'm going to need to spend my attention on the kids so that it's easier for them that you're here. Yeah. That's

Shane Birkel 20:17
great. Yeah, it's probably not the person's first. No, we shouldn't to do that.

Patricia Papernow 20:24
It's not. And here's, here's another one. Physical contact and step couples needs to be kept private. But the parent will often say is, I really want my kids to see a positive relationship. My wife and I never touched each other. Well, it's a good idea, except it's a wrong idea. It turns out when step couples are physical, that intensifies, all the stuff we've just talked about, loss. I've lost my parent. Loyalty binds. Ooh, Mama's in here, and the sense of change, it's too much for kids. So be physical with each other guys, but and do it in private away from kids.

Shane Birkel 21:02
Yeah, great. That's the first challenge. Yeah, so that was number one. And

Patricia Papernow 21:09
number two is what couples therapists are very likely to see right off the bat. Step parents are stuck outsiders, parents are stuck insiders. In a first time family when a kid enters the room, both parents are attached to the kid. The kid is attached to both parents. We do know from Marsha Klien Pruett's work, that there are developmental stages where kids hate mommy or hate daddy. But if I'm the one being hated, it hurts. But I have in my body, the experience of having held that kid, and having felt that kid totally attached to me, step parents don't have that. So every time a kid walks into the room, you know, say I'm the parent and you're the step parent, and my kids on the bus and she just made the soccer team or she did not make the soccer team. And she bursts into the house. Now, just before she burst into the house, you have finally gotten some moments with me. And you step parent are talking to me, You got my full attention. And my daughter burst into the ass Who does she need. Now step parents are really important for kids, as we'll see, but and it's her parent who is her secure base. She Burson says, Molly Mani Mani, and I'm a good parent, I turned towards my kid, in a step family, I am turning away from you. And that's a hard we humans aren't wired for this, we are wired to expect that the people close to us turn towards us. And when they turn away, it is upsetting. And it's you know, you feel invisible. You feel left, you feel rejected. So to know that this is normal, this outsider stuff, this is the not because you're failing, not because you were bad. But because the structure makes you an outsider that can be very, very helpful. And it makes me the parent, the stuck Insider. So I turn to my kid, I'm being a good mommy. And later on, you get up your nerve and say, sweetie, that was hard. What was hard? Or if you do it badly, here's that second interpersonal level, you say, You did it again. You let your kid interrupt us. Now I'm this, I turned on my kid and my sweeties upset. Now if I hadn't turned to my kid Mike, and turn to KIPP with my sweetie and told my kid to wait, my kid would have been upset. So stuck. insiders are constantly feeling they cannot please the people who are important to them. And now let's add in the ex spouse, you're the step parent, you want me to set some limits with her or him. And I know that if I set limits that are going to my ex partner is going to get even worse. So you are the stuck outside or on the stuck Insider. And insiders often feel inadequate, they feel anxious, they often get defensive, especially if step parents are unskillful and how they approach which is easy to do. And that second interpersonal level is really important for this challenge. Can step parents, those of you who are emotionally EFT trained can step parents learn to reach instead of to clobber? Can parents take a breath and here instead of getting defensive? Yeah, that makes a huge difference.

Shane Birkel 24:39
Yeah, that seems like a really important place where that psychoeducation is important. So it helps a lot because we're bringing assumptions that this should be easy. Why don't the kids like me? Why doesn't my partner deal with this better like, you know, and yeah, exactly. You know, and then parents

Patricia Papernow 24:58
will often say just Join in. Yeah, right,

Shane Birkel 25:01
right. And what you're talking about is really more of a framework for things to look out for. Here's this is a normal way to feel it's normal to get defensive. It's, you know, to sort of help them sort of see how that plays out and how it makes sense. That is,

Patricia Papernow 25:19
yeah, and I will often say, often CIP couples come in stuck in that inside or outside, or why didn't you? But they're my kids, what's your problem? And of course, that makes a step parent feel worse, they either withdraw or they attack and it gets worse and worse. So I often start by saying, timeout guys, can I tell you something about what's happening here?

