Toward effective clinical work with divorced-family and stepfamily clients

 Outline of Clinical Interventions With
 - p. 2 of 3

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


        Clicking links below will open an informational poppup or a new browser window - so please turn of your browser's popup blocker or accept popups from this nonprofit, ad-free Web site.

The Web address of this two-page article is

        This page continues outlining key custom-education interventions unique to average unconflicted courting (pre-re/wedding) stepfamilies. The prior page suggests ways of motivating co-parents toward ongoing self education about stepfamily success.

        The next two pages offer key interventions for conflicted courting and re/married-stepfamily clients. The final pages outlining this four-part model summarize the requisite skills and knowledge for effective clinical work with these five client types.

        Note that these interventions aim to assess and seed motivation and resources to reduce each of the five hazards that courting couples and their kids and other co-parents will probably face.

Custom-education Interventions
- B) Assess and Teach

        After building the couple's interest in stepfamily education, the focus shifts to ...

  • assessing their stepfamily knowledge, structure, and personal and relationship strengths; 

  • filling exposed knowledge  gaps, 

  • promoting a long-range planning attitude, and ...

  • motivating appropriate skill-building. 

        Perspective: courting co-parents and their kids can migrate through re/wedding to the next two phases of this clinical work over four or more years. The combined degree of false-self dominance and unawareness among the three or more related co-parents will determine how long this migration takes, and which of the standard stepfamily stressors predominate. 

        This second group of courtship custom-education interventions _ allows forecasting which stepfamily stressors will probably manifest, and _ seed the value of co-parents' preparing for them. Note that the clinician's biases, if any, about divorce, remarriage, and stepfamilies, will implicitly influence if and how s/he makes these "custom-education" assessment-interventions, and how s/he reacts to the attending clients' responses.

[  ] Courtship intervention 4) Preview this assessment/teaching experience for attending clients. Explain that you'll ask them about a standard set of stepfamily stressors to learn about their related vulnerabilities and strengths. This is roughly equivalent to a routine dental or medical exam. It's worth re-noting that typical stepfamilies differ from traditional intact biofamilies in over 60 ways, so this check-up needs to be more thorough than in a first-marriage situation. Option: provide a one-page checklist to guide you all through the menu of 13 factors below.

[  ] Courtship Intervention 5) Let receptive clients know that many clergy and some clinical people can facilitate a computer- assisted remarriage assessment program to identify (re)marital strengths and personal- growth areas. One option is the Prepare/Enrich (MC) instrument provided nation-wide by facilitators trained by Life Innovations, Inc. The other is an equivalent program called FOCCUS

        Prepare/Enrich (MC) - marrying with children - offers six facilitated couple exercises: _ Building strength and growth areas; _ Couple communication; _ Ten steps for resolving couple conflict; _ Family-of-origin Issues; _ Financial planning and budgeting; and _ Personal, couple and family goals. The research-based program assesses 20 factors in three focal areas: _ significant issues for couples (12 scales); _ personality assessment (four scales); and _ couple and family map (four scales).

        The FOCCUS instrument and program, developed by Barbara Markey, Ph.D., is an adaptable marriage-preparation inventory. It's ~150 questions produce a unique couple profile which can be tailored for interchurch, second marriage or cohabiting couples. It has four editions: Non- denominational; Christian non-denominational; Catholic; and Alternate, for learning impaired.

        While truly helpful, neither of these questionnaire/coaching programs currently assess for all 13 of these common stepfamily factors and stressors:

  • Stepfamily knowledge deficits
  • Basic relationship skills
  • Stepfamily goals (mission statement)

  • Loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles
  • Stepfamily strengths and supports
  • Co-parental role clarity
    and harmony

  • Healing ex-mate guilt, distrust, and disrespect
  • Co-parent false-self dominance and wounds

        Typical courting co-parents have limited interest or tolerance for an in-depth assessment of any of these topics, or all of them together. In selecting among these assessment-interventions, the clinician will need to dynamically assess and seed "enough" key ideas without losing the clients' attention or  motivation. Each client couple is unique, and may request or justify special focus on any of these 13 factors. Some are more important, long-term, than others.

