Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Sample Structural Maps of
Low-nurturance Stepfamilies


How to Draw Your Own Maps
p.3 of 5

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council

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Continued from p. 2

  Typical Low-Nurturance ("Dysfunctional") Stepfamily Structures

        Mapping a multi-home stepfamily’s structures is like using Lego-brand blocks. Many elements can be combined to portray a great variety of household and family relationships. All these dysfunctional-structure elements apply here, plus new elements occurring between related step-homes.

        Stepfamily structures shift over time from many things, like births or deaths; changes in custody, residence, employment, finances, or location; re/marriages, re/divorces, affairs, abortions or adoptions; adolescence; graduations and emancipations; addictions, physical or emotional disabilities; and lots more.

        Here are maps of some low-nurturance step-home (vs. whole stepfamily) emotional structures. Any look familiar? These are only a few of the many possibilities:

SM //
        x x x (BF1

SF || (C1+BM1)
- - - - - - - - - -
C2... C3

- - - - -xxx
C1 C2    (C3

8) Emotionally-absent, non- communicative custodial BioFather, rejected / defied (frustrated) StepMother; Allied resident stepkids

9) BioMom + biochild C1 alliance, low-priority remarriage; StepFather feels shut out; no effective home boundaries.

10) Rigid StepFather "dictator," excluded stepchild C3, BioMom split in between; no adult problem- solving; Rigid household boundaries.

     \\ (BF1 +++++++ BM1)
SM) - - - - -                - - - - -
C1 ... C1  arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)       
SM || BF1
C1 ...C1
\\ (BM1+BGM1)
SF ) - - - - - - - - - -      
C1... C3

11)   Custodial BioFather is enmeshed (emotionally- undivorced) with ex mate BM1 via phone and visits; ineffective SM-BF1 problem-solving; Isolated, discounted StepMom

12)  No effective co-parental problem solving; No boundaries; Distrust and hostility between SM and her stepchild/ren; Kids feel unheard by both adults, anxious, needy, and angry or depressed;

13)   BioMom + resident bio- GrandMother alliance: StepFather undermined, ignored, and withdrawn; Kids confused, anxious, rebellious. Grandma controls boundaries.

More typical low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") stepfamily structural-map elements...

- - x-x-x-x - -
C1 ... C1
DF1 || DM2
- - - - xxx - - -
1) - - - - -
C1 ..Carro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

14) Favored Ours child (above the line because her/his needs over-shape this household's behavior); Resident half-siblings hurt and resentful, probably acting out;

15)   Dual-role Father’s kids reject Dual-role Mom's child C2 and he allows it. Resentful DM2 dislikes her stepkids; Blocked co-parental communications, major loyalty conflict;

16) Dysfunctional two-home system: StepFather angry over erratic child support; no problem solving; BioMom paralyzed, detached; Kids trapped in the middle;


SM BF1>>>|
xxxx - - -    
arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

|<<< BM1
       - - -
arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)

DF1 DM2 ||
C1 C2 arro-lft1.gif (74 bytes)

       || C2
     - - - - -
arro-rt1.gif (72 bytes)  BF2

SF>> [BF2]+BM2
- - - - - - - - - - - -
C2 ... C2

17)   Two-home system; Emotionally unfinished divorce; kids in the middle, polarized, rejecting SM; SM resentful, feels unsupported and 1-down; BF1 denies  they’re a stepfamily, and their major loyalty conflict;

18) The "C2" kids are in split custody. Biodad BF2 is emotionally disabled (below the line), so resident C2 runs their house; Blocked intra- and inter-home communications, so no effective listening or problem solving;

19)  BioMom BM2 hasn't mourned her first mate's death - and can’t help her kids do so; Her [dead husband] strongly affects the decisions in this home; Stepdad is increasingly  resentful. Neither co-parent knows of these 7 Lessons

20)  A full three-home, five co-parent, five child, two-structure low-nurturance nuclear-stepfamily map:

- - - - - - - - - - Before visitations - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -  During visitations - - - - - - - - -
Home 1

SF) - - - - -     
C1 C1     

Home 2

|<<DF1|| DM2>>|
- - - xxx- - -
2  C2

Home 3

|>>BF2 C2
     - - - - -


Home 1

(SFheart ltl.gif (940 bytes) BM1)
- - - - - - -


Home 2

- - - || - - - -       
[C1 C1] O1-2      

Home 3


  • BM1 and ex mate DF1 are hostile and distrusting (aren't emotionally divorced), and can't problem solve. Both C1 kids often feel caught in the middle. StepFather often feels ignored and powerless, and increasingly resentful;

  • Dual-role dad DF1 favors Ours-child O1-2 over resident stepchild C2; Dual-role mom DM2 and her child C2 are resentful; household communications are ineffective, so conflicts and distrusts are piling up;

  • Custodial biofather BF2 treats older biochild C2 as a confidant and buddy. DM2 and DF1 disapprove, and feel helpless.

