204: Stepfamily Relationships with Patricia Papernow, Part 2

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 2 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 204: Stepfamily Relationships with Patricia Papernow, Part 2

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

In this episode, Shane continues his talk with Patricia Papernow for Part 2 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 the benefits of authoritative parenting, how to maintain discipline, why it’s important to talk through things as a couple, the reality of parent-child attachment, and the impact of gray divorce.

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

  • What did Patricia talk about in Part 1?
  • How do you focus on connection before correction?
  • What is Authoritative Parenting?
  • How do we embrace the challenges of stepfamily relationships?
  • What boundaries are there between stepparents and stepchildren?
  • How should stepparents approach discipline?
  • What are the 4th and 5th challenges?
  • How common is Gray Divorce?

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
What works first of all, the expectation for the stepparent, as an adult in the family often is to step into discipline. But we now have study after study that tell us that parents need to retain the disciplinary roll.

Intro VO 0:23
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 0:37
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 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 tried 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. This episode is part two of an interview that I did with Dr. Patricia Papernow. Now if you didn't catch part one, you might want to go back to last week to the last episode. And check that out. We're talking all about step family relationships. And actually, we got to the end of our interview time. And we both agreed that we just wanted to keep talking about this topic. She's just really amazing. She's a great teacher. She has written a couple books on step family relationships that I would highly recommend checking out you can find out more at step family relationships.com. So this is part two without further introduction. Here is the interview with Dr. Patricia Papernow. Hey, everyone, welcome back. This is part two of the wonderful conversation with Dr. Patricia Papernow about stepfamilies. Thank you so much for coming back, Dr. Papernow. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Patricia Papernow 2:07
I'm really glad to be here. It's really important to me to put this information in the hands of people who can use it.

Shane Birkel 2:14
Yeah, that's great. And it was so valuable for me, I know, it'll be for everyone else as well. And we were right in the middle of talking about the five major challenges that you've laid out. And I think we were sort of getting to number three, at the time where we ran out of time. And I appreciate that you are willing to come back and get back into the conversation today. So this will be great.

Patricia Papernow 2:38
Well, let me go back and give everyone an overview in case you're joining now and don't feel like going back to the first one. Basically, the basic ideas are, first of all, 42% of Americans have a close step family relationship. And it is a fundamentally different structure. That structure creates five major challenges. And knowing what works and what doesn't is really important because if you use your first time family map, I often say something like you're driving around Los Angeles with a map of Indianapolis, you're going to give people a lot of wrong, and sometimes destructive guidance. So the five challenges, just to remind everybody are, first of all, that kids come into step families very differently than a first time family. Often the adults are thrilled, but kids are struggling with loss and loyalty binds and the pace of change. The second challenge is that the structure creates insiders and outsiders in the step couple, that parent is attached to the kid, they have a history with the kid. And the step parent is an outsider to all of that and an outsider to the ex spouse relationship. And outsiders feel invisible and left out and insiders feel torn. And we have to help people. First we have to normalize it that it's not you. It's the structure. And then we have to help people connect. The third challenge is parenting. Parenting and step parenting are very different. And parents and step parents are often divided over discipline. The fourth challenge is we have to build a new culture. But it turns out we are we have to already at least two already existing cultures, we have to build that new culture while integrating respecting existing cultures. And the fifth challenge is there is an ex spouse married or unmarried. There is another parent outside the family who is a permanent part of every step family. So those are the the third, fourth and fifth are the ones we're going to hit today.

Shane Birkel 4:47
Yeah, that's great. So let's dive into number three, the parenting section. And we may I've can't remember we, you were it was so helpful for me to listen to you last time, and I learned so much, and I can't remember, you know, we were talking a little bit about the authoritarian versus authoritative. But let's get that take it from the top as far as the number three parenting section,

Patricia Papernow 5:12
okay, because neither of us can remember exactly what we're talking about, right? So let's take it from the top that we know we have lots and lots of research that authoritative parenting by parents gets the best outcomes for kids on every measure imaginable. authoritative parenting leads with warmth, and responsive empathy, and sets calm, firm limits and follows through on them. authoritarian parenting leads with control tends not to be warm. And so do what are else. And then there are two other parenting styles in the research permissive. Gee, honey, whatever you want to do is fine with me. Lots of loving not enough structure and limits and disengaged parenting and what I have kids, we often see disengaged parenting, by the way, after a spouse has died. Sometimes the remaining parent is so absorbed, they're not present. So the dilemma is, first of all, parenting and step parenting are very different. And most people never never get any exposure to how and and we are learning more and more about how important step parents are to kids. So I'm going to start with what works. What works. First of all, the expectation for the step parent, as an adult in the family often is to step into discipline. But we now have study after study that tell us that parents need to retain the disciplinary role. Parents need to retain the limit setting role. Step parents need to focus on I call it connection rather than correction, leading with warmth, being supportive, not control. The dilemma is that step parents all over the world want more limits and boundaries with their step kids and parents all over the world want more love and understanding for their kids. So step parents

Shane Birkel 7:32
and step parent.