Shane Birkel 25:40

Patricia Papernow 25:41
Yeah, when I start a piece of PsychoEd, I usually ask, do you want to hear? Can I tell you something that helps them sort of take a breath and sit forward and be ready? Yeah, you know, you're struggling and you're struggling, not because either of you is doing something bad, you're still our wrong, you're struggling because you actually live in a step family, not a first time family. And this structure makes us step parent, as an outsider over and over again, every time the kids come in. Parent Child are connected and you are disconnected. And outsiders feel left out. They often feel invisible. It doesn't feel good. And parent, you're a stuck Insider. Every time your kid or your ex reaches for you, you turn towards them. You have to turn away from your partner and they get upset with you. So you no matter what, how much you do, you can't please everybody you care about everybody important to you? Does that sound right? Yes. What's that like to hear relief? Can you tell each other? Because I'm telling them in front of each other? When important and couples work, can you tell each other that's a relief just turned to each other? And then I've got a little tiny moment of connection before they go back into their mess? Yeah,

Shane Birkel 27:08
can you? I mean, I want to make it explicit. I'm assuming a lot of these types of conversations are really important to have without the children present. Yes,

Patricia Papernow 27:20
absolutely. Move to the last challenge, which we you know, well, yes. What we know about is what's bad for kids is not divorce. It's not single parent families. It's not stiff families. The most robust predictor of poor well being of kids is tension, adult tension, and not just major fighting. But a tension raises kids. It compromises their immune response. It interrupts their academic functioning, and it also makes focus and attention more difficult. All Oh, that's because adult tension impacts sleep. So yeah. Take it to the sideline guys. Yeah.

Shane Birkel 28:04
Well, and even these sort of respectful, touching meaningful conversations about this is how I felt when that was happening. might be helpful to keep apart from the children so that the children don't feel like they have to, you know, be living up to some sort of, like level of performing for the the adults in the situation. Well,

Patricia Papernow 28:30
and so the adult the kid, yes, I think that's right. And the other thing is, these conversations go awry really quickly. It's best to have them offline. Right.

Shane Birkel 28:40
Great. All right.

Patricia Papernow 28:42
So these challenges are hard. But if you I have a thing I call pepper now is Bruce theory of feelings. If I if I bang my arm or the flesh is healthy, it hurts. If I bring it where I've got a bruise, it hurts a whole different way. If I have a deep bruise, you only have to touch and I um, you're gonna get a trauma response, fight, flight, freeze, submit. If you came from a family, where you were the stuck outsider, this challenge is going to be that much more intense. So again, I want to say to couples and same with if you were the stuck insider, I was the stuck outsider in my first, my first marriage, my husband had two kids. We were together for 10 years, we had a child together. I was a single parent for 10 years. And that in the first marriage, I didn't like being an outsider. But I'm the insider in my family. I'm the oldest and the only girl and I'm the caretaker. Many of us are new I get inside my first marriage when my husband needed to to go pick his kids up at the airport for the first few times I'd go with them. After that. I said you take them to McDonald's. And I'll see you in a couple hours. He would spend hours putting his younger steps ahead A younger daughter to bed, which I didn't like, but it didn't trigger me. I just said, honey, could you make it shorter. And I got a good book. My second, when I started dating with my, my kid was three, when I started dating, we had a child in that marriage. And so I was a single parent. When I met, my second husband was much more anxious, much more anxious, I got my butt back into therapy, because I couldn't please them both. So these challenges are, make intense feelings with no matter where you come from. If in addition, you have what I call a brute, bad bruise in a wrong place, they may be that much more intense. But getting some help to heal those old bruises can free some resources to show up for this challenge. Yeah,

Shane Birkel 30:47
and I appreciate you talking about your personal experiences. And it's good for people to realize, like, things that might be hard for other people might not be hard for you, and vice versa. Vice

Patricia Papernow 30:59
versa. salutely What were those terms? Yeah, right. Yeah,

Shane Birkel 31:05

Patricia Papernow 31:07
So that's the second challenge. The third challenge is really important. And we actually know quite a lot about about parenting and step parenting and discipline and step families. And this is a place where step couples often go awry. It turns out that both parents and step parents are really important. But parenting and step parenting are really different. Because of that difference in attachment. It turns out parents that are step parents everywhere, are not taught all over the world. Step parents everywhere want more limits and, and boundaries. For their step kids. And parents everywhere want more love and understanding for their kids. So my kid leaves a mess in the kitchen, she made herself Coco. You know, she's my kid. I also as a single parent, were was glad when she took care of herself. You walk into the kitchen, you like having a clean kitchen, and there is Coco all over the kitchen. And the kid who left the mess barely says hello to you. So one thing I did not say is if your kid in a loyalty bind, saying even saying hello to your step parent may be difficult. If you've had a lot of losses, and your dad or mom is really engaged with this new person, you're not going to feel real welcoming of a new person. So that kids challenges often mean that it is hard for them to welcome a new step parent. And so even a step parent who's pretty warm and accepting kids may be rejecting, which intensifies that insider outsider thing we just talked about. So back to parenting. Turns out we know a lot about what works and what doesn't. Step parents often expect and expect are expected to step into discipline. It turns out we have decades of research about this. Parents need to retain the limit setting disciplinary role. until or unless kids feel they have a trusting, caring relationship with their step parent. Meanwhile, step parents need to focus what I call on what I call connection rather than correction. Focus on getting to know step kids focus on being interested in them. Now that can be hard if that particular kid is in a deep loyalty bond and they're not talking to you. It's harder to pick the one that kid is most open to you find one to one things to do with that kid that are easy. You know, you have a really shy boy who is completely overwhelmed. But it turns out his stepmom was captain of her basketball team and the kid plays basketball. So the to play that they shoot hoops together. That works. You know, you have a 12 year old Oh, I forgot to say this about kids. Eight and under is much easier.

