June 1st, 2016

Stepfamily relationships at heart of psychologist’s research

According to the Pew Research Center, 42 percent of American adults are in some form of a blended family. Sound surprising? What is more surprising, according to Patricia Papernow, Ed.D, is how much research has been done on the health of stepfamily relationships and how little of that research has gotten out to the public.

Papernow, a specialist in stepfamily relationships with a private clinical and consulting practice in Hudson, Mass., has spent her career teaching stepfamilies how to better interact and teaching therapists how to help them. The author of two books on the subject including “Striving and Surviving in Stepfamily Relationships” Papernow offers workshops, conferences, supervision and consultation, all in the effort to pass on the experience she has gained in her practice and in studying the vast literature on the subject.

She spoke with New England Psychologist’s Catherine Robertson Souter about her work and about the need to have more practitioners become informed about some of the unique pressures faced by individuals in stepfamilies.

Q:  Is this a popular field?

A:  Unfortunately it is not. I know of very few grad programs that teach anything about stepfamilies and no family therapy training programs. There are very few people who specialize in it. There are a lot of people who think they know, who have had a little experience but haven’t read the research and don’t have enough clinical training to pull it off.

There are decades of research so we know a lot about what works and what does not to form healthy stepfamily relationships. The problem is that clinicians and researchers do not go to the same conferences or read the same journals. The information is siloed. It doesn’t get out.

Q:  What are the key differences?

A:  The primary difference is that in a first-time family, the couple has some time together to build trust and ways of doing things and the child enters the relationship hardwired for attachment for both parents and vice versa.

A stepparent enters as an outsider to the already established parent/child relationship and the already existing shared ground of rituals. Children need their parents not their stepparents. When a child comes into the room, the person they need is their parents. A good parent turns to their kid and the stepparent is left out, over and over again.

Q:  But you are saying that is what the “good” parent does. You don’t want to be the parent who puts the new partner ahead of your own child, either.

A:  Exactly. So parents are stuck insiders connected to everybody but torn. And the stepparent is the stuck outsider.

It is all very difficult for the child and parents don’t always get it. The experience for a parent of a new relationship is a wonderful gift but the experience for the child is a loss. My parent is turning away from me. Stepfamilies are harder for kids and take longer to adjust to than divorce.

Plus, because parents have this attachment, parents and stepparents are often divided over parenting. Stepparents everywhere want more boundaries, more control and more limits and parents everywhere want more love and understanding for their kids.

With any couple you have cultural differences and a set way of doing things. Stepmom hangs white lights on the Christmas tree. She thinks it’s lovely. Stepdaughter takes one look and bursts into tears because she is used to colored lights and she has had enough change for a lifetime. She sulks through Christmas. Stepmom thinks she’s behaving badly. Kid is miserable. Dad is miserable.

Q:  How should the stepfamily honor these differences?

A:  Stepfamilies do have to create a new culture but they have to do it while respecting and being gracious about differences.

One of the mistakes that psychologists with first-time family training make is to put the couple first. If the couple is fine, the family is fine. However, parent/child relationships are also important. Kids really need their parents so one of the things I say to step couples is to spend time alone together as a couple and make sure the parent has time alone with their kids. It is also a good way for stepparents and stepchildren to begin making a relationship, one-to-one time without the parent present. I call it compartmentalizing rather than blending.

Q:  What about discipline? When is it time for a stepparent to take full responsibility in this area?

A:  There is a myth out there that stepparents and parents should be a team and parents should back stepparents up with discipline. It makes logical sense but what we know from research is that kids are generally not ready. Parents need to retain the disciplinary role until and unless stepparents have developed a close trusting relationship. Then, stepparents can move slowly into what we call authoritative parenting – warm, responsive, empathic and moderately firm limits.

Authoritarian step parenting is toxic to the stepparent/stepchild relationships. But, unfortunately, it is the parenting style that stepparents are pulled towards. They are not your kids, they leave their mess everywhere, and often kids who are struggling don’t even look at stepparent. It is horrible to be in your own family and have a kid who doesn’t even look at you. What I say to stepparents is “connection before correction.” And, it isn’t easy. Stepparents need a lot of support from parents about how hard it is. And parents need support from stepparents about how they need to turn away sometimes towards their kids.

Q:  You offer training and supervision. What do you teach the clinicians you work with?
A: I teach intervention on three levels. The first is psychoeducational. People need a map. They need to know what is normal, what is not, what works and what doesn’t. The second is interpersonal. It turns out that successful and struggling stepfamilies face the same challenges but the successful couples have better interpersonal skills.

The third is interpsychic, family of origin stuff. Individual therapists may start by asking a stepparent, “What in your individual history makes this so painful?” That is shaming and it skips over the power of the structure. It is always important to start on the first two levels but when skills don’t hold, and information doesn’t stick, then it is time to start getting curious. “Nobody would like this, but what about this situation is especially painful for you and sending your wise mind right off the line?”

Q:  What you are saying is we need to recognize how difficult it is for each party. It is not all on one person. Everyone has a difficulty but everyone has a path.

A:  I think you put your finger on one of the challenges for clinicians: each person in the family has a totally different story. If you are hearing from the stepparent, you are going to hear “the minute a kid comes in, he just wimps out and turns towards that kid and doesn’t protect me at all.” And it is easy for a therapist to say, “ah, wimpy parent, weekend dad, what do you expect?”

But when the parent is talking to the clinician and saying, “My kid came home really upset and of course I comforted her. My partner was upset with me for interrupting our conversation.” And how easy for the therapist to say, “Humph, borderline personality disorder.” It is easy to demonize the person who is not in the room but it is important to hold compassion for every player in the system. 

By Catherine Robertson Souter

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