  • All five kids often feel unsafe and confused; Co-parents are often critical and defensive; little three-home unity or teamwork.

  • Now "kid-free," SF and BM1 reconnect

  • Over-guilty DF1 focuses on his biokids C1 C1, who make demands;

  • DM2 and "ours" child O1-2 feel left out and hurt, but mom doesn't say so. Frequent adult arguing and blaming, instead of listening, asserting, and effective problem solving;

  • Dual-role mom DM2 and one stepchild C1 clash; Dual dad DF1 either withdraws or sides with his child, who feels powerful and anxious; DM2 and O1-2 draw together;

  • BF2 withdraws emotionally, leaving his C2 "buddy" to co-parent the visiting sibling; DM2 calls often to check up, instructing resident C2 on co-parenting the visiting sib, and criticizing biofather BF2; Older child feels responsible, powerful, and split. Younger child feels confused and anxious.

        There is much more to the dynamics in and between these three homes. This two-part map shows key structural and communication elements. Two of the bioparents pay lip-service to their identity  as a stepfamily, but none of the five know what that means. Note that none of the over 50 combined relatives in the five co-parents' biofamilies (the extended stepfamily) are shown.

        Over time, these intra-home and inter-home dynamics shape everyone's expectations. Because there is little co-parental stepfamily knowledge, problem-solving, or teamwork, no stepfamily identity, unity and pride develops, and resentments and stresses accumulate.

        All five co-parents are unrecovering Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) - and don't know it. They have only hazy ideas of their kids many special needs, and their related caregiving roles. Because of all this, the kids (including "ours" child O1-2) are unconsciously developing false selves like the adults. Several are "acting out" in protest.

        The point here is - structural maps like this one can provide stepfamily co-parents and supporters a concise, clear way of showing key responsibility, relationship, and communication problems and strengths. That helps co-parents agree on their goals and responsibilities, and enables measuring progress along the way.

  Making Your Structural Map

       Earlier pages show samples of the many ways multi-home separated-biofamily, and stepfamily structures can be diagrammed. These illustrations have shown only a few of the possibilities. Time to try your wings! Suggestions...

Try on the expectant attitude of "doing this can help our re/marriage, home, kids, and step-family," rather than feeling anxious, defensiveness, or detached (indifferent). Catch the con-structive spirit of these maps, and invent your own rules. You’re doing this to help and please yourselves - no one else!

Structural maps work best after your three or more co-parents have made major progress on co-parent Lessons 1 thru 7. If you use the maps with educators, counselors, clergy, or lawyers, it helps a lot if they have a working knowledge of these stepfamily-building projects too.

Draw your full stepfamily genogram first. Discuss it with your co-parenting partners, toward agreeing on "Who do we include in our multi-home stepfamily?" If you’re not yet clear on that, making useful structural maps will be hard or  impossible. If you or any of your co-parenting partners need to deny or minimize that you are a multi-home stepfamily, don’t expect to get much help from any of these diagrams.

Stay focused. Bio, step, and other forms of family exist to (a) conceive and foster the healthy growth of dependent children; and (b) fill ongoing adult needs for love, nurturance, procreation, companionship, shelter, comfort, and security.

        Focus your no-visitation and during-visitation maps on understanding how your stepfamily homes’ emotional structure affects filling each members' key primary (vs. surface) needs. That implies that you're clear on what they are...

Take your time! These diagrams are often complex, and can reveal insights and validations only if you concentrate thoughtfully on them. Build them slowly and deliberately, and they’ll pay off for you all!

Draw these structural maps by yourself, not with your co-parenting partner/s. You’ll discover more! Expect your maps to evolve through trial and discussion, rather than expecting to "get it right the first time." Keep a large eraser handy, and sketch lightly until you’ve thought, mulled, and discussed together, enough. False starts are great, here!

If you or a co-parenting partner feel reluctant to do this exercise, that’s a helpful learning by itself. I’d guess it means that you and/or they have some anxiety, guilt, or shame about your present home or stepfamily that feel unsafe to confront right now.