Shane Birkel 34:15
Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that.

Patricia Papernow 34:17
That's really important. Adolescents are much more hard. 12 year old girls are the hardest, which was the age of my daughter when I met my second husband. I don't know if this research had been done yet. But I sure lived it. So if you have a 12 year old girl, even if she's not a loyalty bond, she may be much more challenging. Just expect it. Yeah. And I just want to mention we are talking about families with young kids. The divorce rate in the United States is at a 40 year low. It's partly because the marriage rate is low, except over 50 Where it doubled between 2010 and 2000. I think it's 19. So that we call that Gray Divorce. And after Gray Divorce comes gray recoupling and the gray couple with adult kids now and grandkids. The fantasy is that dogs dead. The kids are out of the house. And it's just us. And when I teach, I put up a slide of the happy couple with the genogram. And then I put up a second slide with all of the other layers of kids and grandparents and uncles and aunts filled in with all the lines of for connection. Turns out, you're not alone. And not only that, there are decades of relationships now. These challenges are just as intense. And young adult and adult daughters turn out to have an especially hard time with later life dad's recoupling. So we could come back to that maybe Oh, interesting. Yeah, it's especially if the dad has been very close to that daughter because the marriage was bad. And now dad's in love. You've lost him. Right? Or dad was busy, you know, the marriage was not great. And dad was being a good provider. He was out working all the time. And daughter said, you know, he never even showed up for my basketball games. And I was the captain of the basketball team. And now he's in love and he wants me to now he wants me to come meet this new person. I barely have him. Why would I want to meet this new person? Right

Shane Birkel 36:29
now? I see how much time he has carved out for this other person that he never had for me.

Patricia Papernow 36:35
That's well put, Shana. I'm gonna borrow that. I'll give you credit. That the Yes, exactly. And the mistake that that couples make, and therapists make is, this is the reality. She's an adult. Well, yeah, that's the reality. The new couple is a reality. So is decades of parent child relationships. A reality? So the biggest mistake that adult couple that gray couplers make as stepmom says, You can't be with her unless less I'm there. Or dad says to his daughter, you can't be you have to accept reality. You can't be with us. Unless you can't be with me unless you're willing to have her my new sweetie here. It's devastating for daughters. Yeah. Yeah. And important for couples therapists. Big I call them easy wrong term. A big easy wrong term for couples therapists with these later life couples is make your couple primary. And that is also a big ABC wrong term. With step families with younger kids couple relationship is really important. We've talked a little bit about how challenging it can be really important to feed your adult couple relationship and oh, I left out and inside or outside or what we need one to one time, all through the family, we need family time where we're having a really good time together, doing something fun, you know, blowing up balloons playing in the mud. But we also need one to one time parent child we've talked about the couple needs one to one time. And step parents and step kids need one to one time without the parent. Because when the parent is present, that stronger relationship dominates. And the step parent is the outsider. So I've just distracted myself, let's see,

Shane Birkel 38:34
where are we? Well, well, no, that was great. That was really good. But we were talking about how to how the parents with younger kids can navigate the you know, taking authority over who's parenting and who's enforcing consequences and things like that.