Patricia Papernow 7:34
That's right, exactly. They want more love and understanding from their new partner. Kids behavior is more irritating to step parents. And often what is might even be authoritative parenting by a step by a parent may read as permissive to a step parent. So you know Joe's kid, Janie leaves a mess in the kitchen. She's made herself Coco there's Coco everywhere. And Joe's new partner walks in, I'll call her Mary and sees the mess. And she's used to a clean kitchen. Now, in her mind, if Joe had raised his kids, right, they clean up and here's my you know, I was a single parent. I'm glad that my kids make their own coke off. There's a little mess. What's the big deal? That that easily pulls the step parent into you better get her to clean up or else moving inching towards that authoritarian it easily then the step the parent wants to protect their kid, she's just being a kid, easily tubs this parent into more permissive. Whatever she does is fine with me whether my kid does and that makes a stepparent more desperate. And so this stepparent gets more rigid, you better get on our data, and parent gets even more permissive. And now I call it the polarization polka. And it's those of you who are Emotionally Focused Therapy EFT trade. This is a cycle you will see in step couples, it really important that you have the content of this theme, and that you understand that is the structure that creates these positions that will be helpful to people. What kids need is authoritative parenting from their parents. They do need some limit setting and they need warmth, not control from their step parents. So that makes this challenge particularly challenging. Add to it that most couples don't know that parents supposed to retain the discipline. Most couples don't know that. One step parents step into discipline. The kids aren't ready and worst is if step parents step into authoritarian discipline, but a To the place that step parents are most pulled towards. In fact, we have now several decades in research that when step parents parent in an authoritarian you will do this or else it is toxic. For step parents step child relationships.

Shane Birkel 10:15
Well, I love that you brought in the the idea of the EFT cycle, right, because a parent who was never particularly permissive before, all of a sudden, there's a step parent coming in, who's being a little bit authoritarian, or something like that. And that this, I have a feeling this cycle would play out between the couple, and they sort of become entrenched in the cycle. And there might be a lot of stuff to explore underneath the surface of why they're sort of seeking the things that they're seeking.

Patricia Papernow 10:44
That's correct. And some of it is the structure. Some of it is parents, and I've taught all over the world. Stepparents everywhere want more limits and boundaries. These aren't their kids, they don't have that. If you're a step parent you never held this kid is a baby. If you're a parent, you help this kid as a baby, you are in love with the kid and the kid was in love with you. And you've been through all kinds of dirty diapers and you know, skin knees, and you have that loving connection. Step parents don't have that. And harking back to the first session, which those of you haven't gone back to need to go back to. Kids are often in a terrible loyalty bind. If I care about my step parent, I'm disloyal to my parents, especially if there's any conflict. And for kids, they've lost their parent when they're apparently couples. So in addition to all of that, in addition to the fact that the step parent doesn't have that old experience of holding this baby and having a baby be in love, and you being loved, kids are often rejecting of step parents. So how much worse for Joe's partner? If the kid leaves the mess in the kitchen barely says a lot of the step parent, it's that much more irritating, put kerosene on the fireplace. So yeah, and I think having this content is really helpful, really helpful to couples, as you track cycles like this. Well,

Shane Birkel 12:09
yeah, and I think I mentioned this last time, but I just love the way that you sort of normalize the experience for couples. And I feel like that's so important so that they don't feel like it's not like there's something wrong, particularly with them as people. These are things that so many people struggle with in these types of situations.