[  ] Courtship Intervention 6) Assess the client-family structure, membership, and family identity. Using a chalkboard or flipchart, have clients guide you in drawing a partial genogram of their pre-legal stepfamily. During the process, ask questions like ...

  • "Do you each think of yourselves as a stepfamily now?" Some version of "no" usually signals false-self guilt, shame, anxiety, and reality distortion, and stepfamily ignorance. Options:

    • Clearly describe what a stepfamily is, and re-ask the question. Option: first normalize, with "Stepfamilies have probably been the main type of human family until recent medical advances, because of widespread parental death from disease and warfare."

    • Ask "What would it mean to you if you acknowledged that you all are now an emotional stepfamily?"

    • Teach that a "blended family" is a type of stepfamily in which each partner has one or more pre-existing kids.

  • If the answer is "Yes, we see ourselves as a stepfamily," ask "What does that identity mean to you?" (real question: how many stepfamily basics and realities are you aware of, and what kind of educational handouts would be useful?") Options:

    • Ask "If either of you have read any books about stepfamilies or stepparenting, what did you learn?"

    • Give clients a handout on stepfamily resources and/or selected readings.

  • Ask "Who do you each consider as full members of your stepfamily?" (Real question: are you both able to accept that your co-parenting ex mates - and ghosts of any dead mates and/or kids - will be full emotional stepfamily members for many years?") Options:

    • Describe and normalize stepfamily membership (inclusion/ exclusion conflicts, and relate them to loyalty conflicts and persecutor - victim - rescuer relationship triangles.

    • If the couple is conflicted over stepfamily identity or membership, explore "How are you two dealing with this conflict now? This will begin to show their initial style of resolving values conflicts, which are legion in typical stepfamilies. Option: normalize kids and relatives' confusions and conflicts over stepfamily membership, and encourage family-wide talk about this.

  • After finishing the genogram, ask ...
    • "Has anyone in any of your co-parents' family trees ever had a problem with chemical dependence, suicide, abortions, or jail?" These are initial tests for low ancestral nurturance, and potential co-parent inner wounds. The way co-parents answer is as important as their content. Reference and optional handout: Lesson 1's Family tree Worksheet 3

    • "Have you ever seen such a map of all the people in your multi-generational (extended) stepfamily?" (The answer is always "no.") "What are you aware of, as you see this?" The usual response is something like startled, confused, overwhelmed, uneasy, amazed, or the like.

            This is a good time to validate the normal complexity of stepfamilies, and the co-parents' needs for (a) stepfamily education and myth debunking, a thoughtful stepfamily "mission statement," and a merger plan.

        Other Intervention 6 (genogram) options with courting co-parents: 

  • Ask "How comfortable are your co-parents and kids with stepfamily titles so far? (e.g. stepfather, stepson, stepsister, ...)

  • Ask "Anyone having a problem with first or last names?" This is often a source of confusion and/or stress, unlike average biofamilies.

  • Ask "How do you suppose it feels to each of your kids to be part of this stepfamily now? What do you think they need most, to adapt?" Option: give co-parents a copy of this summary of typical stepkids four groups of tasks as homework.

  • Ask "If this stepfamily keeps key secrets (e.g. abortions, crimes, addictions), what are they, and who needs and enforces the secrecy?" Most divorcing families and stepfamilies follow low- nurturance ancestries. This fosters psychological wounds including excessive shame, guilts, fears, and reality distortions.

            These promote inherited family secrets, denials, and repressions, and a protective family rule of "We don't tell outsiders our family business." The client response to this question (e.g. open and direct, vs. hesitant, defensive, and vague) offers more clues toward possible co-parent false-self dominance.

  • Suggest the co-parents draw their own genogram with their kids, key relatives, and other co-parents to learn who each person sees as belonging to "my family." Doing this can quickly expose stepfamily identity and membership conflicts.

