Help clients understand and break the lethal [wounds
+ unawareness] cycle
Facilitate clients accepting their
a stepfamily and what that means
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
+ + +
| 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
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.
the most from this outline, first read:
Lesson 7 Exists
this introduction to professional family
clinicians and educators,
this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness]
cycle that is a root stressor with
If you have trouble viewing the slides, see these
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
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
this introduction to effective interventions with
low-nurturance families and persons recovering from psychological
overview of co-parent Lesson 7;
client worksheet for assessing
for step-identity acceptance,
This real-life example of a husband denying
his stepfamily identity and stepfather role.
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
low-nurturance childhoods - are often unaware of, or reluctant to admit, their
stepfamily identity ("Yes, we're the Gonzales - Peterson - McNamara
to themselves, each other, and the public.
Avoiding or discounting stepfamily
and identity, and what that identity
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
| 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
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
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.
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
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
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
3-8) Motivate attending family
members to teach non-attending members and supporters what they're
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
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
'What is this thing humans call a family?' and (b) "Then what is a
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
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
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
(stepbrother / stepsister) as expected rules of family
behavior (shoulds, ought to's, and musts) of two or more minor or grown stepkids
respective bioparents are committed primary partners, and who (b) who share no parental genes.
If appropriate, define a child conceived by
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
and family-adjustment needs than typical
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
Each type of stepfamily has some unique traits, tasks, and
characteristics, so understanding these helps to form a clear,
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
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
Summarize and discuss the
"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
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
and facilitate client discussion as appropriate.
3-3) Teach co-parents why
and how to
make and use a stepfamily
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
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
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.
- The three Project-3 interventions above are foundations for
the six that follow.
Discuss the concept of stepfamily
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
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
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
(stepmom, stepbrother, step-uncle, etc) to protect members from
forgetting their identity and slipping unconsciously into stressful
3-5) Review and discuss the key
of being in a multi-home
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
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
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
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.
Assess for any
non-participating client adults discounting, ignoring, or rejecting their step-identity, and
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
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.
attending family members to teach other members and supporters what they're
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.
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
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. .
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
Why? Because (a) typical client-stepfamily adults are ruled by false selves,
who (b) ceaselessly guard against risky second-level (core attitude) lifestyle
(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]
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),
intervene as appropriate and/or use the
to accept that you can't change the clients' wounds, values, and choices
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)
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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September 29, 2015