Dr. Brian Higginbotham is a Professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at USU. In this episode, Brian talks about the step-family education courses he facilitates. He explains the stress and strengths that step-families experience while sharing why this research is meaningful to him.
For more information on Smart Steps for Step-families visit
Wyatt: [00:00:00] Why do you do this work, but what brought you to this field?
Brian Higganbotham: I've always had a desire to strengthen relationships. Some people dream of having lots of money. I've dreamed of having healthy relationships, happy relationships, um, with, with a partner and with kids who enjoy being with me. And I enjoy being with them. I realized that I would learn a lot about how to do that myself. If I pursued a career in it and I could help others find the same satisfaction and hopefully avoid some of the heartbreak.
my name is Brian Higginbotham. I am a professor in the human development and family studies department, and I'm also an extension specialist with the Utah cooperative extension service here at Utah state university.
Wyatt:I'm Wyatt. And today you're going to hear about Brian Higginbotham's research into step family dynamics and his extension. Step family education programs. Brian's work is important because
Brian Higganbotham: [00:01:10] it's important that individuals who are entering into step families understand that they are not only marrying this person or moving in with somebody who they love, but there's going to be other people in there who may not be all that excited that they're in the picture.
And how that dynamic plays out really makes or breaks the step family long-term.
So get ready because we're going to go inside Brian's research. He's going to tell us about the strengths, stresses and misconceptions that step families deal with. And he's going to explain why people choose to take USU extensions, 12 hour step family education course.
You could be watching TV, trying to figure out what it means to be family from some sitcom characters. But thankfully you are listening to this. Instead a podcast from Utah state university's office of research. Here's my conversation with Dr. Brian Higginbotham. If I was to follow you on like a day or two of research, what would I see?
So we followed a cohort for five years. And by following that cohort, I mean, we identified through marriage licenses where it was a remarriage for at least one of the individuals involved. Right? So some individuals have been married twice, but they're marrying somebody who's never been married before.
We would still consider that a remarriage. So we identified, um, through marriage licenses, people in Utah who fell into that category. And then we. That sent them survey a survey, and then we followed up with them for the next four years. So we have a dataset that, um, as hundreds of couples who, um, responded year after year after year, and that research study has led to a number of studies that highlight some of the strengths.
And skills that couples who stay together, um, utilize in their relationships as well as some of the stresses, um, that step couples experience in several different domains, in their relationship with a new partner in their relationship with their ex partner in their relationship with their own biological children.
And the fourth domain is in their relationship with the children of their new partner. And as you might expect, um, some couples and some individuals within those couples experience more stress in some of those domains than others. Um, but our research flushes, those kind of nuances out. The other side of my work is developing programs that then help individuals build off of those strengths and, um, be prepared for those stressors.
But we also research those. And so we see whether or not our implementation is hitting the Mark. And so there's a pretty healthy balance in our, in my portfolio of studies that are more basic in nature. We're looking at ways that individuals handle stress within relationships, how they're handling parenting step parenting co-parenting.
And then also, how does our program, um, make a difference in those areas as an intervention?
Wyatt: [00:04:34] What is the core of the program you use for, um, step family education?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:04:40] The curriculum we call we use is called smart steps for step families. It's a 12 hour curriculum broken into several different modules and we really tackle a number of different topics, including common myths.
You know, that the step-parent is evil or that love is going to conquer all. Or that the new parent should, you know, be a parent, um, in the traditional sense. And then we talk about realistic expectations. Uh, we talk about, um, that is very possible that your stepchild made. Not like you, and it's probably more likely than not, uh, that they may resist some of your efforts to befriend them and to get close to them, particularly if they are really closely connected to both biological parents and they may resist that you are now getting in the way of their parents getting back together.
And so setting expectations to the potential problems is actually normal in step families. And that rather than seeing that as a sign of a problem, It's an opportunity to, uh, come closer together as a new couple. Um, but also as a sign that there might be some work that needs to be done to make sure that the child is feeling, uh, safe and loved and connected and not just within the, that, that, that new family environment, but also that they have access to their other biological parent.
