by Kathleen Dolan
Four of the country’s leading stepfamily practitioners and scholars recently gathered at Chestnut Hill College for a symposium in which they shared a variety of tools and resources with the public, clinicians, and members of blended families.
The event, “An Evening With the Experts,” was held on May 3 at SugarLoaf and offered a number of opportunities and perspectives for the audience, depending on one’s motivation to attend. For scholars or clinicians of family therapy, the findings from a range of professional approaches were discussed, and the tools commonly used in practice were highlighted. For members of stepfamilies, compassion and resources to address issues that can impede stepfamily relationships were in good supply. The event concluded with a Q&A session with audience members.
Speaking at the event, Scott Browning, Ph.D., ABPP, professor of psychology at the College and an author and practitioner, said there is a widely accepted idea of the family as a unit with two biological parents, what he refers to as a “first-unit family.”
“The idea that there is this alternate form, a stepfamily, doesn’t really compute,” Browning said. “The healthier thing is to try to not fit the stepfamily into that old template.”
The ongoing comparison to a first-unit family, which involves people continually questioning their feelings, will be “damaging to the unit that they are in,” Browning said. He stated that the stepfamily is a unique and separate being from a first-unit family. Once this is understood, he added, new expectations can be established.
Browning pointed out the difficulty in navigating the varying — and often opposing — perceptions a step parent and a biological parent have of a child. This affects whether co-parenting will succeed or fail.
“When people divorce in a first marriage, it’s almost always because they’ve fallen out of love. When people divorce from a second marriage, generally it’s because they cannot agree on how to raise these children,” Browning said.
Browning stressed patience and emphasized the importance of not forcing children into a behavior or a way of thinking that seeks to copy a first-unit family. It’s not a first-unit family, he asserted, so it requires an alternate approach.
Also speaking at the event were Patricia Papernow, Ed.D., clinician and author of “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t”; Francesca Adler-Baeder, Ph.D., professor of human development and family studies at Auburn University and the founder of the National Stepfamily Resource Center; and Brad van Eeden-Moorefield, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of family and child studies at Montclair State University and director of its Ph.D. program in family studies.
Papernow discussed specific parenting styles and child-stepparent relationships. Papernow’s findings offer insight into how parents and children can spend time together, how co-parents can divide tasks, and how children may feel that “loyalty binds” to one parent or one another, the latter of which, she said, may inhibit behavior. Her research echoed Browning’s conclusions to take it slowly and not force behavior that may give the illusion of a unified group.
Adler-Baeder described her area of work within research-informed programs as family life education. According to the National Council on Family Relations, family life education is “the practice of equipping and empowering family members to develop knowledge and skills that enhance well-being and strengthen interpersonal relationships through an educational, preventive, and strengths-based approach.”
“Prepare yourself with information,” Adler-Baeder said. “When we know better, we do better.”
Adler-Baeder, who works in community-based educational programs, said that an educational setting is more effective at drawing people than group therapy. In Alabama, she had observed that people who didn't show up for therapy did attend educational sessions.
“Education is the door they walk through, even families that are a bit distressed,” she said.
The programs can help families learn stress-management techniques; assist with couple relationships; teach kids empathy and communication skills; provide tools to navigate new cultures when stepfamilies become multicultural units; develop skills to handle daily struggles; and establish realistic expectations.
Lastly, van Eeden-Moorefield shared intimate memories of growing up in a stepfamily and offered valuable insight into why he believes his stepfamily relationships thrived.
“I feel very lucky,” van Eeden-Moorefield said. “I think there are so many stereotypes like the wicked stepmother that really disadvantage the stepfamily because people go into it expecting that stereotype to be true, so you’re starting out with this tension from the beginning. For me, I didn’t have that experience.”
Van Eeden-Moorefield recalled a few factors that he believes affected his stepfamily in a positive manner. His mother didn’t introduce him to her partner until the two had determined they had a future together. Van Eeden-Moorefield remembered that first meeting being low on stress. His mother’s communication with him was intentional and direct, he said, and when her partner finally joined the family, there were never any bad words spoken about his biological father.
These decisions, combined with his stepfather’s patient and genuine approach to developing a friendship with a young van Eeden-Moorefield, set a solid foundation for a functioning and loving stepfamily.
Van Eeden-Moorefield added that his parents were good at taking his cues and not forcing anything, even as a teenager.
“It was a little less bumpy,” he said. “Still going to be bumpy — it’s life — but a little less.”
“An Evening With the Experts” was part of a two-day workshop held at SugarLoaf, “Understanding and Treating Stepfamilies.” By connecting research, prevention, and clinical theory, the workshop provided attendees with the tools found in the evidence-based practices commonly used in treating stepfamilies. Along with lectures from each of the experts, the workshop featured a created stepfamily that Papernow and Browning used to demonstrate live psychotherapy. The event was sponsored by Chestnut Hill College, the National Stepfamily Resource Center, and the Philadelphia Association of Couple and Family Psychology.