Patricia Papernow 12:26
Yeah, and I think it's very normalizing I think, is one of the most powerful things we can do. I like to lead with empathy, because anytime you're providing new information, you potentially are shaming people. And there is already a ton of shame here that we're not succeeding quote. So I often will say something like, you know, this is really painful. Betting you've had this conversation before, I don't usually laugh, I'm betting you've had this conversation before, it's really painful. I just want you to know and the more you go, here, I have a Foursquare chart where authoritative is in the upper left. Authoritarian is the upper right and permissive is the lower left, disengaged in the lower right. And I can hold up that charter, pick it up off my laptop, if I'm on Zoom, and say, the more you go here, them more you go here. And then the more you go here, and the more you go here. It's a cycle, we call it the polarization poke. And I just want you to know, this is happening not because you are failing, not because something is wrong with either view. This is happening, because you live in a step family. And step families push stair prep step parents up into this upper right corner, you don't know these kids. And lots of times, they're not real thrilled to have you. You know, you didn't you know, Joe's already told you that the CoCo was okay with him. You don't have that history. He didn't parent these kids as a single parent. And you never held her as a baby and felt her be in love with you. She's not in love with you, just pretty rejecting of you. And so and you, Joe, you know, you're the parent, you care about your kid. You're the stuck Insider. And you know, we talked about that in the first session and you step parent or the stuck outsider, and this structure pushes you into these corners. So we can't change the structure. What we can do, and we probably won't change the difference. I can tell you I'm in a step family for almost 30 years, my husband still thinks I'm a whim, daughter. What we can do is change how you talk about it. Because here's the other piece of reach research, successful step couples, and struggling step couples face the same challenges success footstep couples have better interpersonal skills. And it takes a lot more skill to talk across a difference and get connected. We're learning this in the United States, and we're not doing it too well. It's much harder. So what I'm going to do is support you guys in how you talk about this. So that you can each hear each other. And ultimately, I Well, here's what I find, guys, I find step parents can help parents firm up a little bit. And parents can help step parents warm up a little bit, understand where kids are coming from, and the difference will still be there. But you can collaborate. And here's the last piece step parents do need a voice. Step parents often have a lot out of it to add to the conversation. And parents do you need to listen and take in? And step parents have input? Parents have final say with their own kids?

Shane Birkel 16:05
Yeah, that's great. Yeah, and I love how you framed it as for the step parent, to focus on connection before correction, yes, you know, because these situations play out in a lot of different ways. Sometimes the step parent comes in and wants to be super involved right away. Sometimes the step parent comes in, and the parent wants to step parent to be super involved, right, react, sometimes. Neither one wants to step parent to be very involved. You know, there's all kinds of ways that this could play out. And I think, you know, when you have a situation where the step parent is trying to be super involved, and trying to be super corrective, you know, it's really helpful to let them know that, you know, to bring to focus that the relationship with the family members is the number one priority and the connection with the kids is the most important part of their responsibility. And and helping the parent probably as you're talking, you know, helping the parent to be more proactive about the Yeah,

Patricia Papernow 17:12
on the sidelines. Yeah, for sure. Behind closed doors. Yeah, I have a colleague who's also stepmother, she says relationships before rules. And there are lots of ways to do that. One really important one step parents is one to one time with your step kids without the parent present. Every time the parent is present, that stronger older relationship will dominate. And you will be the outsider. So find some one to one thing, start with your most available step kid. fun one to one things Shy, shy adolescent boy likes to play gap basketball can barely look at his step mother, step mother was captain of our basketball team. So the two of them shoot hoops. They barely talk, but they shoot hoops. You know, a really, as we said in the first session, 12 year old girls have the hardest time with step families. You've got a 12 year old girl who likes to bake stepmom and 12 year old make bake dad's birthday cake. And maybe eventually they bake all the cakes for birthdays. Those kinds of one to one activities helped a lot. And now we have some new research just in the last couple of years about specific step parent roles. And this is quantitative research meaning looking at big numbers. And the research is This is Todd Jensen's research that there if step parents lead with warmth, rather than control with connection, not correction, there is a wide range of step parent roles that are linked to very better wellbeing a kid's good well being kids right. The first is what you know more parent like emotionally involved over a whole range of activities emotionally close, more likely with step mothers and step daughters than was stepfathers. A large percentage. That's one a large percentage of step parents focus mostly on academics, helping kids with schoolwork. And then the that the third style is not particularly emotionally close, but warm. Present, kind of involved in everyday conversations about you know, school and friends and dinner. And as long as step parents lead with warmth, not control, lead with connection not correction. All three of those are connected to very good well being in kids and Quebec kids with those warm casual, presents step parents have Oh, wow. Well, significantly above the average self esteem,

Shane Birkel 20:04
that's an adult that can have such a huge impact on the kid's life.