If, if that's a healthy relationship, I'm one of the other main kind of uniquenesses of being in a step family is that often the courts involved in your life. Right. Of course, requiring that you're splitting custody and you're having to drive your child or meet your ex spouse. Um, and then there's finances.
Some of your money is going over for alimony or for child support. And those are issues that a lot of individuals who have never been married before and enter into a union with no kids don't have to think about or deal with. And so we talk about those. We make, um, we talk openly about them, how to be aware of them, how to navigate them in healthy ways.
For example, not fighting with your ex spouse during drop-offs. Um, where the child can hear, but to save those conversations, if you do need to discuss something difficult, Uh, for a time when the child is not present. Yeah.
Wyatt: [00:07:02] Why do people choose to participate in this 12 hour program? Because that just seems like a lot of work
Brian Higganbotham: [00:07:09] people want to have, how, how healthy and happy relationships when they are made aware of the opportunity to take a free course that promises to do that.
Um, we actually have quite a bit of demand. It's not uncommon for us to have waiting lists of individuals who are instead of families or thinking about it, wanting to make informed decisions and wanting to have some skills or some knowledge, um, access to the latest and greatest research, um, to help them navigate some of the challenges that they're going through.
Wyatt: [00:07:45] Um, I think maybe some people's hesitation and going to a course like this is bye. Going to a course to make them a better family. Like you're subtly admitting that you're currently not good enough. Um, would you have any advice for people who maybe feel like
Brian Higganbotham: [00:08:05] that? Well, my advice is there are a lot of different ways to get help if you feel like you need help.
And some of them are a little bit more intrusive than others. Um, Going to a counselor is going to be pretty private in the sense that no one else is going to know you're going there. Um, but you're probably going to talk about a lot of private, um, potentially talking about a lot of private, personal things.
You can read a book there's resources out there that target step-families and pre-marriage, and those are both private and. Non-intrusive family life education is kind of a good hybrid. Um, you're getting what would be in a book, um, but it's being taught by a facilitator or you're getting taught research, but you're meeting in a small group of individuals who have common.
Challenges. And I should say, it's not just common challenges, it's common desires. I mean, a lot of people who come to these classes don't really see themselves as having a lot of problems. They're wanting to prevent the potential of problems. They can kind of see the writing on the wall that an ex partner may stop providing child support, or maybe want more time changing a custody arrangement down the road.
And so they take it as a way to. Prepare for future uncertainties. Um, so, you know, I would say pick the one that works for you. Um, everybody's different. We now offer a virtual class so that you don't really even have to leave your home. Um, you know, the other people in the zoom room will see you. If you have your camera on, um, But in order to get a different result, you're going to have to do something that's different.
And if you're not sure what that is, um, I would say, try to learn from people who know what they're talking about and, you know, learning from researchers and people who are studying people in a similar circumstance, probably have some tips that. You could
Wyatt: [00:10:25] consider when people are preparing to combine families or that seeming like something, um, in their future, what are some of the misconceptions that they have and what are some of the things that maybe they should be paying attention to that they're not paying attention to?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:10:40] Well, that's a big question. Sorry.
Wyatt: [00:10:42] You can just pick one of them.
Brian Higganbotham: [00:10:44] You said a couple of myths that people enter into re marriages or in step families, um, with, you know, one of them common one is that love is going to conquer all. And often the adults are so excited and grateful that they have found somebody who treats them the way that they want to be treated, who they feel connected with.
Um, and they often think that that love between the adults is going to make everything work out and. Um, I'm like unions that beginning are more traditional. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby. And the baby carriage in a step family dynamic, there are already children, some of which are no longer baby carriages, but our teenagers who are teenagers with all the, um, you know, hormones and attitudes that, that come with, um, that life stage,
Wyatt: [00:11:50] what are some of.
