How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything

She's Trying to Close the Emotional Gap with Papí

Episode Notes

Kelsey and her Guatemalan dad had a distant relationship during her teenage years, but as an adult she wants to get to know him better, and strengthen their father-daughter bond. And, psychologist Gabriela Livas Stein returns to the show with strategies for deepening our relationships with our parents while navigating normative family roles.

Kelsey Milian Lopez is the author of the poetry collection The Sociology of a Miami Girl

Featured Expert

Our expert this week is Gabriela Livas Stein, Associate Professor of Psychology at University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She received her doctoral degree in clinical psychology with a specialization in child and family psychology from UNC Chapel Hill in 2007. She completed her pre-doctoral clinical internship at University of California, San Diego/VA Consortium followed by a postdoctoral fellowship position at Duke University. Broadly, her research uses developmental psychopathology and cultural-ecological frameworks to investigate the impact of culturally relevant factors on the development of psychopathology for minoritized youth and their families. Dr. Stein’s program of research revolves around three themes: (1) understanding the role of familial cultural values in Latinx families and their impact on the development of Latinx youth, (2) identifying individual risk and protective processes for Latinx and other minoritized youth when facing cultural stressors (e.g., discrimination, acculturative stress), and (3) improving mental health treatment access for Latinx families in community mental health. She is also the principal investigator at CAMINOS Lab. Learn more about her work here.

Learn more about her lab here. If you loved this episode, be sure to listen to When Familism Hurts and Still Yearning for His Father's Love.

We’d love to hear your stories of triumph and frustration so send us a detailed voice memo to You might be on a future episode! Let’s connect on Twitter and Instagram at @TalkToMamiPapi and email us at And follow us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and anywhere you listen to your favorite podcasts.


Episode Transcription

Juleyka Lantigua:

Hi, everybody. Today, we welcome Kelsey. Growing up, Kelsey didn't have a very close relationship with her Guatemalan father. He was present in her life, for sure, and a provider for the family, but she always felt he was emotionally distant. Now as an adult, she's trying to find ways to bond with him and deepen their relationship. Let's get into it.

Kelsey: My name is Kelsey Melian and I am actually a current graduate student at CUNY graduate center in New York city but I was raised in Miami, Florida. I'm half Mexican, Guatemalan and Japanese, also Zapotec and K’iche Maya. I currently just published my first poetry book called The Sociology of a Miami Girl. I also call my parents... Well, I call my Papi Papi, but I also, for some reason called my mom cosecha that translates to harvest in English. And I basically just call her cosecha because she brings people together. 

Sometimes at least in the past, I had a very big struggle with really trying to communicate with my father, trying to have conversations about opening up, creating a space for emotional vulnerability. And sometimes I was faced with resistance because he doesn't necessarily have, has the tools of how to create that. Right? I don't necessarily think my father experienced that growing up as a kid.

Kelsey: He's Guatemalan. And so at the age of, I would say maybe 11, his father came up to him and told him, "Listen, you have to leave school and have to start working and providing for the family." So at that point, my father began cleaning boats at a factory. For him in a very traditional Guatemalan home, these ideas of emotional vulnerabilities, especially for men weren't necessarily accessible. He grew up to have the mentality of, "Let me provide for my family." But providing doesn't necessarily mean just materialistic things, food, all these different things. But when you're having children,  developing a strong emotional connection with them.

Kelsey: At a young age, I started to notice and then entering teenage years, complexity of that, rebellion, all of these different things, wanting to go out and have fun, but also having the limits of parenting. And so there was this constant push of back and forth of thinking, “you don't even know me yet. You don't know who I am, so why are you dictating how my life goes?” Kind of thing. Right? And so that was when there was this kind of tumultuous period in my teenage years. And I started diving into a lot more artistic performing arts. So I think for a long time, I wanted my father to come see a lot of my performances as a violinist growing up. But because he was always working, I often felt that kind of resentment of why won't he come to see my orchestra performances or these different things. And later on in life, I started realizing, "Oh, this is the reason why." Right? He was tired from work. Not because he didn't want to.

Kelsey: It was coming back home after different college experiences in the summer, in spring breaks and really spending time with him realizing that, okay, he and my mom both really gave it their all to give my brother and I, everything that we could ever want. And I started realizing, oh, wow. You know, I need to start opening up, but how do I do that? Right?