Patricia Papernow 20:08
And let's talk about the negative impact. Because some earlier research this is also touched Jensen's research has found and this is longitudinal research, meaning research over time, which then gives you much more cause and effect. When there is a negative step parents step child relationship. We see poor mental health and poor physical health download down the road in kids. And what's negative? Well, negative is leading with that authoritarian that we were just talking about. Harsh, negative, saying negative things mostly. And the other thing that Todd discovered in this most recent research is very distant step parents step child relationships are also linked to poor well being. It is interesting that he found that those very distant step parents step child relationships are in the framework of a family where the whole family is distant, the couple is distant. The parent child relationship is distant, that the relationship of the child to the parent and the other family is distant. And that distance is not good for anybody in the family.

Shane Birkel 21:23
Wow. I don't know if that's a good segue into the new family culture number four, talking a little bit about that. Because I feel like you know, some of the things you're touching on are about how that all comes together.

Patricia Papernow 21:37
Absolutely. So the fourth challenge is we want to make a new family. And we got two different cultures here. So since it's Christmas time, I'll tell my Christmas story. It's Christmas and Joe and what did we call his wife? I don't know. Did I name his wife? I can't remember. No. Okay, I'll name her. Diane. It's Christmas and Joe and Diane's step family Joe's the parent Diane's a stepparent, he's got two kids, a girl of maybe 10 or 12, and a boy of let's say, six or seven. And Diane is thrilled that it's Christmas and she starts decorating the Christmas tree with white lights. And Joe's daughter comes in, takes one look at that Christmas tree and burst into tears, goes into a room and slams the door. Now, Diane thinks her stepdaughter has ruined Christmas. Joe knows his daughter's used to colored lights. But he's in that frozen insider position. He feels really anxious. So he gets frozen. And the stepdaughter is in her room crying alone. And this is how it happens if it goes badly. She calls her mother and two of them decide that the new step mother's a witch. So that's how it goes if it goes badly, right? Here's how it goes. If it goes well, if it goes well. That step mother's decorating the tree with white lights. stepdaughter sees it falls apart, runs to her room. Step mother and Joe stared at each other for a moment, Joe pulls step mother into the pantry or someplace private and gives her a hug because physical contact in front of kids in a step family turns out to intensify losses and loyalty bonds and the pace of change. Do snuggle I always say be physical and affection but do it in private. He gives her a hug. He says I'll be back. And he goes to his daughter. And he walks in and sits down at Zara she's sobbing and Joe is either wise enough or hasn't had enough. Good support and parenting to be able not at what he wants to say is it's not such a big deal. Calm down, let's have Christmas. But instead he is able to put his arms around his daughter and say all Sweetie, you're so upset. This is so many changes. And if he's had some education about stepfamilies, he can say so many changes, so many changes. This was one to many, one to many. That's Attachment Parenting and what we know about Attachment Parenting is it's calming to kids. She was She screams and cries for a little bit. And then she starts to calm down. And then she blows her nose, and everybody gathers in the kitchen, maybe over cocoa, and they tell each other stories about the Christmas trees they grew up with. Because these stories are not shared and step families you have to proactively on purpose, share them. So that's if it goes well. And then by the way, stepped out it doesn't have to call her mother All right. So here's the deal there. There is this expectation that we are this new new family. But what I say is we got to change the metaphor. The metaphor in the United States is blended family. And I never correct people because that is the language we use. I put it in my workshop titles and article titles all the time. But it always put quotes on it. Because it captures the longing more than the reality of a new step family, or at sometimes ever step family all the way along, there are still these differences in my family 30 years down the road. So I like to change the metaphor rather than putting strawberries and blueberries together and blending a smoothie. A step family is really a lot more like bringing a group of Japanese together, and a group of Italians together and say live closely and be a family. Now the Italians, you know, when they slap each other on the back and fight and engage and to this Japanese that is root and intrusive. The Japanese, at least in the beginning are more contained, and more careful. And that is distant relatives distant by the Italians, when it isn't felt this distance at all by the Japanese. That is the nature of a new family. When you've put two cultures together there. There's a lot of I call it learning by goofing. There's no way around it, when, and oftentimes couples are advised to talk ahead of time, which is really important talk as much as you can. But so much of what feels right. And as it should be, it no longer is in language, until somebody breaks an expectation, it wouldn't have occurred to Joe and his new partner to talk about Christmas tree lights. It just was how it is. Right? Until somebody put lights up that were the wrong light. Now learning by goofing when I say to step families is this is going to be normal in your family, it is a hard way to learn. Because when there's a break in expectation, there's a spike of arousal you want if you know, oh, another one? Okay, what do we got to learn about lights? If you know that it helps you take a breath and calm down. And when you're calm to come back, and okay, teach me about Christmas tree lights, family, and I'll tell you about three lights and my family? Well, I

