clinical service to divorced-family and stepfamily clients
An Introduction to
Effective Clinical Intervention
With Divorcing Families and Stepfamilies
By Peter K.
NSRC Experts Council
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This article is one of a series on
professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance
(dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical
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
+ + +
page introduces a series of articles on effective
clinical interventions with
typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients. This series builds on articles
on the four other parts of the clinical model proposed in this site - specially
on clinician qualifications and effective
intervention is any intentional or reflexive behavior by a clinician (counselor or therapist) that
causes significant change in the client's
- in someone's opinion.
interventions described here apply to up to all six
and others are unique to
type. Use this
glossary as needed to compare the terminology in
these articles with your definitions.
interventions described here are discrete and modular, note that in real life,
family-system stressors (adult wounds, ignorance, and unfilled primary needs)
are interactive, not discrete. Thus actual interventions need to fluidly build
on and refer to each other. Paradoxically, clinicians need to be "organic,"
while keeping themselves and the clients steadily focused on a prioritized set
of treatment goals.
What is an
Summary of common clinical
What's unique about intervening
with typical divorcing-family and stepfamily clients?
- Key interventions for all divorcing-family and
stepfamily clients, from most to least impactful.
What is an Effective
model proposes that all human behavior (thoughts + emotions + actions)
by current primary (vs. surface) needs
- physical, emotional, and/or spiritual discomforts. To nurture
means "to fill someone's needs." Families exist and persist
across eras and cultures because
they're generally more effective at filling some key adult and child
than other human systems.
Professional counseling and therapy aim to help
clients make second-order (core attitude)
that promote nurturing themselves and others better.
strategic knowledge that may or may not promote better nurturing. Therapy
expands counseling to systematically identify and reduce mental, psychological,
and spiritual blocks to
effective personal and family
didactic and experiential research, this model proposes that typical divorcing
and stepfamily clients are stressed by up to
first four apply to all families.
Effective clinical strategies with typical divorcing-biofamily and stepfamily members
will use "standard" + special systemic interventions to avoid and reduce these
hazards. I assume you're familiar with the standard (basic) interventions
summarized below. These Web pages focus on intervention-options that are
designed for typical
divorcing-family and stepfamily clients.
definition, effective clinical
interventions will fill clearly these clients'...
implies that effective interventions require a clinician to (a) know how to
assess each client system for these two levels of needs, (b) form specific
related short and long-term case goals (a "treatment plan"), and (c) devise
interventions to reach the goals - i.e. to fill the client-family's and
clinician's needs well enough, according to all participants.
and compare this definition to your own. What do you notice?
The unique composition, history, and situation of each client
family precludes anything like an intervention "cookbook," with a few
general exceptions. The
client's immediate needs; the perception, intuition, experience, knowledge,
values, and skill-mix of the clinician; and relevant service-provider policy
constraints; will shape what interventions are appropriate, why, and when.
Making spontaneous effective judgments on these is an acquired skill and art.
Types of Clinical Interventions
perspective on these intervention pages, review these
"standard" interventions that may promote effective clinical work with
most clients. If you feel comfortable with these, skip the comments after
the table and go here. A meta-intervention that transcends all others is the
clinician's ongoing process awareness:
consciously and unconsciously sensing moment by moment "What's going on inside each of my
clients + inside me + between us all? "What's going on" includes
thinking + feeling + needing + doing - moment by moment, and over time.
Veteran clinicians will be able to spontaneously list and describe
their own set of "standard" interventions, and discuss when each one is
appropriate (useful) in the work. Trainees are learning how to do that. Basic
interventions like these are like an artist's collection of brushes and
pigments. The art of effective therapy is in knowing how and when to use any of
these to fill all participants' current surface and primary needs well enough.
