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This is the first of a two part chat with the esteemed global stepfamily authority, Dr Patricia Papernow in which we unpack the five key challenges faced by stepfamilies and explore her expert strategies to conquer them.

In this episode (Part 1), Dr. Papernow delves into the first three challenges which relate to the stepparent/parent roles, children and parenting versus stepparenting and then in part two we’ll cover off the final challenges. This treasure trove of wisdom is one you won’t want to miss!

Stepfamily relationships

Dr. Patricia Papernow (00:01): Very, very close. Couple of relationships in step families, kids actually don’t do as well, and we think that’s because the parent is being pulled too far away from that one-to-one Time

Laura Jenkins (00:12): In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family from new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.

(00:41): Welcome back to another episode of In The Blend. Now I am pretty excited to share this one with you, in which I had the great privilege of speaking with the esteemed Dr. Patricia Papow, widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on blended families. During our chat, we unpack the five key challenges faced by Stepfamilies and explore her expert strategies to conquer them. Now, her wealth of insights was so abundant that we’ve split the discussion into two parts. So in this episode, part one, Dr.
Papow will delve into the first three challenges which relate to the stepparent, parent roles, children, and also parenting versus step parenting. And then in part two, we’ll cover off the final couple. Personally, I gleaned so many invaluable takeaways and I’m thrilled to share this absolute treasure trove of wisdom with you. So without further delay, let’s plunge into the first installment of this enlightening conversation.

(01:44): Well, welcome Patricia, and I am absolutely delighted to be speaking with you today. Patricia, it’s really quite an honor to have you here on the show. For those who don’t know you, Patricia is widely recognized as one of the world’s foremost experts on blended families. You’ve authored two of the most helpful books on step families out there surviving and thriving in stepfamily relationships and also the Stepfamily Handbook. And I know you bring more than 40 years of clinical experience in helping step families all over the world. So where on earth do we start here? Patricia, let’s start with, could you tell us a little bit about your background and what led you down this path to specialization in step families?

Dr. Patricia Papernow (02:27): Well, my first marriage was to a man who had a five-year-old and a nine-year-old when I met him. And then a few years later I needed to do a dissertation. I was in a graduate clinical program and lucky me, they didn’t make me do a statistics dissertation. I absolutely stink at numbers. It was what’s called a qualitative dissertation where I could interview people. And I noticed that in my own stepfamily that things had changed. And it wasn’t just that the kids had gone from five to nine and nine to 13, but that something developmental had shifted. So I interviewed stepparents and my dissertation was on stages of development and becoming a stepparent, and I got hooked and I have been doing it ever since.

Laura Jenkins (03:14): Oh, there you go. So it was the personal experience that coupled with that professional background as well, that worked well together there.

Dr. Patricia Papernow (03:23): I can tell you that at the time that I did my dissertation, you’re supposed to do, it’s called a literature review. It was the easiest literature review in the world because at that time, which is about the late seventies, there was almost nothing written. Now it’s completely, we have a huge amount of research now. Not enough clinical work, but a huge amount of research. And now if I sit on a dissertation committee, I have to help somebody sort through what to read and whatnot. So that’s how I got into it. And now I’m in my second marriage. I had a daughter in that marriage. I was single for 10 years. And I’ve been with this, let’s see, we’ve been together like 28 years, I think I have three step kids, older stepkids, seven step grandkids. My daughter now has three little ones.