The things that people are maybe too concerned about when they're in
Brian Higganbotham: [00:11:56] this situation. I mean, there's no, there's no one right or wrong to do. Um, a step family life really depends on ages and dynamics. Um, personalities of people involved, a common approach that tends to backfire is when a new step parent comes in and tries to take the role of a parent.
And what I mean by that is. Um, you know, it's my house. You need to follow things with, you know, my rules or if you're going to live under my roof, you know, then I have the right to discipline you the way that I feel like you should be disciplined. Um, and most kids don't respond well to discipline from their biological parents.
Um, they tend to respond worse to people who are not biologically related to them. And so one of the skills and the techniques that we teach couples is how to, um, not be taken advantage of, um, but how to appropriately, um, work as a couple so that the biological parent is the primary disciplinarian, uh, re kind of re retains that role as the parent.
And the step-parent is more of a supporting role to the point, parent. Um, and health is step parent really focus on becoming a friend to that child, being
Wyatt: [00:13:31] another character adult.
Brian Higganbotham: [00:13:34] And, uh, you can't have too many caring adults, uh, in, in your life as you're growing up. Um, and whether that's with a bunch of uncles or aunts and grandparents, You know, having step parents who love you and care about you and are concerned about you, um, can be actually a very positive thing for child development.
And so if the step parents and the biological parent for that matter uses the step parent as a support as a
Wyatt: [00:14:01] friend, um, rather than as
Brian Higganbotham: [00:14:04] a replacement for the other parent or somebody who's going to take care of everything. So. No, I can go back to work or I don't have to worry about these kids anymore because you're here and you're going to be in charge while I'm gone.
And that tends to backfire. The better strategy is to be their friend and let the parent be
Wyatt: [00:14:24] the parent. Yeah. Yeah. You said, um, you can't have too many caring adults in a child's life. How does having caring adults in a child's life benefit them?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:14:33] There are a lot of benefits of having. Caring adults in your life.
Um, personalities can conflict, um, between a child and a parent. As people age, sometimes one parent tends to empathize a little bit better. Sometimes parents are stressed out and so they're not as LIS listening as well as they should, or maybe they lose their temper. And so having more caring adults in somebody's life can often buffer.
When one of the adults in the life is not performing as well as, you know, they may like, or maybe absent more than they would like most kids, not all, but most kids, um, are better about staying out of trouble when they are supervised. And so there tends to be less drug use, less risky sexual behaviors, better grades in school, better attendance at school when there are adults in their life.
Um, who are monitoring their behaviors and providing, you know, examples of how to function well in life and going to where they need to be. And. Fulfilling their responsibilities.
Wyatt: [00:15:43] Um, so I shared that a lot of misconceptions and myths about step-parents and blended families come from TV, obviously like Cinderella.
There's an evil stepmother there. Um, are there any good examples of blended families and TV or movie that you point to, um, in your courses
Brian Higganbotham: [00:16:02] or, you know, we don't in the program really point to any early. Great. Examples. I can tell you though, that, I mean, a number of the presidents of the United States, um, were raised in step families.
Abraham Lincoln talks about as his angel mother and most people understand that to be his stepmother. So you've got a number of historical, uh, individuals who were raised in step families that different people resonate with, but we don't go there. Yeah.
Wyatt: [00:16:32] Yeah. Um, why, why do you stay away from providing people with good examples or bad examples to look to in the program?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:16:42] Um, Well, this is a little bit more of a philosophical question. That's what this is. Um, there's very little, um, on television that is able to capture the full breadth of, uh, family life experience. And whether you're talking about sitcoms for 30 minutes, or whether you're talking about a documentary that may go for several hours, in my opinion, and others may disagree, it's difficult to fully capture all the nuances.
And to put somebody up on a pedestal as the way to do it, or the way not to do it.
Wyatt: [00:17:20] And to me to seem somewhat judgmental. Um,
Brian Higganbotham: [00:17:23] and that's something I've tried to avoid. Even the people who I look up to, I know they. Probably, I don't know, but I'm guessing that they probably make some mistakes sometimes. And, um, people who I think are kind of sleazy, I'm sure do some really great things sometimes.