reframing / rephrasing
Taking notes in session
strategic phone calls, letters, and emails
validating and affirming
fantasy / guided imagery
strategic silence and brevity
handouts and games
diagrams and maps
changing or mixing clinical modalities
video and/or audio
seeding / suggesting
prioritizing and re/focusing
teaching and modeling
family sculptures /
clinician's use of self
"future self" interviews
referral and collaboration
little detail on most of these - in general, and relative to divorcing and stepfamily
Asking about distractions at the beginning of a session
- e.g. "As we begin, what are you (each) aware of now?" A
variation that yields more information is "Would each of you guesstimate what
the person on your right is aware of / thinking / feeling / needing now?" Variation of this opening question can uncover physical, mental,
distractions that a client might not otherwise mention. ("I'm worried that I
locked my keys in the car.") This intervention teaches, demonstrates,
Goal setting - identifying specifically
what the client needs from the clinical work. Useful for all clients, this
early and ongoing intervention is essential with stepfamily clients because they're usually multi-problem, unfocused, and chaotic -
personally, and in and between their co-parenting homes.
A primary need typical co-parents
usually bring is not knowing how to focus, rank, and work on their problems a
few at a time as teammates, and (a) not being aware of this
or (b) knowing how to change it. Variations of this intervention include
defining (c) session goals
("What would you like to leave our meeting with?") and (d) overall clinical-process goals ("How will you know
when we're done with this work?"). The client's and clinician's goals will
often differ as the work unfolds, because qualified clinicians know more about
immediate and long-term primary needs and
3) Seeding - is intentionally using words,
phrases, and behaviors that plant a new idea, attitude, or option in the
attending clients' un/conscious awareness. Seeding leaves the client free to keep their
existing beliefs and reflexes, and avoid change-related anxieties. The
clinician may strategically build (focus more concretely) on seeds later in the work. Because
typical divorcing and re/married co-parents are
(e.g. anxious and insecure) and
patient, strategic seeding is
specially useful with them as the work unfolds.
Teaching - providing accurate, clear
new information - or new framing - relevant to the client's declared and unacknowledged needs. This
core intervention is
useful across all three phases of the work with these clients because of
their major unawarenesses.
Asking strategic open-ended questions is an effective indirect way of teaching -
e.g. "What would you be worrying about if you didn't need to worry about this
Reframing - offering a different
interpretation of some emotionally-charged aspect of the client's
personality or life - e.g.
"You'd be in harm's way without
healthy guilt and shame...",
painful, and is essential for making new bonds and relationships."; and
"Often, co-parents are pleased to realize that
their stepfamily offers some unique benefits to all their members
that make solving the challenges worthwhile."
A universally-helpful reframe is encouraging
judgmental (wounded) clients to let go of the toxic belief that emotions like
anger, shame, fear, hostility, and guilt are "negative." ("How do you feel about
the idea that all human emotions are natural reflexes that can help us
learn what we and other people need at the moment?")
Clarifying and (re)focusing - these
standard interventions are specially useful with typical multi-problem,
chaotic, overwhelmed divorcing and stepfamily clients. Modeling these interventions in the session
to describe them
("Notice what I'm doing now, and how you react to it...") helps
motivate clients to build their own abilities to focus and clarify. Because these multi-problem
clients usually have a high need to vent and bounce from topic to topic,
and often display fuzzy thinking, the
clinician steadily (vs. rigidly) focusing the work on one or two key goals can
help everyone end each meeting feeling productive. One of many benefits to
intervening with respectful, brief "
is helping a speaker clarify what s/he means, thinks, and needs now.
Three key focal areas to be aware
of are time
("I notice you're focusing on the past, now"), persons, roles,
("If I ask what you're feeling now, you often talk about your
daughter"), and topic ("We've just shifted from your loyalty
conflict to talking about your vacation.")
down" - this
skill is an exceptionally useful concept and strategic
intervention with all adults and kids. It helps promote desired second-order
(lasting) changes by identifying (a) surface needs,
(b) the current
causing them, and
(c) who's responsible for filling them. Most co-parents
are aware of this skill, so teaching and modeling it for them early in the work
will usually grow their problem-solving
effectiveness, confidence, and teamwork -
lead their personalities.
listening, validating, praising, and encouraging - because typical
divorcing and stepfamily adults and kids carry special burdens of shame, guilt,
anxiety, and self-doubt, these basic clinical
interventions are specially helpful with them - unless insincere, ambivalent,
or overdone. A related intervention is teaching clients to _ become
of their current process,
and help each other do
("So you're saying that...") in session and at home.