Laura Jenkins (04:12): Of her own. My goodness. Okay. Well today we’re here to talk about the five major challenges you’ve identified that the stepfamily structures create, and you’ve identified those based on your extensive research and experience. And then we’ll cover off some practical tips and tricks in terms of how to tackle them. So let’s dive straight in. Can you kick us off with number one?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (04:38): Well, I actually think we probably need to back up and talk about why step families are different from first time families because it’s that difference that makes these challenges. Anna, I call it a first time, our first partner family. The couple has some time together to get to know each other, to build trust, to be
in love, to learn that he doesn’t load the dishwasher the way that I do. And to have that be become a little bit ordinary. And in a first time family, the child enters the adults already established relationship and very important for our story. Children in a first time family enter hardwired for what we call attachment to both their parents and vice versa. And the next child and the next enter that already existing network of connection and caring and also values and how we do things. We eat great nuts for breakfast. You guys, I don’t dunno if you have great nuts in Australia, it’s very boring whole wheat cereal. Oh, okay. I raised my daughter on. That’s who we are when there’s a divorce. We now have two single families at least mostly in the United States. And the new person with or without kids comes in as an outsider to an already established parent-child relationship. The couple relationship and the stepparent stepchild relationship are much newer and the parent child relationship is preexisting. That hardwired attachment is there and all those layers of how we do things and another parent in another household. So that’s how step families are different. That structure makes five challenges. Yes. And now to answer your question, the first challenge is stepparents are stuck outsiders and parents are stuck. Insiders meaning my, I’m the parent, you’re the stepparent. My daughter gets off the bus and she made the soccer team or she did not make the soccer team. Now stepparents are very important to children, but when a child has something that they need to just bring to someone, it’s their parent usually.
(07:09): So she gets off the bus and just before she gets off the bus, you got a moment with me and the two of us are talking and my daughter bursts in and says, mommy, mommy, mommy. And I’m a good mommy. So what do I do? I turn towards my daughter and I have turned away from you. She’s not coming towards you. She is coming towards me and you are now left out. And that’s hard. We’re not wired for that. We’re wired for if you care about me, you turn towards me. But in a stepfamily, every time a child enters a room or the conversation, the parent has that hardwired attachment and shared connection. And the child needs that parent, usually not the stepparent. So the stepparents are left out a lot and left out feels rejected, invisible, not a good feeling. Now parents are stuck insiders. Later we have a moment alone. And you say, well, if you say it sweetly, you say, sweetie, that was hard for me. What was hard for you?
(08:20): When your daughter came home, she didn’t even talk to me. Oh, what’s your problem? She’s my kid. And now you’re left out again. Right now, if you handle it badly, you’re going to say you did it again. Really easy to do. You did it again. And how defensive am I going to be so stuck? Insiders are, if I turn to my kid, my sweetheart is unhappy. If I didn’t turn to my kid and I told my daughter to wait, wait, wait, wait my daughter would be unhappy. And then let’s add. If I please my ex-spouse and keep the peace,
my partner may not be pleased and vice versa. So that’s the insider outsider challenge.
Laura Jenkins (09:07): That’s a big one. That is a big one.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (09:09): It’s a big one. And it doesn’t go away.
Laura Jenkins (09:13): It doesn’t go away. And I think in particular, new stepparents would struggle with that one the most, although it doesn’t go away. But you get used to it as time goes by or you learn how to cope with it.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (09:28): It does really help to know that it’s the structure. It’s not that you’re doing something wrong. I would have couples come back 15 or 20 years later because I don’t know, a step kid was getting married and the tension went up or something happened, college costs. And then I’d say, oh, you were so helpful. And I always ask what was helpful? As a stepparent always says insiders and outsiders. I knew I wasn’t crazy and the parent says, I knew I wasn’t failing.
Laura Jenkins (10:01): Yes