Shane Birkel 27:38
think that, you know, it's so easy for us, as human beings to go to this place of like intent, where I think to myself, I'm offended, that somebody is doing something like this, they must be acting offensively. And I think that's such a valuable thing that we can provide as therapists as a way of reframing the situation so that people don't feel like it's not because anybody's trying to do something mean or trying to be offensive or something. It's, you know, these two very different I love the analogy of these two very different cultures who are coming together. And there are going to be like, when those expectations don't meet the reality of what happens, then there's going to be a lot of feelings that come up and having ways of talking about those feelings, being curious about those feelings, navigating that, instead of going to blame and judgment and criticism about, you know, that if somebody Yeah, as if somebody meant to be hurtful. Right, exactly. I

Patricia Papernow 28:39
think you're right. You're absolutely right. And I also think we do have to normalize or embrace that there is a spike of arousal, this is a hard way to learn. This is not a fun way to learn. So there is going to be a spike of what, yeah, and to put your arms around that spike and let it be there. Take a breath, wait till it comes down again, and then engage.

Shane Birkel 29:06
I was gonna say, I think this happens in any family. You know, where, you know, the thing, even if I've been with my wife for 15 years, she does things where I'm like, why would you do it that way? I still think to myself, like, why would you do it that way

Patricia Papernow 29:21
to do it that way? It's time couples, though, do have some time before kids arrive? Right?

Shane Birkel 29:27
Well, and I was gonna say differences. It's so much harder. Instead of family situations. I imagined sometimes, especially for the kids who are already trying to adjust to this whole new reality, and dealing with all the feelings that are coming up. And then this, this outsider person is doing these things. And it's just, you know, it feels so extreme and it just feels so sort of justifying their negative mindset toward the person perhaps in some of these situations.

Patricia Papernow 29:57
Absolutely. And I think you've sort of segues us into the next piece of this challenge, which is, there is what I call an easy wrong turn. Telling step couples to make a whole list of family rules for everybody to abide by. And the dilemma for that is it's too much change too fast for kids. And actually, for adults, so kids start breaking the, quote, new rules, and the parent understands why the parent kid is breaking the rule, or breaks the rule themselves and doesn't step in and discipline. And so what I say is that making a whole new set of rules is a little bit like trying to solve this Japanese and Italian problem by having everybody eat pasta with chopsticks, is going to make a lot more misery than unity, you're really going to have to go a step at a time, start with two or three changes. And concentrate, focus on the changes that make it safe for everybody. Although even with those changes, you know, you want to have this same amount of change on each side of a double family. So not before entering may be a perfectly reasonable rule in Joe's family. But in step, mom's family there used to sort of live in in each other's rooms. So knock before entering is going to take a lot more muscle for the kids on that side of the family than for the kids on a Joe side of the family. So to be aware of how much change you're asking of each set, and what that means is you're going to live with some differences, especially if you've got a double set of kids. So I raised my kid on Grape Nuts. Oh, wait Syria. The first time we went to her step to be stepfathers house. First time on we entered Steve's house. She opened the pantry door floor to ceiling sugar cereal. Sure ice got as big as saucers. So we're sitting at breakfast. I'm not going to make my stepkids eat whole wheat cereal. Are you crazy? And I don't want my kid eating sugar cereal. So my daughter says why can I have sugar cereal and I say, sweetie, we have two different families coming together. And their family they eat sugar cereal, and our family wheat whole wheat cereal. When you grow up you can decide which you think is better for your kids. For now, eight your whole wheat cereal. You can have a little bit of sugar cereal for breakfast dessert. And and then I'm going to ask my partner to monitor well whether his kids are teasing my kid. Now I actually monitoring I can do as a step parent. Honey, Becky was teasing Dina about her her sugar cereal this morning. Would you say something to her? Now I as I want to go back I as a step parent can say something to my step kid. However, I have to lead with very skillful ways of talking that make connection, not disconnection. So I can't I am not going to say to my stepdaughter, you will stop that or else. That's authoritarian parenting, it would work if her father said it. I'm going to say to my stepdaughter, sweetie, I'd love it. If you'd stop doing that. It's too hard. It's too you know, I understand. But it's too hard on Dana, I really need you to stop. And I've said it in a soft voice. And I've used I love it IV, which I call a sentence stem, which really helps. So back to culture, two or three changes at a time. And in a double family. That means you may have some differences for a while. And can the couple hold hands under the table? And can you calmly help kids get Yep, they're allowed to drink coke with their lunch, you have to drink milk. We've got two different families here. When you grow up, you can decide what you think is best. Meanwhile, you can trick your milk. Now one of the things that's really tough these days is having to navigate. And this sort of eases us into the fifth challenge which is ex spouses having to navigate different cultures between houses. Oh, right. Yeah. So I have a wonderful young step family colleague, I put together a thing I call the step family schmooze. There are maybe one or two or three clinicians, trained clinicians in the country. And there are a lot of researchers wonderful, wonderful research. We don't talk to each other. The researchers and the clinicians go to different conferences and in fact, the researchers, some of them go to the communications conference as something go to the quantitative comm you know, they're all these different pods of research. So I thought we got to get together and just schmooze. And one of the women in that, as she said, wonderful researchers in Alabama said her, her stepdaughter came home saying gays are an abomination. Now, my colleague has a lot of cane transplants. That's