And I just tried to avoid, um, singling out whether they be actors or real life people as being good or bad. Uh, cause I think all of us. Over the course of our life, do things good and make some mistakes along the way. I just have found it to be a little bit more productive, to focus on skills and to help individuals identify in their own lives.
People who have modeled those skills, it tends to be a little bit more personal. Um, I try to help individuals identify where they have modeled some of those skills, perhaps in some other relationships. Um, to help cultivate in them the sense that they can do this. And even in this new dynamic, that may be very tricky and maybe different than the other examples that we had talked about, but they can pull upon, um, those memories in their own lives, or maybe from their own homes, uh, people who they know and care about and say, Hey, I can.
I can be more empathetic. I can be more caring. I can be more kind. I can be more friendly. It can be more, you know, fill in the blank.
Wyatt: [00:18:50] Just kind of go through, um, the stresses that these families are facing. And then also the strengths that the successful ones have
Brian Higganbotham: [00:19:00] will all couples experience. Stress. Yes.
And there's a lot of similarities. Finances is a stress for most relationships, the complication or the potential complication in a step family dynamic is that in addition to kind of the normal stress of whether you have enough money and how you're going to spend it, you've got the potential of. Some of your money needing to go out the door, um, because of child support or you're hoping money is going to come in because you're receiving it either through alimony or child support, navigating in a blended family.
How much of it am I going to use for those that are my biological children versus my stepchildren? If I'm in a non-married cohabitating, Steph family, for example, do I have the same responsibility? To, you know, get the nice shoes and nice clothes for my partner's child. Or do I wait to see whether the ax is going to do that for this child?
And am I going to set this precedence that I'm just going to do it, and then that person. You know, kind of just veils and says, well, I'm not going to do it because you know, my ex is a new partner is going to take care of it. Those kinds of dynamics you'll have to think about traditionally in a, in a, in a first marriage, um, where people share, you know, the child, the ex partner is another stressor.
Um, a lot of us have had multiple relationships in our lives, but if you aren't married and divorced those. Past partners tend to fade away and they move on and you move on and they're part of your history and maybe your memories, but they're not part of your ongoing relationship. And in a step family, they are.
Somebody who may have really hurt you or somebody who you may still be really connected to. You may no longer be living together. You may even be divorced. Um, but if there was a child and you are now in a step family, or they're in a step family, You have to interact with them, um, either because of custody arrangements or because of financial obligations, the third kind of big issue, um, is parenting.
Um, parenting is hard. Parenting can be a joy, but it can also be a stress in any household, but in a step family, you've got this additional layer. Of complexity in that you don't necessarily have the same history, the same bonding, the same attachment with this child who. You think that you're supposed to parent, but you don't know how much to parent and that leads to a whole host of kind of sub issues of, you know, how much should the other parent do?
How much should the step parent do? What happens if they don't? Um, what happens if the child is young versus older, those are pretty common. Stressors that are just more complex of a more base stress in all family life of, of parenting. What are the strengths? The strengths in successful step families are linked to some of those stressors, the most successful step families, uh, like any other family budget, well with their finances and make plans on how to use it in ways that meets their needs.
And in a step family, you just have to have more, there's just more potential needs and potential outlets. That ways that the money has to be spent, but the same principles of financial planning, um, and good money management are critical in terms of the ex spouse, um, and dealing with, you know, the kids having to go back and forth to multiple homes.
Communication is the key. And good conflict management would be a secondary key, um, that when there is conflict with the ex, um, that it is handled in a healthy way, the more that it is done in unhealthy ways, the more. Complicated things get, uh, people start threatening to Sue or to change custody arrangements.
The kid starts acting out more and so conflict really doesn't solve any of those problems. It tends to only make them worse. So good communication, good conflict management, um, which is often hard to do with somebody who has hurt you burned, you left you. Um, but successful step families are ones that don't allow that ex partner to, uh, ruin the potential of a positive new relationship with your, with your new spouse or a new partner.