Dr. Patricia Papernow (10:01): It is helpful to know what’s normal. However, it’s hard. What do you do. Now, there are a couple of concrete things that help. One thing that’s a little bit non-intuitive is one-to-One time step families really do need to spend time together. It’s a new collection of people and we’ve got to build a sense of ourselves. And so step families need to spend time together doing fun things. However, every time the whole family’s together, this insider outsider thing is smacking your face. So really important to carve out one-to-one time in a minute we’re going to talk about kids. It’s really important for kids also and for stepparents and stepchildren. But you need some time if you’re the step parent where you’ve got your sweet’s attention and you’re sweetie. If I’m the insider, I need to know there’s a time I can turn to my sweetie without worrying about my kid. And sometimes it’s even tiny moments in the morning before the kids get up or making sure we have a really good hug before we go to sleep. One-to-one time really helps a lot.
Laura Jenkins (11:15): Oh, definitely, definitely. So important for the couple relationship. So let’s move on then to number two and talk about the kids.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (11:26): So the second challenge is that step families are very different from first time families for children, for children, children and step families often struggle with losses, loyalty binds and change. So loss, well first of all, of course we have the loss of divorce, but study after study has told us that when parents recouple kids lose significant and attention from their parents. And that’s because adults are just as nuts When they fall in love as any adolescent, they’re texting at dinner and they’re texting while they’re supposedly doing homework. And then when the new partner moves in or begins to hang around more, again, if a parent is going to turn to their partner, they’re turning away from their kid in a first time family. If I turn to my sweetie, as long as we’re not all over each other, my kid feels connected and that partner is connected to my kid, this partner isn’t connected to my kid, even if they’re very friendly. So kids will often say, I miss my daddy.
(12:41): It used to be just us. So there’s the loss of a one-to-one real connection with mom or dad at a time of a huge change. When children especially need parental connection. And here’s the other thing, the adults are thrilled and here’s a kid saying, I hate her. Now what the kid needs is, oh, sweet, you’re having a tough time, but how easy for me to say, but she’s a nice person. Or even worse, I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. So exactly what kids most need from parents is somewhat non-intuitive. Parents really have to, it helps to know something because you don’t have the experience. It helps to learn listening to podcasts like this that your kid may be struggling and feeling things that you are not feeling. And if you can turn and open your heart to that, that’s what will help kids. The best medicine for kids is grownups who get it. That ain’t easy for a parent when your kid is hurting because of something you did. That’s a challenge, that’s losses. Then of course, they’re the losses of child position. My husband had two sons and a daughter. His daughter was the third born, the very much wanted girl, the only girl. And I come along with a daughter 27 years later. I think it’s still hard for my stepdaughter. She a huge loss for her of being the special one.
(14:29): And then of course there all the losses of moving. But let’s go on to loyalty bins. If I care about my stepparent, I’m disloyal to my parent. If I care about my stepmom, I’m disloyal to my mom. If I care about my stepdad, I’m disloyal to my dad. Es seem to be almost genetic in our culture. There are cultures that much are much more supportive, accepting of everybody in the village, parents, the kid, but our culture is very much, you have two parents and kids. So kids are more likely to feel a loyalty bind in our culture than in some others.
Laura Jenkins (15:19): Interesting.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (15:21): And when a parent couples, it can be very hard for the other parent, I mean, who grew up being a parent expecting to have to share my kids with somebody I did not choose, and I cannot supervise who they might love more than me. So if the other parent is having a hard time that can intensify the loyalty bind for kids. So really important for kids, the research is kids do best when they have positive relationships with both mom and dad, both mom and stepmom, both dad and stepdad. It’s a gay relationship with all of the parents. That’s when kids do bust. And if your ex is a bad mouthing, don’t you participate? You can say things like, gee, that must be hard to hear. That must be confusing. But not, she’s a liar.
Laura Jenkins (16:24): Yeah. No, that’s super helpful advice. I think the role play of sorts that you offered up earlier where you suggested saying, just acknowledging to the child that must be really hard for you is a really important takeaway for those listening. Because ordinarily it can be very easy to react off the cuff or in the moment, I assume if you’re the biological parent or the stepparent, but for either the biological parent or the stepparent be able to acknowledge, Hey, this looks like it’s really hard for you. This must be tough and I think is a really nice way.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (17:08): It’s a really good way through. Mommy says, you’re a bitch. Well, now that’s a little hard for a stepmom to hear, but if you can take a breath and say, boy, that must be, that must be confusing. Kids will do better.