Shane Birkel 35:20
a tough, that's a tough one.

Patricia Papernow 35:22
She said, she said, you know, there are a lot of different opinions in the world. Lots of people have a lot of different opinions. And we want you to form your own. You know, in your other family, that's what they believe. In this family. This is what we believe we believe all people are humans, and good people, just like, you know, Jane, and Jill, our lesbian friends, and Thomas, our trans friend, all of these folks are human. And all these books deserve our goodwill. And you know, one thing our two houses agree on is you've got to treat people the way you want to be treated. And when you grew up, you can you can decide what you think about this. Actually, I don't think she said when you grow up, I think she said you will find your own, or you'll decide what you think about this. Not surprising, this is quite a mature little 10 year old, very, because she's been treated this way. And I don't know where my colleague got to split this. Yeah, that was beautiful.

Shane Birkel 36:26
Yeah, those are those are tough situations. And when you're telling the story about the cereal example, I mean, that that's hard, right. I I'm actually surprised that you didn't say that, you know, the parents have to come to some sort of agreement so that it's the same for all the kids. Because that'd

Patricia Papernow 36:47
be like right now. Yeah, my stepkids are gonna eat whole wheat cereal. Are you kidding? Right? My kid has really soft teeth, and I wanted to be healthy. I don't want to eat sugar cereal. So you know. Yeah. And that is another easy wrong turn, let's make an agreement that we're all be the same. But we're not the same any more than Japanese and Italians are the same. And, and how to live with it with the kids. In a way that respects both ways. I didn't say sugar cereal is bad for you. That's why you can't have it. Yeah. I said, this is what I prefer.

Shane Birkel 37:25
But that yeah, that was a great example of the situation between the two different families, the new the two new families. And can you say more about that number,

Patricia Papernow 37:40
let's go into our fifth challenge, which is there is an another parent dead or alive. You know, with COVID, we have more previously, you know, more parents who have died before the step family is created. There is somebody outside the family and our Anglo idea of families, there's a parent and a child and kids, we have a very rigid idea about family. African American kids and stiff families, by the way, are doing better than their Anglo counterparts. And we believe that is because there is it's called other mothering. There is a value. Anybody who's there helps parents, neighbors, grandparents, you know, for kids in trouble. everybody pitches in needs something everybody pitches in. We think that's a combination of perhaps a more communal African culture that many slaves came from. But also it was a resilient response to African American families, slaves being torn apart, their families were torn apart, and whoever was there had to parent so those kids are doing better in step family. And by the way, step father's black step fathers are more likely to back up the mother rather than stepping into discipline, gay fathers as well. And that works much better for kids. So back to ex spouses, there's another family or another parent. And here's what we know. We know that there that of them. Most robust predictor of children's well being is not single parent family, first time family step family. It is the level of conflict and the quality of parenting. So kids in high conflict with families where the parents are never divorced, are doing much more poorly than children in low conflict families where the parents are divorced. And that's true for adults as well. Young adult daughters and and adult daughters particularly it turns out are impacted by adult tension and conflict. So really portent, the most important thing that we do as therapists, is anytime you hear conflict between ex spouses. What I say to my supervisees is we need to pay attention at the same level that our Doc's pay attention to blood pressure. They play and now, almost 78. So they, but I think everybody now they take your blood pressure every time. And if it's high, they intervene immediately with education, and medication immediately. And it's conflict is that important? Keep an eye out for it. If you hear that there was conflict, either between the step couple or between the two houses, ask for the kids there. And what I will often hear is, yeah, they were there, but it didn't bother them. Well, if you wired those kids up, somebody did it research like this, you wire those kids up, they look fine on the outside, on the inside their swift stress levels are going way, way, way up. Yeah, so really important to intervene, really important to say, I'm sure that really that difference with your ex really mattered to you. And I know you love your kids, I know you love your kids, I know you would want to do something that would upset your kids. Here's what we know want to hear. Here's what we know about the impact of conflict on kids want to hear. They actually even moderate tension. This is really interesting research, even moderate tension. And these are non clinical non divorce families, impacts kids academic function, it impacts their attention, and it compromises their immune levels. And that's because the parental tension impacts sleep. These are actually people who study sleep. And when you when sleep is interrupted all of those other things happening, or happen. So if you've got a kid who isn't sleeping, whether it's a first time family or a step family, do check for level of parental tension and conflict. That isn't always the source, but it is sometimes and it's worth checking. Yeah,

