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

Facilitate clients accepting their identity as
a stepfamily
and what that means

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?

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       This article is one of a series on effective clinical interventions with low-nurturance family clients and wounded persons. A "low nurturance family" is one in which members seldom get their primary needs met in wholistically-healthy ways. An effective intervention is an instinctive or intentional behavior of the clinician which significantly raises the family's nurturance level, in the opinion of all involved.


        To get the most from this outline, first read:

  • this introduction to professional family clinicians and educators,

  • this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is a root stressor with typical low-nurturance  families. If you have trouble viewing the slides, see these options.

  • this overview of the clinical model on which these articles are based, and these premises that underlie it;

  • this overview of 7 sequential self-improvement Lessons

  • these requisites for effective professional service with these clients;

  • these terms which are liberally used in these clinical articles. And review...

  • this overview of effective clinical assessment of these six types of client families;

  • this introduction to effective interventions with low-nurturance families and persons recovering from psychological wounds;

  • this overview of co-parent Lesson 7;

  • this client worksheet for assessing for step-identity acceptance, and...

  • This real-life example of a husband denying his stepfamily identity and stepfather role.

Why Lesson 7 Exists

        Amplified by the media, our society has inherited the European / religious misconception that stepfamilies are inferior, second best, deficit, and abnormal, compared to "traditional" intact ("regular, normal, natural") families. Our culture associates stepfamilies, re/marriage, and stepparenting with divorce, personal failure, guilt, shame, and grief - and with sin for pious Christians.

        Many lay and professional people are confused and/or misinformed about what a stepfamily is and who "belongs" to it. So typical stepfamily members - specially those who survived low-nurturance childhoods - are often unaware of, or reluctant to admit, their stepfamily identity ("Yes, we're the Gonzales - Peterson - McNamara stepfamily") to themselves, each other, and the public.  

        Avoiding or discounting stepfamily role-titles and identity, and what that identity means, risks family members and supporters holding harmful mistaken (biofamily) expectations about their family's composition, development, dynamics, roles, and relationships. It also promotes discounting or excluding stepkids' "other bioparent" (i.e. an ex mate) and his or her relatives from full stepfamily membership (inclusion) and respect. Both of these dynamics breed escalating stress in and between stepfamily homes.

        Reality check: Busy clinicians, supervisors, case managers, and interns will ignore or discount the value of these interventions if they don't fully understand (a) how different typical stepfamilies are, and (b) what those differences usually mean to typical clients. Can you identify at least 20 of the ~70 differences, and at least six implications of them to average clients now? If not, follow the links.

        Project-3 interventions have four goals:

  • motivate family adults to (a) learn and accept stepfamily basics, and to (b) apply them honestly to their family members;

  • raise adults' awareness of (a) the value of accepting their stepfamily identity and what that means, and the (b) significant long-term risks of not doing so; and...

  • promote stable, genuine (vs. ambivalent or dutiful) acceptance of who is included in their multi-home stepfamily.- i.e. whose needs and opinions are consistently treated with full concern and respect by all other members. And...

  • Helping client stepfamily members achieve these objectives will prepare and motivate them for the other parts of self-improvement Lesson 7.

        Typical courting and committed stepfamily co-parents are unaware of the need for this Project, and don't include it in their presenting problems. Implication - effective clinicians will proactively assess for stepfamily-identity and membership problems, and use the interventions below as appropriate, early in the work. The best time for these interventions is during co-parent courtship. They're useful any time.

Basic Project-3 Interventions for courting and committed stepfamily co-parents, ex mates, other family members and supporters:

        These nine interventions can often be done in two or three sessions if there are no more pressing problems. The most cost-effective way to provide these (and related) interventions is in a seminar for a group of co-parents and supporters, with guided discussion and summary handouts. Note -the & symbol below indicates an article that may be used as a client handout for "homework" discussion. Follow the item links for more detail on each intervention.

3-1)  Help all co-parents accept an accurate definition of "stepfamily," and identify and debunk any misconceptions about that.