Imaging, metaphors, and guided imagery
- these are specially helpful for "visually-oriented" (vs.
kinesthetic or aural) clients, particularly in the third (inner-family)
stage of the work. Sometimes asking clients to draw / paint / collage
certain things moves the work ahead.
11) "Sculpting" -
guiding clients to physically pose and interact to symbolize a current or
desired relationship. Showing two
or more client-family members how to do a two-part relationship or
family sculpture can be a therapeutic "new experience"
which bypasses defensive intellectualizing and overanalyzing
("analysis paralysis") that many wounded clients (specially males)
choose. Two options to sculpt are: "how you are now;" and
like all (or both) of you to be." At the right time in the work, and with attention paid to
participant safety and dignity, this non-verbal intervention can break
up major new awarenesses, and often lead to release tears and nurturing
laughter. This is specially useful with adults and kids.
Fantasy - this can be an
assessment tool and a "seeding" intervention. E.g. - "How will your daily
life be different after you solve this problem?" / "What will happen if you
don't decide to solve this problem?" / "Imagine talking with your elderly (future) self
about your major life decisions, as you're preparing
to die. If you make no changes now, how would that conversation go? (or
"How would you want to feel?" / ... have that conversation
turn out?" / "What questions would you want to ask?
etc.") There are many variations to this, useful in a
range of therapeutic strategies - including grief-work.
More useful clinical interventions with these five client types ...
Assigning tasks ("homework") - most stepfamily clients
and many divorcing clients have a lot to learn. Giving
attending clients a series of reading,
journaling, confronting, discussion, experimenting, questionnaires, and
"family- research" assignments ("Find out from ______ if s/he
...") can help the work in many ways:
games, and diagrams. You'll find many examples throughout this site
and in the related guidebooks.
These experiential interventions educate, assess, clarify, and promote
focused awareness and discussion in session and as homework. Copies of
checklists and questionnaires can be given to non-attending client family
members and related professionals. These can also document clinical and
client-family progress - e.g. "Save this
(or relationship) strengths worksheet, fill it out together next year, and
enjoy seeing what you all have changed." The index link to each of these 12 co-parent
projects shows worksheets and checklists
you can use or edit.
make the client
co-responsible for the changes they want;
anxieties, guilts, ignorances,
distortions, and shames; and...
constructively disturb the "family dance" in and
between co-parenting homes, to raise awareness and promote useful
confrontation and change. A group of tasks can be to use or make...
Three graphical intervention-tools are specially useful with
all clients: multi-generational
household and nuclear-family
A flip-chart easel and/or dry-marker or chalkboard in the meeting room allow
real-time diagramming and illustration.
non-competitive board games that can be specially helpful (and fun!) for
courting and newly-re/married stepfamilies are the
They provide safe, enjoyable ways for adults and kids of any age to get to
know each other.
14) Following through - Many
people have a pair of inner-family
manifests as a
/Good Client, who enthuses over
homework assignments and agrees to them, and a
"puts them off," (alternative: a "Forgetter" subself).
Following through on homework repeatedly says "I'm serious about
them," "I expect you to follow through as your part of our
clinical contract," and "If you seem to avoid them, I'll call you
on that and ask to explore it with you."
Nurturing Humor - this mood-moderating intervention is useful in any
clinical setting, if moderate, genuine, and not sarcastic, demeaning,
defocusing, or distracting. A common symptom of false selves is the Pleaser personality part who overuses humor to win
approval and avoid scary conflict and (feared and expected) rejection.
Another symptom of this protective Guardian subself is a client smiling and joking as s/he
describes a trauma, loss, shame, or fear.
16) Respectful disagreement and
confrontation, including blocking client attempts to control the
work. This has many uses, including clinician-client role and
, and win-win
vs. whining, threatening,
withdrawing, avoiding, etc.
17) Strategic silence and/or brevity.
As client discomfort mounts, specially with direct eye contact, these
respectful interventions may promote a guarded client to own and
demonstrate their current feelings, thoughts, and surface needs. An
alternative is an over-concerned (false-self ruled) clinician
and enabling - i.e. taking too much
responsibility for filling the client's needs.