Shane Birkel 42:07
I love that. You're saying that. Because, you know, I think when we're looking at how conflict has a negative impact on children, it's just so important to give people the information. And I think citing the research is a good way to do that, to let them know, and to try to appeal to the best part of them to change the way that they're doing some of those things because it is going to have an impact on those children. Absolutely. I think we're afraid as therapists of that confrontation sometimes like telling someone that they're doing something wrong. And I definitely think there's an art in house

Patricia Papernow 42:40
areas in art. And I think it always starts by what I call joining. It starts by "What do you understand" therapist about what the parent is trying to say? She's a horrible person. She's bad for my kids, this is a mom, you know, that must be hard to watch. It is I'm learning what's harder for a mom or a dad, then your kids are now living with somebody you did not choose who you cannot supervise, and you don't like her. So it makes sense to me. You're upset about her? That makes total sense. And I know you love your kids. I know you would want the best for your kids. We've got some research about what what is the best, strongest predictor of kids not doing well in divorce Do you want to hear? And then I'm going to make her ask. Here it is, this is going to be tough to hear. Hear, and I'm gonna say it low and slow, as Sue Johnson would say. And what I sometimes say to these folks who can't stop doing this is, you know, this might be the most important thing you do for your kids and the hardest. Zero to 10. How hard is this going to be? 10 hard zero easy. If it's going to be really hard, we're going to need to talk some more about it. And it might be the hardest thing you ever do. And the best, most important you do for your kids. Yeah, and I just want to say one more thing about when a parent has died. We're going to see more of this because of COVID. The expectation often and the wish for the adults is that step parent can move in and replace that missing parent. Turns out parent child attachment is forever. Kids mostly do not want a replacement. And in fact, if you try to replace they will get more hostile. And it's also true by the way that some kids handle young kids handle grief with anger. So that's particularly hard for step parents. So what kids need is support for grieving. help remembering their parent. And each kid may want this different Where do you want photos? We're not going to you know where would you like photos if your mom I want one on the refrigerator. We'll step mom that might be hard for you. You It is the best thing for your step kid. And selfishly, it's going to be better for you. If this kid feels like they can't hold on to their parent, they are not going to make room for you. Right?

Shane Birkel 45:14
This is the second or third time I've been thinking in the back in my mind, like we have to prioritize the needs of the children in the situation. And we have to expect the adults to be adults and be a little bit more mature than the children. It's

Patricia Papernow 45:28
hard sometimes. Yeah, it's hard. Yeah, that's right. What's that? And one of the ways I appeal to adults and to say, actually, a mucked up kid is really hard to live with. So it's actually in your best self interest to do. That's right. Definitely. Yeah. So sometime is Shane, we have to talk about later life step families. Yeah, because the rate of divorce in the United States is at a 40 year low except over 50, where it has doubled. We call it Gray Divorce, and those people are recovering. And they face those same challenges intensified by many decades. Yeah,

Shane Birkel 46:10
I don't know, do you want to say anything more in the last couple of minutes here, or shoot where we can now set another time?