3-2) Teach and discuss stepfamily basics with co-parents and key supporters, including similarities and differences with typical "traditional" intact biofamilies

3-3) Teach co-parents how to make and use a step-family genogram, and invite discussing reactions to theirs

3-4) Discuss the concepts of stepfamily identity and stepfamily roles and role titles, and the value of the client members accepting their stepfamily  identity.

3-5)  Review and discuss the key meanings of being a multi-home stepfamily, and reassure co-parents they can learn to manage probable stepfamily stressors together.

3-6)  Assess for any client co-parents' discounting or rejecting their step-identity, and seek to correct that.

3-7)  Promote client adults using appropriate stepfamily role-titles, and assess and reduce any "resistance" to that.

3-8)  Motivate attending family members to teach non-attending members and supporters what they're learning here.

3-9)  Follow up in future contacts to see if client family members accept their stepfamily identity and what it means. If not, assess what blocks this, and propose appropriate interventions.

3-1)  Help all client adults gain an accurate definition of "stepfamily"

        Why?  See the reason for Lesson 7 above.

Propose that people are often confused about what a stepfamily is and isn't, which can hinder accepting their stepfamily identity, and promote significant stress by using inappropriate (biofamily-based) role and relationship expectations and norms.

Ask each participating family adult and child to say their definition of a stepfamily out loud. Option - ask "How would you answer a space-alien's asking (a) 'What is this thing humans call a family?' and (b) "Then what is a human stepfamily?'"

Explain that "step" is a middle-English root (~1000 AD) meaning "not related by marriage or blood." Then propose that...

  • any adult who chooses to nurture their mate's child from a former union has accepted the role of resident or noncustodial stepparent. Emphasize the difference between a family role and the person who holds the role. (Implication - an ineffective stepparent or 'difficult' stepchild is not a 'bad' person).

  • a minor or grown child who is nurtured part-time or full-time by a stepparent is a stepchild; and...

  • any family including at least one part-time or full-time stepparent and one minor or grown stepchild is a stepfamily, whether mates are legally re/married or not.

  • if appropriate, define the role of stepsibling (stepbrother / stepsister) as expected rules of family behavior (shoulds, ought to's, and musts) of two or more minor or grown stepkids (a) whose respective bioparents are committed primary partners, and who (b) who share no parental genes.

  • If appropriate, define a child conceived by stepfamily mates as having the role of half sibling - i.e. sharing half the genes of any existing stepkids.

  • If appropriate, facilitate clients discussing how stepsiblings and half siblings are (a) like and (b) different from biological siblings; and (c) whether stepsiblings and/or half-siblings have any significantly different developmental and family-adjustment needs than typical biosiblings.

Correct any misperceptions that child-conception, legal stepchild adoption, the death of a stepchild's other bioparent, and/or stepchildren becoming adults negate stepfamily identity. They don't.

Provide clients with a copy of these is article on stepfamily facts &, discuss as needed, and encourage them to discuss it with other stepfamily members and supporters.

Define a stepfamily where each mate has one or more former children as a complex or blended stepfamily. When only one mate has former kids, they form a simple stepfamily. Each type of stepfamily has some unique traits, tasks, and characteristics, so understanding these helps to form a clear, practical stepfamily identity.


  • select appropriate articles from these & and provide and discuss them with clients.

  • refer clients to these Q&A topics and discuss as needed.

3-2)  Teach and discuss stepfamily basics with co-parents and key supporters

        Why? To expand client adults' appreciation for how different their stepfamily is fro a traditional biofamily, and motivate them to accept their family identity and what it means.

Define and illustrate a typical nuclear-stepfamily living in two or more homes. Then ask participating clients to identify all current adults and dependents comprising their nuclear stepfamily. Option - explain and illustrate the difference between a nuclear family (co-parents and dependents) and an extended (multi-generational) family.

Summarize and discuss the similarities and differences & between typical "traditional" intact biofamilies and typical multi-home stepfamilies. Propose that client adults' understanding and accepting these similarities and differences (relative to their unique stepfamily) is essential for them to form realistic role, relationship, and biofamily-merger expectations.