And then lastly, uh, parenting skills. Um, parenting skills that again, all couples probably need to utilize of, you know, being consistent, um, being clear, setting, good expectations, you know, positive interactions, not just all work, work, work, but having, you know, a good balance of stretching your children. Um, uh, but also really having fun with your children, um, that appropriate supervision.
Monitoring what they're doing, but also at the same time, giving them enough space so that you're not a helicopter parent, they can develop their own personality, their own sense of self, um, in a step family doing that by, but also, um, respecting that these children in many cases have two biological parents still in the picture.
And, um, being able to draw a line to say, Hey, I'm going to be supportive. Adult in this child's life, but I'm not going to try to replace the two parents who hopefully still love them and are legally responsible for them. But I'll be here as somebody who will listen to them and care about them. When that is the approach that is taken, it eliminates a lot of the friction that can happen between the new couple.
Um, and so we really encourage and would recommend that couples, um, practice that communication. Amongst themselves, not just with their ex, but with their new partner in developing clear roles and responsibilities in the home so that the step-parent doesn't get put in unintentionally into a role where they are having to be the disciplinarian.
Um, and so if that can be prepared in advance, you know, before you leave on your work trip, um, or before, you know, you go on this vacation or whatever, you know, the event is, um, it tends to work out better than if people are just, you know, Responding and doing knee-jerk reactions to children's behavior.
Wyatt: [00:26:02] Yeah. Um, and there's probably lots of national and international research on this. How do your Utah based programs benefit from your research being based in Utah as well?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:26:15] I mean, the curriculum we use is not, is not unique to you. Task smart steps are step families, um, was actually written by Dr. Adler Bader, who currently is in Alabama.
I don't know if people in Utah get more out of it than people in another state. I think what's important here in the state of Utah is that this service is available. Um, very few States have the grants. And have the network of partnering agencies that have been cultivated here in Utah. And so while there are step families throughout our nation, really here in Utah, I think we are one of the few who have a systematic, ongoing 15 year track record of providing research-based educational services to help step families be successful.
Wyatt: [00:27:11] And how does that benefit the state?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:27:14] Well, it can benefit the state by those individuals being successful when, uh, when a relationship dissolves and whether that's through marriage or somebody, if they're not married leaves, but there's children involved there's costs to a whole host of individuals, particularly the parties involved.
Um, but you know, one of the number, one reasons why people miss work. Is because of relationships, the shoes at home. And so when things aren't going well at home, um, employers are, um, handicapped become of it. And then all of us as taxpayers help offset the costs, um, of individuals who qualify for, um, government assistance.
So when we help individuals be successful in their homes, It not only helps them be happier, but it helps, um, the government, uh, not have to spend money on those social services.
Wyatt: [00:28:16] Why is USU one of the agencies helping to provide this
Brian Higganbotham: [00:28:22] Utah state university is the land grant university and has a long history of doing outreach.
That really matters. And for many decades, the university has hired family life, extension specialists who have really seen an opportunity to fill a niche in social services. Um, And I'm not trying to disparage other States because they do a lot of great things and target different niches. Um, but here in Utah, there are a lot of people who want to get married.
We have, you know, pretty high, um, marriage rate and, um, when people divorce, they tend to remarry. And so, uh, there are large numbers of step families here in Utah, and there really aren't any other programs that target. Um, and serve them. And so Utah state university, I think is just fulfilling its land grant purpose of meeting the needs of the state and, uh, helping individuals who might otherwise be underserved, um, have access to good research based information.
Wyatt: [00:29:32] Um, how has your extension appointment rewarding?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:29:37] It's really rewarding to see individuals. Right. Have a light bulb go on. I don't know how else to say it. Uh, you know, w we sit in these classes, I get to observe, I don't do the teaching anymore. I train other people to do that. I go observe and they'll talk about these aha moments and they, they, you can see it in their eyes when you're doing site visits and, um, fidelity monitoring.