Laura Jenkins (17:23): Yeah. That’s such good advice.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (17:25): The other thing that I tell stepmom’s, especially like to show that they really love their stepkids. If you’re in the same, if you’re at a basketball game or a dance concert with your kid’s mom, your step kid’s mom, and that mom is having a hard time, this is not the time to show that you love your step kids. A triggered other ex-spouse is toxic for everybody in your very best self-interest, you step back and let that parent step forward. And it may be painful, you may need some extra hugs from your partner later or ahead, but better for everybody if your step kid’s, other parent is not jealous of you. And again, let’s talk about one-to-one time. Really important for parent our first time family map is the couple is the center of the family. And if the couple’s okay, the kids are okay. This is somewhat true in first time families in STEM families. It’s both. And we need the couple to be okay and we need the parent child to be okay. And the couple does need a lot of nurturing because it’s new and being pulled apart, but very, very close. Couple relationships in step families, kids actually don’t do as well. And we think that’s because the parent is being pulled too far away from that one-to-one time. So one-to-one time for parents and children and for the couple both makes a big difference.
Laura Jenkins (19:04): What about for the stepparent and the stepchild? Patricia, would you recommend that?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (19:10): That’s actually the next challenge? Yes. Stepparents and stepchildren also need time alone together because every time the parent is in the room, that’s stronger. Relationship trumps the words, ruined is stronger, and this stepparent ends up as an outsider. So stepparents and stepchildren also need time alone together. And that actually pulls us right into the third challenge. Shall we just go there?
Laura Jenkins (19:39): Yeah. Let’s do it.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (19:41): The third challenge, the way I’m saying it now is that parenting and step parenting are very different and they are both important. So we’ve talked about parent and parents have that attachment to their kids, parents don’t have it. And let’s say you’ve got a kid in a loyalty bond, mom is really complaining about stepmom, that kid’s not going to be very available to a stepparent, to the warmest stepparent. So on this one, what I’m going to start with is what works and what doesn’t because we have a lot of research about what works it is and it is so important. So here’s the first, one of the most important things stepparents often expect to step into discipline. I’m the adult in the house. That makes sense. It turns out the research is very clear and we now have several decades of research. Parents need to retain the disciplinary role the until or unless stepchildren feel they have a trusting, caring relationship with their stepparent.
(20:59): So that means what we tell stepparents is your job is to focus on, I call it connection, not correction. You want to lead with warmth, not control. You want to get to know your step kids. And here’s where that one-to-One time comes in, your step kid likes to bake, likes chocolate cakes, teach ’em how to make a chocolate cake. You’ve got a kid, a really, really shy, shy, 12 year old kid in a case I was involved with recently, 12 year old boy. Well, his stepmom, he was a basketball player and his stepmom was captain of her high school blast basketball team. This kid could barely look at this woman, but they could play basketball together. And that’s how they started playing basketball, shooting baskets. That was easy for this kid and easy for the stepmom. That’s the first and probably most important. The other thing, this is recent research, it turns out there’s a range of stepparent roles that work ranging from very close parent-like much more likely if kids are eight and under to academically focused, big percentage of both stepmothers and stepfathers are real involved with homework and academics to fairly casual, but warm talking about sports or school playing games together.
(22:32): Maybe stepmom drives you to dance and you talk Taylor Swift, all three of those, and they’re very different. All three of those are connected to better good wellbeing in kids. Interesting. What’s not connected is the very worst for children is something called authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian is you’ll do this or else and absence just not connected. Although the research is when the stepparent is somewhat absent, inactive, disconnected, often the whole family is disconnected, the couple is disconnected, the parent and child are disconnected and the child is not well connected to the parent in the other house. So that may be sort of in a whole context of disconnection, but all three of those very different stepparent roles are very positive for kids. But here’s the challenge, parents, parents all over the world want more structure and limits for their step kids, almost I’d say about 85% parents all over the world want more love and understanding for their kids.