Patricia Papernow 46:17
I can say it Sure. Gray divorce couples have a fantasy the dogs dead. The kids are out of the house, it's just us. It's our time. When I teach about this, I put up a slide of the couple. And the next slide is a genogram with all of the generations and all of the lines of attachment going every which way. That's the reality, decades of relationships. And so all of those five challenges often are right there. In addition, I'm finding that and many therapists are seeing this, there's what I call a fraught father, daughter, later, life re coupled dad, whose daughter is really unhappy about the new relationship doesn't want to meet the new partner. When this goes badly, the new partner says you can't see your daughter unless she's there on there. Um, what's in those families, either. The dad was pretty distant. Marriage was bad dad was being a provider for the family wasn't present. daughter had very little not enough connection with him. And those daughters say, listen, he was never there. When I was a kid was captain of my basketball team. He never came to a basketball game because he always had to work. And now he wants me to be part of His family. He's out of his mind. Either that, or the marriage was dead. And so dad and daughter were very close. And now she's he's in love. And she's lost him. Oh, I can't stand how you look, sir. Oh, so disgusting. Right,

Shane Birkel 47:53
right. She had like the surrogate partner.

Patricia Papernow 47:57
Right? Well, yeah, they've been very close. Yeah. And the treatment, by the way, is very similar. We didn't talk a lot about this. But it's going to be parallel family therapy and stiff families. You cannot put the whole family in a room because of the competition for attachment couples needs and the step parent, the parent child needs and the step parents step child needs are in competition in his step family. So you're going to want to think in systems, you're going to think systemically, meaning hold the challenge for every individual in your heart, even if your clients cannot, you're going to work in subsystems. And you're often if you're a family therapist going to work in parallel with the couple and the parent child relationship. You're not going to do intimate work with a step parents step child relationship until the step parent is ready to hear the kids pain. You're just going to encourage this and that maybe sooner or never. You're going to encourage the step parent to do what we talked about earlier. Get to know your step kid. And the same is true with these later life. Couples, turning the couple towards each other, helping the new partner reach as opposed to clobber helping dad be able to say I will hold you. I will care for your feeling rejected by my daughter. I will not reject my daughter. And then working with father daughter to help daughter really let dad know just how pained she is in helping him really hear.

Shane Birkel 49:31
Yeah, that's tough. Yeah. And it brings in so many other dynamics, you know, with the children being adults at that point, and, you know, grandkids being involved eventually and all those other things too. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Great. Well, thank you so much, Patricia. I'm so glad we got through the five different challenges and any other final thoughts before we wrap it up.

Patricia Papernow 50:01
I'm just glad to have put this information in people's hands. And let's mention my book surviving and thriving and step family relationships. I wrote for both people in step families and clinicians, it has a lot of clinical work in it. It has all of the research in it in endnotes so that it doesn't clutter up the book, but it's all there if you want it. And then the other book is the stiff family handbook from dating, to getting serious to becoming a blended family with quotes around funded family with Karen Bunnell and that one was written for the public much breezier style, no clinical work in it, no research, but based on the research, and my clients like to read both, they're quite different. They're both on audio tape. If you don't like to read, and my website, step family relationships.com. But I have a very unusual name. If you Google Patricia Papernow Website, my website will come up. And I promise you there won't be another has a bunch of videos really short one hour long with people like and a whole bunch of podcasts and radio interviews.

Shane Birkel 51:12
Oh, great. Yeah. And I'll put I can put links to all those the books and your website in the show notes so that people can easily find them. And I know I've learned a ton. And I know a lot of other people will. And they'll probably want to go and watch the videos and read the books and everything. So unfortunately,

Patricia Papernow 51:28
there's not much out there. There's almost no other clinical there's one other clinical book

Shane Birkel 51:33
that I know of. Yeah, it was when you said that. Yeah,

Patricia Papernow 51:37
there's a lot of stuff for step moms especially but a lot of it is full of what I call blogger booboos is full, it is one person's advice. And a lot of it is just plain wrong. Some of its destructive. So unfortunately, there aren't many resources that are what we call evidence based. These books turned out to be really helpful for people.

Shane Birkel 51:59
Yeah, that's great. Well, I'm so grateful for you. Thank you again. And I really hope we can catch up again at some point in the future.

Patricia Papernow 52:06
And I'd be glad to we can talk about later life families, long time step families too. Oh, great. Yeah. Sounds good elder care and inheritance. So we got lots more that we can talk about.

Shane Birkel 52:17
That's great. All right. Thank you so much, Patricia. All right. Thank you so much, Patricia, I'm so grateful for you I learned so much and such a great teacher and thank you to all you listeners out there. But definitely go get some copies of her books, and go to her website step family relationships.com That's Dr. Patricia Papernow. 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 Therapist 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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