Ask client adults and older kids to study this article  on stepfamily basics, and facilitate discussion of their reactions. Hilight any new awarenesses each adult gained from this review, and recall the proposal that a major stepfamily stressor is unawareness of several key topics - including stepfamily basics.

As appropriate, facilitate discussion of how typical stepfamilies develop & and where the client family is in this developmental cycle. Emphasize that stepfamily merger, stabilization, and development typically take many years, not just a few months after cohabiting or re/marriage. Option - summarize the three possible stepfamily developmental paths &, and facilitate client discussion as appropriate.

Intervention 3-3)  Teach co-parents why and how to make and use a stepfamily genogram

        Why? To provide clients with (a) a reason to discuss stepfamily membership a a group and (b) a self-created (authentic) visual representation of the complexity and structure of their multi-generational stepfamily; and to (c) expose and negotiate possible disagreements about client stepfamily membership, and (d) create a teaching tool client adults can use with other family members - specially kids and unaware and "identity-resistant" relatives. 

Explain and illustrate (a) the concept of and (b) benefits from adults evolving an accurate genogram.

Invite the client adults and kids to draft and discuss an extended-stepfamily genogram per this article & or equivalent. Facilitate their describing any learnings and awarenesses that the process of drafting their diagram evoked. Then discuss the pros and cons of sharing their diagram with other family members.

Option - explain and illustrate (a) stepfamily structural maps & and (b) the benefits from adults making and using them to guide their stepfamily development, harmony, and nurturance level. If clients are interested, facilitate their drafting their multi-home map, and discussing key structural strengths and problems.

Note - The three Project-3 interventions above are foundations for the six that follow.

 3-4)  Discuss the concept of stepfamily identity & and the long-term value of all the client's family members accepting their stepfamily identity and learning what it means.

        Why? To (a) minimize clients' biofamily-merger conflicts and stress, and (b) motivate client adults to want to form realistic family role, relationship, and stepfamily-development expectations and goals as teammates with a vital common long-term mission.

Ask each client adult and child to say whether they accept their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily ("How would you describe your family to other people now?") Option - use these criteria & to judge and discuss whether each family member fully acknowledges their identity, does so intellectually, (c) minimizes it ("So what?"), or (d) denies it ("No, we're just a normal (bio)family.").

Ask participating clients whether they think any of their other members or key supporters are unaware of their stepfamily identity, minimizing or ignoring it, or are denying it. If so, facilitate clients...

  • confronting such people respectfully ("Seems like you need to avoid acknowledging we're a normal stepfamily now"), and...

  • assessing their reasons for rejecting stepfamily identity (usually anxieties, guilts, and shame). Then...

  • explain why honestly accepting this identity is vital to patiently building a high-nurturance stepfamily for the long-term benefit of all family adults and kids, and...

  • ask (vs. demand) that each client-family adult learn about and accept their stepfamily identity and what it means.

Emphasize the importance of using appropriate role titles (stepmom, stepbrother, step-uncle, etc) to protect members from forgetting their identity and slipping unconsciously into stressful biofamily expectations.

3-5)  Review and discuss the key meanings & of being in a multi-home stepfamily

        Why?  Because even if clients agree they are a stepfamily, they're usually unaware of key implications of it. This risks co-parents discounting or ignoring the hazards they face, and the related need to work together patiently at 7 self-improvement Lessons over time.

Propose that the value of family adults identifying as being members of a normal multi-home stepfamily lies in accepting key realities so all family members can avoid convert common myths & into realistic role, relationship, and biofamily-merger expectations.

Review and tailor these key meanings to the client's situation, one at a time. Note and explore any significant client confusions and/or anxieties about any of these as you do. They may indicate one or more co-parents are controlled by a well-meaning false self.

Now ask participating clients to describe what being in a stepfamily means to each of them. Option - acknowledge each major prior misconception, and how common they are. Affirm and re-emphasize key meanings as needed.

3-6)  Assess for any non-participating client adults discounting, ignoring, or rejecting their step-identity, and work to correct that.