        These are just a few of the many stepfamily-unique process options possible with this genogram assessment- intervention. The many standard questions (e.g. key dates, alliances, relationship cutoffs, and geographic locations), are omitted here.

        Copying the genogram for later reference is usually helpful. An annotated copy is an essential part of case notes. Other assessment-interventions often use this diagram for clarity or reference (and updating), so keep it visible during these meetings.

[  ]  Courtship Intervention 7) Clear thinking and effective communication and problem solving are essential for successful co-parent management of their stepfamily's homes, relationships, and complex multi-family merger. Project 2 focuses on building co-parents' fluency with seven communication skills toward that objective, over time. This assessment-intervention alerts co-parents to their need for this high-priority project, and gains an initial sense of their current level of awareness and competence.

        The goal of this intervention is to motivate the co-parents to do Lesson 2, over time - including teaching their kids effective-communication skills.        

        There are three flexible parts to this intervention: 

Focus and build interest: Say something like "As you see (from the genogram and list of 12 projects), stepfamilies are complicated. They often have types of conflicts that biofamilies don't - like those over membership, identity, parenting, money, values, holidays, custody, and loyalties. Typically there are more concurrent conflicts going on inside adults and kids, and between them than in the families you're used to. Options:

  • "Have either of you ever studied the seven effective-communication skills?"  If the couple can't name the skills (which is the norm), summarize them here.

  • "On a scale of one to 10, how important would you say it is now to you two to strengthen your problem-solving skills?"

  • "If either co-parent is divorced: "What role do you feel communication problems played in your divorce?" and "How would you describe the effectiveness of your recent co-parenting communications with your ex mate?" Note - if either co-parent has had marital affairs or legal battles with their ex, the inference is that they can't problem solve - and probably need the five Lesson-2 skills, for their kids' sakes.

Assess and teach: Ask questions like ...

  • "How have you handled major conflicts so far? (Often the proud response is "We haven't had any.") What's your conflict-resolution style as a couple?" Alternatives:

    • "When you disagree, who's needs usually get filled first?" and

    • "How do you two handle values conflicts , so far?"

  • "For each of you, what percentage of the time recently would you say personal  (vs. business or commercial) conflicts end well enough - i.e. you get your main needs met well enough, in a way that pleases you?"

  • "What or who might hinder your beginning Lesson 2 together before you decide to re/marry and form a legal stepfamily?"

  • Option: before, during, or at the end of the meeting, give each co-parent a copy of either ...

    • this common communication blocks worksheet. Ask "Which of these do you feel may be a problem for you in resolving your upcoming stepfamily conflicts?" (Note the inference.); or ... 

    • this conflict-resolution inventory of ~50 constructive and destructive problem-solving factors.

    Frame the five Lesson-2 skills as effective tools for partners' spotting and resolving all of these inner and interpersonal blocks and destructive factors.

  • New stepfamilies tend to breed a lot of confusion, frustration, hurt, and anger. "How does intense anger in yourself or another tend to affect your ability to communicate effectively?" Option: "Have you experienced your partner's full anger yet?"

Conclusion of courtship intervention 7: Emphasize the exceptional long-term importance to co-parents of building effective problem-solving skills (and teaching them to dependent kids) in their stepfamily. Summarize any impressions you've formed about their communication strengths, attitudes, and knowledge. Recommend the attending (and proxy) co-parents read a summary like this* of the seven skills, and proactively raise skill-building on their list of current priorities. Options:

  • Offer several sessions devoted to raising their communication awareness, and strengthening their communication skills as a couple and as co-parents.

  • If relevant, note that strengthening communication skills (Lesson 2) is a major help in personal recovery from psychological wounds (Lesson 1). 

  • Suggest that each co-parent coaching their dependent kids in effective communication skills is priceless, life-long gift - and that the kids will learn most by what they see being modeled.

       Continue this overview of the four-part clinical model with more "custom-education" interventions for typical courting-stepfamily (type 2) clients. 

 <<  >>


site intro / course outline / site search / definitions / chat / contact

Updated 09-30-2015