Kelsey: I started doing it through my poetry really. And the poems that I was writing about were basically about my relationship with my mother, my father. I was trying to navigate these feelings of resentment, longing for attention, longing for that inner child connection. Of course, you know, I would tell them, so I got published in this, in this and you know, they would read it and we'd have conversations about it. "Hey dad. Like, this is what I was feeling at that time. And I just want you to know that I understand now, and it's like, I forgive you. Forgive me." You know, and coming to terms with that.

Over the course of revealing, you know what I was feeling through my father, I've also been able to learn a lot more about his experiences, his childhood traumas. One of the biggest things that connects us is the fact that when I was a kid, unfortunately the parents of my parents passed away very, very early in my life. I was around maybe one or two years old. And so having conversations with my dad about his parents, telling me how Abuelo would play guitar and was a really great guitar player. The music gene, as we say, but things like that. Right? And seeing the way soon how my father opens up about his own childhood of, "Oh yeah. When I was young, I wanted to actually sing, but I couldn't because I ended up going to a school with some really strict nuns and they would always scold me for singing." Stories that I never heard of when I was a kid.

Kelsey: I've had certain interesting romantic relationships with men, and I've been realizing that some of it is in a way connected to my own relationship with my father in terms of like what I was craving, right? The kind of affection and love and attention that I wanted from him. Right? I see that. So part of me is thinking if I don't heal from this, I can't heal that I myself need to start doing the healing now in order to break cycles and patterns of pain. So then the next generations of my family have an easier time.

Juleyka: I was really impressed by Kelsey's maturity, in how she's approaching, trying to build a new relationship with her dad seeking that emotional connection she's always wanted and always needed, but doing so in a way that suits them both. Her story made me think about how cultural and family norms can often set strict expectations for what a relationship with our parents looks like and in particular father daughter relationships. 

So what can first gens do to improve or even reinvent our relationships with our parents while also navigating normative family roles? That's a pretty big question. So to help us out, I called in an expert.

Gabriela Livas Stein:

 I am Dr. Gabriela Livas Stein. I'm a clinical psychologist and a professor at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro and I do research on Latinex families and especially around family obligations.

Juleyka: Gabriela, welcome back.

Livas Stein: Nice to be back.

Juleyka: Same question I always ask, what did you hear when you listened to Kelsey's story?

Livas Stein: I heard a family that is trying to and connect with each other through the experiences of immigration trauma and the difficulties of just living life and really trying to connect and find ways to communicate with one another in a way that felt authentic and real.

Juleyka: One of the things that we talked about when you were here last time was about how familismo in Latin culture creates a set of unspoken expectations and cultural norms. Did you hear some of that echo in her testimonial?

Livas Stein: Definitely. She talked about sort of knowing when she was an adolescent, that she was rebelling, she was supposed to act a certain way, but yet she didn't feel her parents were honoring what she was wanting from them. So there was this unwritten sort of push and pull from her end about what she was wanting and the obligation she felt that her parents weren't meeting right? That they weren't able to come to listen to her orchestra concert. And she sort of felt hurt as an adolescent about that. And it wasn't until she was later in college that she realized that that wasn't out of a lack of love or a lack of desire, but it was the exhaustion of living in the type of life that her dad had lived in.

Juleyka: And it's really interesting because there, early on, there seems to have been an acceptance on her part as an adolescent and you young adult that, "Well, this is just the way that is. He's not someone who opens up. He's not someone who's emotional." And I definitely, as a Latina have experienced how familismo gives certain gender normative roles to people and everybody just kind of goes, "Well, it is the way it is." But that changes later in life. Can you talk a little bit about how familismo almost kind of traps people into such roles?

Livas Stein: So, one thing that we see in the research is that familismo does change and you actually see a more intense endorsement of familismo in adolescents. So that it has to be endorsed in a very specific kind of way. And that rigidity is what gets us into trouble. It's really thinking that these roles are so rigid, particularly when they come with a gender lens to them that can be challenging for folks to navigate and can lead to some of the negative mental health outcomes that we might see. So that's the trap. It's that rigidity that this absolutism that we often want to fight against. That these values are really great, but they can't be absolutely applied in every single context. And so we have to think about how to make them live in our life in a way that's healthy for us, where we're benefiting from it as much as we're giving from it. And I think where that trap is is where we're giving, giving, giving, giving, and not receiving that reciprocal aspect of it from others.