        Why? Co-parents and active relatives not participating in this work risk of being unaware of this project and why it's important. That raises the odds of their using biofamily norms and expectations, causing significant stress in and between the client's related homes, and lowering their stepfamily's nurturance level. 

Ask each participating adult if they accept that they belong to a normal, multi-home stepfamily, vs. just "a (bio)family." Option - ask each mate if the behavior (vs. the words) of their partner indicates that s/he fully accepts their stepfamily identity. If they say "No," or "I'm not sure," distribute and discuss this article & with them and suggest appropriate options.

Refer to the client's genogram (intervention 3-3), and ask them to rate each adult and older child on whether they (a) genuinely accept their stepfamily identity, and (b) understand clearly what that identity means. Expect a range of answers, from "Yes," to "I'm not sure to "No." Option - distribute and use this worksheet & or equivalent to help clients decide.

Ask participating client adults who's responsible for helping the members who aren't solid "Yesses" to accept their stepfamily identity. Then tailor the next two interventions as appropriate.

3-7)  Promote client adults using appropriate stepfamily role titles, and patiently reduce any resistance to that.

        Why? Even if client adults genuinely accept their stepfamily identity and what it means, they may not use appropriate role titles in private or public because of habit or wishing to appear socially "normal" (i.e. as a biofamily. That raises the odds people will reflexively use biofamily norms and expectations in stressful situations, slow or block stepfamily bonding and merger progress, and amplify family problems.  

  • Explain and illustrate the concept of family roles and role names or titles.

3-8)  Motivate attending family members to teach other members and supporters what they're learning here.

        Why? Again - co-parents and active relatives not participating in this education risk unconsciously using biofamily norms and expectations, and causing significant stress in and between their related homes. 

Facilitate participating adults evolving a plan to approach each other family member - alone or in a group - and explain what they've learned from these Project-3) interventions and articles).

Coach participating family members on how to respond to "resistance." Option - ask the clients to identify the most "resistant" family adult or child, and role-play responding to their opinions, using (a) a mutual-respect attitude, and (b) the Lesson-2 communication skills.

        A useful question to ask is "___ (name), what would it mean to you if you accepted that we all are now in a normal stepfamily?", and then listen empathically (vs. arguing or explaining "the truth.").

If appropriate, suggest that resistance to accepting stepfamily norms and realities is caused by a mix of ignorance and wounds (e.g. excessive shame, guilts, anxieties, and reality distortions). Together, these can often be too powerful to overcome without professional help. Where this is so, provide a copy of this article & to participating clients, and discuss how it might apply in their situation.

        A major strategy is for the members who do accept their step-hood to consistently refer to it ("plant seeds") in family conversations and gatherings, and intentionally use appropriate role titles, even if some members are uncomfortable with them. .


3-9)  Follow up in future client contacts to see if adults genuinely accept their stepfamily identity and what it means, long term. If not, assess for what blocks this, and intervene appropriately. A common block is significant false-self dominance and protective unawareness.

        Why? Because (a) typical client-stepfamily adults are ruled by false selves, who (b) ceaselessly guard against risky second-level (core attitude) lifestyle changes (i.e. the unknown), no matter how healthy and justified.

Intentionally ask clients in phone and personal contacts if they're motivated to have their family members and supporters (a) understand stepfamily realities, and accept (b) their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily and (c) what that means to them and their descendents. 

If client-family spokespersons aren't so motivated...

  • remind them of the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and the long-term risks to their descendents of ignoring or discounting their identity and the cycle's other effects,

  • within current constraints, assess what blocks their acceptance (usually psychological wounds + unawareness), and...

  • intervene as appropriate and/or use the Serenity Prayer to accept that you can't change the clients' wounds, values, and choices now.


        This article summarizes interventions toward helping courting and committed stepfamily adults genuinely (a) accept their identity as a normal, multi-home stepfamily vs. a traditional biofamily, and (b) raising co-parents' awareness of what this identity means to all their kids, ex mates, relatives, and supporters. These interventions may also be useful with (a) divorcing biofamilies including minor and adult kids, and (b) re/divorcing stepfamilies who need to help each other understand, accept, and grieve their losses over time.

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Updated September 29, 2015