Paradox (double bind) - this is a class of artful multi-level
interventions which promote client change by sincerely prescribing
against it - e.g. by prescribing the presenting symptom, or instructing
the clients to "heal by getting worse." Respectfully used, paradoxic
interventions are specially helpful with over-intellectual and
whose false selves play variations of the "Go ahead, try to help me" / "Yes,
but..." / " That won't work because...")
recreational game. These interventions can also help illuminate primary problems
causing the surface (presenting) problems, at times.
Examples 15-17 above belong to a
class of frustrating interventions. Well used, these can help
insecure clients take responsibility for filling their own needs. Other
answering a client's question with "I don't know," or
mirroring a question without answering ("You want to know if I
approve of your decision").
19) "Grief-work" is a group
of empathic, strategic interventions which aim to facilitate blocked
grievers move through one or more of the
Grief-focused interventions are more apt to produce
(lasting) systemic changes after teaching the client healthy-mourning
and promoting their Selves to lead their personality. Describing these interventions is beyond the scope of
this summary, and is a clinical specialty for some therapists.
This model proposes that
often stresses for these complex client families.
Inner-family therapy interventions are powerful in the third
of the work,
specially if inner-family concepts have been seeded in prior phases. These aim
to help individuals harmonize their subselves into a true team under the
leadership of the resident true Self. Examples: building an inner-family
re-doing (early traumas); subself
retraining, rescuing (parts stuck in the past);
with the client's true Self to co-direct the work; direct access
(communicating directly with a client subself); and so on. The
guidebook for inner-family work is
Running Your Life? (Xlibris.com, 2002; 2nd ed.)
Recapping past achievements and
current goals. Summing up the key process and content aspects of each
session, and/or inviting the attending clients to do that, promotes
focusing and ranking, process awareness and metatalk skills, reinforcing key
learnings or realities, and models a helpful behavior clients
can use at home. Recapping key targets and events across a series of
clinical meetings can provide useful perspective and highlight progress (or lack
of it) - e.g. "Across these
last __ meetings, the key issues we've worked on are ..."; and "I need to
verify our goals. You've told me the issues you still want to improve are ..."
Recapping from case notes promotes continuity and/or
closure if the work pauses, stops, or resumes.
Questioning. This multi-purpose class of interventions is a clinical
sub-specialty and an art. Beside harvesting information, direct and implied
questions can also be valuable seeding, teaching, clarifying, and focusing
interventions. Qualified clinicians will strategically shift real-time between
open-ended and closed (yes / no) questions, and can teach this distinction as a
useful co-parenting skill. 23)
Note taking. Because typical
stepfamily clients are structurally and dynamically complex, I find it
helpful to take brief shorthand notes as each session unfolds. I explain
what I'm doing and why, and ask if clients are comfortable with it. I say
"These are our (vs. 'my') notes, and I show them to no one else,
without your permission. You can read them any time." In
36 years' practice, no
clients have ever asked me not to do this, or to read the notes. The notes may be a word, a
phrase, a symbol, or a quote that I clarify and expand on after the
session. They include _ process comments ("Jerry avoids eye
contact with me and Anne"); _ diagnostic opinions
("blocked grief"); and _ reminders ("follow up on
this / give homework / refer to .... ").
+ + +
This summary of basic clinical interventions is illustrative, not exhaustive. With
several exceptions, they're all "talk-therapy" oriented. They all aim
to produce some desired systemic
based on prior assessment of the client's and clinician's respective surface and
. Do you see
your favorite interventions here? See any new ones you want to explore
or develop? Do you ever review which interventions you use often, and how
effective they are? Note the distinction between
and modalities - e.g. individual, conjoint, group, play,
co-therapist, multi-family group, telephone, etc. Choosing and changing a
modality for a given client are intervention options.
Continue with an outline of key interventions for each type of client:
biofamilies adjusting to
mate death or divorce (pre-courtship)
courting co-parents (pre-legal stepfamilies)
stepfamilies - non-marital presenting problems
legal stepfamilies -
marital presenting problems
- re/divorcing stepfamilies
this for more detail on key
interventions and techniques.
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