Juleyka: Hmm. So I was so impressed with Kelsey's self-awareness and her emotional growth throughout her becoming cognizant not only of the roles, but also of trying to find ways to still deepen her relationship to her dad in a way that was not intrusive, in a way that was still respectful and especially in a way that was not judgemental. Can you talk through some strategies or suggestions for how people in Kelsey's situation, once they recognize, "Okay, there's some dynamics here at play that I have to deal with. How do I still get what I need and what I want, ultimately, which is a closer relationship with my parent, my loved one, despite these things that have been essentially etched in stone."

Livas Stein: Yeah. One thing that she said was that they were searching for ways to forgive each other. Right? And I think that's one of the pieces is that we have to sort of show grace to each other and to ourselves, and to really understand that we're all at sometimes trying our best that we can. We also need to be able to say this person was trying their best at time and that wasn't what I was needing, but now we're going to move forward and try our best together. And I think being really clear about what it is that you're really needing. What does that mean when you want to feel closer to someone? Do you want to be able to share things about yourself? Do you want to be able to spend time together enjoying each other's company? Do you want to be able to just call them or send text? Right? And for each family, what that looks like is different.

Livas Stein: So I think being really clear with yourself as to what is it that I'm really looking for and is that something that this person is capable of being able to give me right now? And if they can't, it's not because something of me it's because of something of them. Right? And that's the piece where we get into trouble is when we think about, "Well, it has to do with me. My parent doesn't love me or my parent can't make the time for me. So I must not be a worthwhile person or an important person." but I think the maturity piece is to say, "Well, this isn't about me. This is what they can offer me right now. And I need to sort of figure out a way to..." You can ask for some of those pieces that you're looking for, but then you can also be okay with the answer being "I can't do this for you right now because I'm not in the right space." And knowing that relationship can change. That's a no for right now, not a no for forever. Right? And so sometimes it's sort of sitting with and being okay with what we have in that moment.

Juleyka: All right. I'm going to push back a little bit on the notion at the top of your statement, which is that we have to forgive each other. The concept of apologizing from a parent, of asking for forgiveness from a parent, of even recognizing blame from a parent, in our culture and in many cultures is unheard of. So how do we work around that? Do we first offer the forgiveness without saying, "Okay, it's your turn now?" What do we do?

Livas Stein: That's a great point. I think you're you're right. Right? Some people aren't even capable of acknowledging those errors that they made or being able to say, "Hey, I didn't do right by you in X, Y or Z way." Because that does require that maturity you were saying that Kelsey showed. Right? So you're right. That it sometimes can be really challenging to do that. And I think the pieces... Us having the understanding that we have to just honor the life we want to live. Right? So if we want to say, "You know what, when I was a teen, I did X, Y, and I didn't think about how that affected you." You know, I often talk with my mom about how my daughter does all the things that I did that drove her crazy. And I'm like, "Oh my gosh, mom, I would go into your closet and take all your clothes. Now I see why that was so upsetting to you."

And even in those joking kinds of ways, right? To be like, "Yes, like I didn't understand you totally at that point, but I understand some of you now." And I think those are ways again, it's not necessarily that I say, "I'm sorry I did it." I never said the words. I'm sorry, but I said, "Hey, I understand what this was like for you at that time."

Ultimately as humans, we want to feel understood. We want to feel that other people get what we are doing and see us for who we are. And I think that's another way you don't have to say the word, "I'm sorry" but you can say, "I understand. I understand you did the best you could." Even if your parent doesn't say that back to you, we can't change how other people react to what we do. Right? We can only ask. And I think one thing that I've learned just as psychologist, is that the best thing for our own mental health is to just act in ways that are consistent with our values and we can't necessarily always impose that on others.

Juleyka: I want to segway into another part of Kelsey's story, which is that she's very aware that her relationship or lack of relationship with her dad has influenced other relationships in her life. And so I really commend her for that awareness. But then what does someone do after the awareness hits?