You know, when we make sure that they're teaching the curriculum the way that it's supposed to be taught. Um, you know, couples look over each other and it'll say, you gotta try that. Or how can we haven't been doing that or let's let, let's give that a go. The hope that you see swell in them, that things could be different, um, that this challenge that they are currently thinking about or experiencing doesn't always have to be a roadblock to the kind of.
Family life that they envision, um, is just it's, uh, it's a great feeling. Gosh. Um,
Wyatt: [00:30:38] are there any common aha moments or I guess, can you just give me an example of an aha moment or two that people in this class might experience?
Brian Higganbotham: [00:30:51] One of the aha moments that participants commonly have is the realization that love.
Is spelled T I M E. And that's typically true as we talk about the relationship with their partner and also building relationships with stepchildren. Not the way to show that love is not just to work really hard, to be all gone, bring home the bacon or whatever, but it's really to spend quality, time listening, um, developing memories, working together, um, struggling on things together.
But it's that time together that really shows the love. And in which in times, in which people really feel the love. And a lot of people, you know, I'm one of them, it's hard headed, forget that and get really caught up in all the other things that goes on in life. And so that's, that's an aha moment that, um, people get coming through our classes.
I think the other, another important aha moment is that in building a strep step family, a strong step family, it's much like, um, a spider building, a web. The strength of that spider web comes in lots of individual strands. And in the case of a step family, a strong step family, doesn't come from one annual cryptic trip to Disney land.
Um, throw everybody into the car and by golly, we're going to have fun and we're going to come close to each other and we're going to go and come back and we're going to be this happy family. Uh, it doesn't typically work that way. The strongest step families are developed. With individual one-on-one connections where the step parent says, Hey, Johnny likes to go likes basketball.
So I'm going to take him on an individual basis to go watch an Aggie back basketball game thing. Hey, how are you doing? How are you feeling about things? You know, tell me about your, your worries or fears. Reassuring, making sure that that child feels loved. Directly heart to heart, those kind of individual ongoing, not one time.
Um, uh, events is really what makes a really strong web or a strong step family. And then the third aha moment is that it takes time. For love to develop. And in the case of a new parent or a new adult coming into the life of a child, there often are trust issues. There are a lot of other, sometimes hard feelings that the child may uh, have.
And it's important to understand that. The older, the child is the longer, it's probably going to take for them to warm up to you. And there's kind of a general rule of thumb that for every year old that the child is, it's probably gonna take about that long for them to really connect with you. And I know that's not true for infants.
You know, but if your child is, you know, eight, nine, 10 years old, um, don't be surprised if it's not until they're out of the home and in college that they, you know, call you and say, Hey man, I'm sorry. I kind of was a jerk to you growing up, but I really appreciate how good you were to me. And Hey, I've got a question.
Can you help me out on this? Or I don't know how to handle taxes or credit cards. Um, and that's okay. You gotta have the long-term view. Um, in a step family. And the reality is, is if you are patient and take time with the children to warm up to you and just commit to being their friend, that over time, you can have that kind of strong family feel, but it very rarely happens overnight.
Wyatt: [00:34:52] You said that these aha moments or realizations bring people a lot of hope. Why did they lack hope? One of the
Brian Higganbotham: [00:34:59] reasons. Why education is so powerful is that it opens people's minds to think of things in ways that they hadn't before. And whether we're talking about how to solve a math problem or how to solve a parenting problem, we only know what we know.
And unfortunately, a lot of times we. Are clueless to the things that we don't know. And so we keep on trying to do what we do know, which is often informed by how we were raised, um, or what we think is right in that moment. Well, education facilitates home because it opens people's eyes. To a different way.
And the possibility that that different way may lead to a different outcome is I think what is behind that Genesis of hope.
Wyatt: [00:36:04] Thank you for listening to this episode of instead, please remember. That more caring adults in a child's life is always a good thing to hear more from Brian. You can see him in the April 20th of blue plate research presentation.
For more information about that, you can visit blue plate research.usu.edu. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with a friend and give instead of five star rating in your podcast app. This episode of instead was produced by me and Nick Vasquez as part of our work in the office of research at Utah state university.