Patricia Papernow 38:53
Thank you. That's exactly where we were. So step parents you're going to want to enforce because the kids behavior is more upsetting to you than it is to the parent. And it is important for step couples to talk a lot about discipline and kids offline away from kids step parents need to have a voice, they need to have input. And oftentimes we have to help couples really hear each other as this that interpersonal level. This is an easy one. For the step parent to say you should be punishing your daughter for leaving cocoa all over the kitchen and the kid says she's the parent says she's just being a kid. The step parent feels unheard and gets more frustrated. The parent feels more protective and gets more permissive. And that they're off. I call it the polarization polka. The more harsh the step parent wants to be, the more protective the parent wants to be. When in fact kids what kids need is it's called authoritative parenting. They need warmth and care and responsiveness and calm limit setting by parents And from step parents, what they need is supportive, leading with warmth, leading, not control. And here's some really interesting new research. We have some new research in the last few years that there are a bunch of step parent roles that work. We have research that positive relationships with step parents are really support kids health and physical well being negative relationships with step parents, and this is longitudinal research, much poor health and mental health outcomes. And there are some roles, very positive roles. And they there is a wide range from very close and engaged sort of parent like, more likely with the younger kids, to primarily focusing on academics, helping with school, helping with homework, to warm and engaged, but casual, you know, everyday talk about school about sports, and all three of those roles are connected to significantly better well being and kids. To be a, quote, good step parents, you do not have to be parents, like, you just have to lead with warmth and connection, not control. As long as you're leading that way. All of these roles, work for kids. And here's what we know about what doesn't work. We know authoritarian parenting by step parents, you will do this or else is toxic to step parent step child relationships. And we now have decades of research about that. It is the style step parents are pulled to. Because step kids, especially step kids that aren't talking to you are irritating. Right? Well,

Shane Birkel 41:49
so parents have had that type of parenting themselves growing up.

Patricia Papernow 41:54
Exactly. If you came from a family where you had authoritarian jump, and I'm supposed to say how I that feels natural. That feels a natural way to parent. And by the way, as a step parent, the parent, if the parent is doing good, authoritative parenting, they're leading with compassion and care. Okay, on honey, you're having trouble cleaning up. Let's help you do it. Four step parents raised in authoritarian families, that looks wimpy. Right. And so you have I call it a double whammy. If you're a stepparent, and you grew up in a family of jump, how high, you're going to, you're gonna have a double pull. Because your position in the family is going to pull you there because the kids are more irritating to you than they are to your partner. And the way that you grew up, it feels natural. And what I say to those step parents is you have a double whammy here. Right? You're pulled what feels natural and right to you. Turns out we know something about this one I hear. And I wait for them to ask. Well, I hear I don't think you'll like this. It turns out that's that parenting style that is most toxic to step parents to have child relationships, and you're living it. You're living it. You can, things are going awry. And maybe partly because your partner isn't being firm enough. You may be right about that. You may often when this goes well as I call it a collaborative ChaCha step parents can help parents firm up, you may need to help your partner firm up a little bit. But you're going to have the input. And the parent is going to have final say. And I can tell you 27 years down the line. My husband still thinks I'm a wimp with my daughter. Right? What's different is yeah, we kid about it. You know, it's not it's not it's not winter, not neither of us are triggered about it. And I am firmer than I used to be. But he's much more likely to say me, honey, you let her get away with that again. Yeah.

Shane Birkel 44:06
Oh my gosh. Yeah. But that's hard for someone to hear. But it's so important. Right? Because if their primary goal is to have a better relationship with their stepchild, and they can they can see that look, this isn't working. Let me give you some suggestions of what would work better. You know, that's such important information for them to hear.

Patricia Papernow 44:27
It really is. And you know, I always asked you what a 10 How hard would this be for you? And really hard zero is since it's going to be an eight. Okay, let's talk about it some more. It's gonna be an A, you may need to step out step parent. And step parents do need they need time away. This outsider position is really hard. Yeah. Step firstly, time outside the family where they're not still hanging in that outsider position. We are not irritated by kids who are feeling horrible with kids who don't even look at them. Right Go played basketball. Go join a volleyball team that gets you out at least once a week. So that leaves the parent home alone with their kids, which is better. Go see your Aunt Grace who adores you. Go see your best friend who adores you so that you have some, some experience of being an insider and being out of this hard position. And some people will say, well, that's not family like, well, it's not first time family like, but still parents need a break. Yeah. And getting a break makes it easier to come back. Yeah, absolutely.

Shane Birkel 45:35
All right. Thank you so much, Patricia. And thank you to all you listeners out there. Just a reminder that this is part one of a two part conversation. I'll release Part 2 next week. And we'll keep talking about step family relationships. As I mentioned at the beginning, for me, this is one of the most challenging topics that comes up when I've worked with couples. And so I'm so grateful for Patricia to take the time to come teach all of us a little bit more about how to do some good work with these couples and step family situations. So definitely go check out StepfamilyRelationships.com Get some copies of her books. And like I said, we will continue with part two for next time. Thank you so much for listening. If you are some therapists who's interested in learning more about the practice of therapy, or if you're someone who just wants to learn more about how to have a good relationship, definitely hit subscribe so you can get all the latest episodes. Thank you so much. Also, if you're interested in the couples therapists inner circle, you can click on the link in the show notes. But thank you so much for for watching. I'm Shane Birkel. This is The Couples Therapist Couch


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