Livas Stein: I think it's one of those things to sort of maybe even note what those patterns are, right? To be really clear like, "Oh, when this happens..." Right? "When my partner pulls away, that makes me feel these kinds of ways." And it's not about my partner, it's about this other thing that I'm thinking about, these triggers. And so that once you're aware of those, you can plan for those in a way to say, " Okay. Let me pause. What's another way I can respond in this moment." Even if it's to share it with your partner, "You know what, what you just said is bringing up all this stuff for me right now. And I just need to take a break. Let's think about this together. Or is there another way that we can approach this conflict or whatever it might be that's happening." So I think inviting your partner in, knowing what those triggers are, and then having a thought about response about what can you do in that moment?

Juleyka: Okay. I'm going to put an asterisk on that because...

Livas Stein: Sure. I love that.

Juleyka: Because it just requires one, obviously a really deep sense of understanding your own trauma, and then the next level is just a gift for communicating that, right? It is really difficult to verbalize things that only exist inside you as memories or feelings. Because trauma lives in the body, as we know. And so I'm just thinking about my own experiences, trying to talk about the thing that trigger me that are so embedded in who I am from my past and it is coming out the absolute worst way possible.

Livas Stein: I do feel like having these conversations outside of those moments that you know of whatever it is that really pushes those buttons is the best way to set yourself up to have that better communication. Because whenever we're all activated, we're not doing our best. You know? We don't have our best communication in that moment. That's totally true. So there's always time to plan for that in the future. And I think another point of what you just said that I think made me think is that it may not be that you can identify that specific thought or that specific thing, but it may be a feeling in your body. And just to know that feeling, when you have that feeling in your body to say, "Okay, what can I do differently in this moment?" Like even if it's just like, "I'm going to take five deep breaths."

Juleyka: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Livas Stein: Other things that you can do is this tightening and releasing of your muscles. So holding a tight squeeze of your fist, just to put all the tension in that fist. And then when you count for 10 as tight as you can, when you let it go, it's like this feels a sensation of like a lift. And you can just do it over and over again until you sort of feel that release.

Juleyka: I am doing it right now.

Livas Stein: Yeah. No it...

Juleyka: It's really good.

Livas Stein: And the one that's also, it's a little bit embarrassing if you're in front of other, people's doing it with your face. Because we carry so much tension in our face and we express ourselves with our face. You can also squinch up your face and like for like 10 seconds and then you release it and then it's like a mask lifting off.

Juleyka: What did I not ask because I simply didn't know to ask that you think would be useful or helpful to folks like Kelsey trying to deepen these relationships and trying to work through the years of compounded trauma and experiences and distance?

Livas Stein: Well, I really love that Kelsey talked about doing her art and poetry as a way to express herself. So that there's other ways that we can express ourselves especially if you can't communicate. Right? If, it feels like the words are lost or you don't know exactly what to say, there may be a song that helps you communicate yourself. There may be a movie you could watch with your family. There could be other ways to connect, maybe a piece of art that you saw that really speaks to you. So I feel like we can be creative in how we can express ourselves. That's the only other piece I would think would be important. Be thoughtful about other ways to tell folks how you feel.

Juleyka: Such a pleasure to talk to you again. Thank you so much, Gabriela.

Livas Stein: Oh, so happy to be here and pleasure to talk to you as well. I love these conversations.

Juleyka: Okay. Here's what we learned from Gabriela today. 

Show your understanding. You can't force someone to apologize. Instead, live out your own values and let your loved ones know how you are learning to understand them. 

Calm your body. Take some deep breaths. Hold and release your fists or scrunch up the muscles in your face and let them go. Scrunch them up and let them go. Doing so can release some of the tension in your body during difficult interactions. 

And remember get creative. If talking about feelings is challenging for you or your loved ones, try other ways of what words cannot, sharing music, watching a movie, reading poetry or enjoying a piece of art together. Get creative! 

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much for listening and for sharing us. 

How to talk to Mami and Papi About Anything is an original production of LWC studios. Virginia Lora is the shows' producer. Kojin Tashiro is our mixer. Manuela Bedoya is our marketing lead. I'm the creator Juleyka Lantigua. On Twitter and Instagram we're @talktomamipapi. Bye everybody. Same place next week.


Lantigua, Juleyka, host. “She's Trying to Close the Emotional Gap with Papí” 

How to Talk to [Mamí & Papí] about Anything, 

LWC Studios., April 25, 2022.