Help clients understand and break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

Clinical Errors to Avoid with
Typical Low-Nurturance Families

A Checklist for Trainees and Veterans

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


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        This article is one of a series on effective professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma. These articles for professionals are under construction.

        This series assumes you're familiar with:

        Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article? What do you need?

+ + +

        This article offers a quick reference for mental-health professionals on common blocks to effective work with typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients. This collection of blocks is based on 36 years' private-practice experience with this client population, and a related  five-element model of effective work with them.

        The model proposes five things typical clinicians need to provide effective service to these complex, multi-problem clients:

  • the clinician's true Self steadily guiding his or her other personality subselves; plus...

  • accurate didactic knowledge of key topics; and...

  • experiential learning from applying these topics in work with these clients; and...

  • a high-nurturance, informed clinical metasystem; and...

  • special resources for the client and clinician.

        In my professional experience since 1979, most human-service professionals (a) lack these requisites, and (b) don't know that, or what it means to them and their clients. In other words, they and their supervisors, case managers, funders, and employers settle for inferior service because they don't know what's possible. Regardless of professional training and work experience, uninformed, wounded, and novice human-service providers can make a range of errors that will lower service effectiveness and possibly add to client distress.

        These are common correctable errors:

  • not checking for these five requisites, and taking corrective action

        1) A disabled true Self - typical human-service professional are apt to be be significantly- wounded survivors of low-nurturance childhoods. We Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) survived by developing a dominant "false self." Until clinicians assess themselves for false-self dominance and take any appro-priate corrective action ("recovery"), they are at risk of distorting reality, making impulsive, unwise per-sonal and professional decisions; and missing the chance to help clients assess for their own psychological wounds. Such clinicians are also apt to unconsciously choose low-nurturance, stressful work environ-ments which raises the odds of providing - and settling for - ineffective service.

        The major error here is a clinician (i.e. their false self) avoiding responsibility for learning how to em-power their resident true Self to lead their "inner family" of personality subselves in all situations. The paradox here is that protective false selves will usually deny the need to do this ("I'm not psychologically wounded!"), and will ignore, postpone. They'll minimize learning about personality subselves and psychological wounds, and (b) honestly assessing for significant wounds. Then they'll deny doing this, and/or persuasively rationalize doing it. Could this be true of you?

        A widespread related error is unaware human-service employers, supervisors, case managers, and consultants (a) not learning about - or rejecting - normal personality subselves and wounds, and (b) not assessing themselves and their clinical employees and supervisees for significant false-self dominance  (wounds); and/or (c) not adequately training and encouraging their staff to be aware of psychological wounds and what they mean.

        If you're not aware of normal (vs. "pathological") personality subselves, study these slide presentations on "inner-family" basics, the [wounds +  unawareness] cycle, and wound-recovery basics. Then use this and this for an initial appraisal of whether you are significantly controlled by a false self. Lesson 1 in this non-profit Web site and its related guidebook offer more detail and options on wound assessment and recovery.

Ignorance - not learning basic stepfamily facts, implications, differences, myths and realities, child and adult adjustment tasks, risks, and solutions 

2) Not doing an honest attitude check and considering the effects on your clients of continuing any inaccurate or toxic beliefs about divorce, re/marriage, steppeople, and stepfamilies.

3) Treating a courting or legal stepfamily member like a member of an intact biofamily - e.g. avoiding or ignoring the use of appropriate "step" terms and titles;

4) Excluding stepkids' other parent/s from consideration in making family interventions and decisions

5) Not asking early in the work if client adults identify as "a stepfamily"; or _ not explaining clearly why you ask;

6) If they say they identify as a stepfamily, not testing to see if they have appropriate traits;

7) Assuming that if a client does identify as a stepfamily member, s/he knows what that means;

8) Not assessing for symptoms of significant false-self wounding  in the attending co-parents and _ their family trees;

9) Not assessing early how effective adult clients are in marital and co-parental problems-solving;

10) Not assessing clients' knowledge of _ healthy-grieving basics, and the _ symptoms of blocked grief in any of their related co-parenting homes;

11) Not assessing client _ knowledge of and _ strategy to resolve _ values conflicts, _ loyalty conflicts and _ relationship triangles;

12) Not assessing each re/married mate for their primary needs, and explaining why;

13) Not _ alerting clearly-unaware courting partners of their hazards and probable divorce, and _ pointing them to credible protections, education, and resources.

14) Not forming a viable way of judging the _ nurturance-level and _ stepfamily knowledge of other providers serving your client and alerting them to any concerns.

15) Not _ learning about the special needs of typical stepkids, _ encouraging clients to do the same, and _ explaining why;

16) Not _ learning of local service providers with stepfamily awareness and competence, _ networking with them, and _ referring clients to them;

17) Not recommending or requesting that your organization's in-service training program periodically focus on these stepfamily topics;

18) Not evaluating the viability and costs/benefits of (co)sponsoring a professionally-led co-parent support group; or inquiring if one exists locally, evaluating it's effectiveness, and making referrals as appropriate;

19) Not making a point to ask local clergy in professional or personal socializing if they're aware of this site or equivalent, and urging them to learn about the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its effects..

20) Not recommending to appropriate program executives in your professional organization/s (e.g. ABA, APA, AMA, NASW, AAMFT) that they _ include professional stepfamily-focused training programs, and _ sponsor support initiatives and  for _ courting co-parents (prevention) and _ re/married co-parents and kids. Option: if your organization/s support "single-parents" or divorcing families," proactively suggest enlarging those programs to include basic re/divorce-prevention education.

21) Ignoring family strengths, and overfocusing on past and present family "problems"

         This is a representative summary of ways human-service professionals can err by omission and commission in working with courting and legal stepfamily clients. The theme of all these "errors" is not motivating such clients to get education to help them _ realize their risks, and _ learn how to minimize them, over time.





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Updated April 30, 2013