(23:50): So the kid leaves a mess and the parent says, oh yeah, the kid goes in and makes herself a sandwich and she leaves mayonnaise, she leaves the mayonnaise out, she leaves. No, she makes a mess and she leaves the dishes in the sink. Now the parent is saying, great. She made her own sandwich. I’m thrilled. It’s the bad parent walks in the kitchen and it’s a mess. And how much harder is the kid who makes the mess? Is the kid who barely can speak to me much, much harder. So that pushes stepparents and parents into kind of opposite corners where it is easy for the stepparent to want more limits and the parent to want fewer limits. And if it goes well, stepparents can often help parents firm up. My husband would say, honey, you just let her get away with murder.
(24:54): You just went out and bought her this and this, that she, because she forgot that and that, and you didn’t teach her to not forget that in that, oh yeah, yeah, you’re right. He’s helping me firm up. And I’m saying, listen, my kid has ADD, I have ADD, meaning we both forget things a lot, so I just go out and get, it’s easier. So for him to understand where she’s coming from, he hated that. She did her homework in the kitchen. My kid has learning disabilities. She needed basically one-to-one help the whole time. She’s doing homework. Why doesn’t she go upstairs? She can’t. Well, finally my husband said, what if the books don’t stay out there for eight hours? What if after the books are out there for two hours, she puts them away, I’ll build her shelves. So he’s helped me firm up. I’m saying to my kid, okay, honey, it’s been three hours.
(25:52): Let’s put these away. And I’m helping him soften up. That works well where it doesn’t work. Well, I call that a collaborative chacha. Where it doesn’t work well is the stepparent says, your kid is getting away with murder. And the parent says, what’s your problem? She’s just being a kid. The stepparent gets more frustrated, gets more pushy, the parent gets more protective. I call it the polarization polka. It pulls step parents into that authoritarian. You will clean up this mess right now. And it pulls parents into
throwing their hands up actually what kids need from their parents. It’s called authoritative parenting, warm, empathic, connected, and moderately firm. You need to clean these dishes up. I know you don’t feel like it. Come on. I need you to get it done. Or I can’t let you make sandwiches if you don’t clean up. So doing that challenge, well, this parenting step, parenting challenge is partly that what works is not out in people’s hands. That’s why I’m always glad to do things like this. And the second is that the structure pulls stepparents into more irritation and parents into more protectiveness. And how do you slow down and just really listen to each other?
Laura Jenkins (27:26): It makes perfect sense. The image you painted of your daughter with the book sprawled out over the kitchen bench, and that’s infuriating the stepdad, and it’s coming to some sort of happy medium, but doing that in a gentle way.
Dr. Patricia Papernow (27:43): Yes. How to do it in a way that you’re really hearing each other. That’s right. It’s a challenge now. Sometimes it’s reversed. Every now and then. The parent is the more authoritarian and the parent, the stepparent is the more authoritative or sort of leading with warmth. Actually, my husband and I are reversed in that way with his kids. And boy did that get me in with his middle son because he’s coming down hard on my poor middle stepson who’d done something stupid. I don’t know what. And I’m finally saying, honey, he’s 16. Give him a break. And I’ll tell you, I remember my stepson look at me and saying, oh, thank the research calls that sighting meaning you side with your step kid against the parent. It is one way that stepparents can sometimes make a connection where there wasn’t one.
Laura Jenkins (28:44): Yeah. And is that usually a result of the parenting style of the stepparent, like in your case?
Dr. Patricia Papernow (28:54): That is my parenting style. I tend to air towards permissiveness. I’m almost always leading. It’s easier for me to lead with warmth and it’s easier for my husband to lead with limits. We are a great pair. I happen to have my 19 year old step grandson living with us, and he’s into coming down hard and I’m into, well now wait a minute. He’s 19 together. We’re a good team. It is easier to be a team around my step grandson than it was about my daughter.
Laura Jenkins (29:26): Oh, I bet. Oh, well. You balance each other out.
Laura Jenkins (29:32): Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available au. And if you like what heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

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