Avoiding is a common coping skill we Grown Wounded Children (GWCs - adults from low-nurturance childhoods) develop early in life to manage our inner pain. Unfortunately, the risk here is that deferring a painful stepfamily awareness often means it’ll get worse, with time

As with genograms, consider writing down any thoughts and feelings that surface as you (a) evolve your structural maps, and (b) compare and discuss them with other members. Such meditative jotting can give you concrete info to compare with if you map again in the future - a way of clearly affirming family growth and positive change - or lack of same...

1) Start With Your Home

        Rough draft: Think of the people regularly living in (vs. visiting) your home. You’ll do other maps on your one or two related co-parent homes later. To begin, lightly draw a horizontal "co-parental responsibility" line on a blank page. Now decide: "among all our stepfamily members, who’s needs, opinions, and drives usually directly and indirectly affect the minor kid/s in our home the most?" To put it bluntly: "Who really makes the key co-parenting and administrative decisions in our home, most of the time?"

        Consider that the person/s really running your house may be dead, or alive and living elsewhere. They may be one or more adults, a scared, depressed, or enraged child, a powerful relative, an absent bioparent, or some combination. They may also control everyone else by choosing to be "over-helpless" and a "victim." Recall - this exercise is not about finding fault with anyone. It’s about discovering what is to affirm the good, and improve the rest.

        Tentatively, put initials or symbols for the one or more "in-charge" people above the line. Try to avoid pre-conceived expectations ("well of course both of us resident adults are equally in charge here"). Of those above the line, is there one who’s more in charge than another? For example, it’s common that in a new step-home, resident (and maybe absent) bioparents have more authority over live-in and visiting biokids than the resident stepparent (see example 4).

        A strong- willed, outspoken, or acting-out child, relative, or ex mate may strongly influence the decisions in your home. If so, draw a shorter horizontal line above the responsibility line, and put the name or initials of this "strongest" person above this line. If any home-leader is dead, put their name in parentheses, or a circle.

        Membership spot checks: Many homes are strongly influenced by certain members’ spiritual beliefs. Such members’ relationship decisions and boundaries are often affected by their deep belief in, and relationship with, a personal Higher Power. If this is true now in your home, find a way to symbolize the influence of such a spiritual home-structure member - e.g. {God} or {HP}.

        Also, many two-career homes hire part-time or even live-in child-care help. If you regularly use a nanny, "senior" baby-sitter, relative, neighbor, or other child-care provider to help parent any of your minor kids, decide how you want to add them to your household’s structural diagram. They are affecting your children’s welfare! In the same way, consider any professional counselors of importance to any regular member of your house now.

        Psychological, financial, school, sports, or career counselors, clergy, and medical professionals are affecting your members’ emotional climate. How do you want to note their presence and "rank" in your current relationship structure?

        Now consider each adult regularly living in your home (including grown biokids), and pick a place on your diagram for them. Options:

  • an active co-equal leader above the line;

  • a dominant leader above other members with some co-parenting authority;

  • an emotionally-regressed, overwhelmed, sick, or withdrawn role under the line (little or no authority or active influence on household activities); and...

  • an emotionally detached - or passively ignored - co-parenting role.



    Ann Ed
1) - - - - - -
  2) - - - -  

3) - - - - - - -
        Ed C...C

4) - - - (Ed

      Now add each resident minor child by name or initials: where do they usually fit in your home’s emotional structure (in non-visitation mode)? Common options: (a) co-equally below the line; (b) above the co-parenting responsibility line - perhaps even running the whole home; (c) emotionally excluded, withdrawn, or detached, and (d) dominated by one or more other resident kid/s - a scapegoat or black sheep role. Samples (Al and Jo are minor resident kids):

   Ann Ed
1)  - - - - - -
   Ann Al Ed
2)  - - - - - - - -
or         Al 
      Ann Ed
2)  - - - - - - -

      Ann  Ed
3)   - - - - - -
)    Jo

    Ann  Ed
4) - - - - - -
   Jo  Jill

        Some kids may rise and fall above and below the co-parental responsibility line (or a "scapegoat" line), depending on who’s at home (or not), or what’s happening. Draw each child in their main position in your home, or consider drawing several structures.

        Don’t forget to include any unborn kids who are on the way (e.g. "??"). They probably have a big effect on your emotional structure! Also, include dead children (e.g.  [George]  ) who haven't been well- grieved by all regular members of your home. They still significantly influence these adults and kids.

        Pause, breathe, and recall why you used this worksheet. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or "someone else"?

Continue your map-building by showing alliances, antagonisms, boundaries, and other co-parenting homes.


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Updated  April 13, 2015