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

Facilitate clients accepting their identity as
a stepfamily
and what that means
- p. 2 of 2

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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3-7)  Promote client adults using appropriate stepfamily role titles, and patiently reduce any resistance to doing 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 unconsciously use biofamily norms and expectations in stressful situations, slow or block stepfamily bonding and merger progress, and amplify family problems.  

Explain and illustrate the concepts of family roles and role-names or titles. Distinguish between first and last names & and family role-titles as needed. Note that adults and kids negotiating what names to call each other is part of Project-9 - merging biofamilies over time;

Option - if appropriate, summarize the five common stepfamily hazards, and motivate clients by hilighting how ignorance of realistic stepfamily expectations (and not using appropriate stepfamily role-tiles) can promote significant personal and systemic stress;

Review common biofamily role-titles (Mom, brother, uncle, grandma...), and ask clients what titles they usually use with each other. Option - ask how these titles compare to those client-adults and their parents and grandparents used as kids;

Describe common stepfamily role-titles, and note that (a) there are twice as many as in a typical biofamily, and (b) members of merging biofamilies may use different titles (Dad, Daddy, Pops, Papa), creating potential values conflicts;

Propose the value of using appropriate stepfamily role-titles at home and in public - i.e.  maximize clarity and validation that "We are a normal multi-home stepfamily," and promote using realistic stepfamily role expectations (Lesson 7);

Ask if co-parents are encouraging kids and other adults to use appropriate stepfamily role titles at home and in public ("You know Nan, Jackie is your stepsister, not your biological sister...") If they're not, assess why (often because members don't want to acknowledge their stepfamily identity, and/or don't understand the risk of using biofamily expectations), and encourage them to seek respectful awareness and change;

Option - suggest and role-play responses to family members who resist using appropriate stepfamily role-titles. Use mutually-respect attitudes and the Priject-2 communication skills - when true Selves are guiding clients' personalities. Encourage  and practice empathic listening and respectful assertion, vs. arguing, criticizing, and 1-up lecturing;

Option - describe and role-play using the Serenity and Gestalt Prayers with family members probably ruled by protective false-selves who need to avoid accepting their stepfamily identity and role-titles;  

Follow up in future sessions to verify clients are using appropriate stepfamily role-titles. if not, decide if and when to assess why, and whether to repeat selected interventions here.

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

        Why? Again - family adults not participating in this education risk unconsciously using biofamily norms and expectations, and inadvertently causing significant stress in and between their related homes. 

If appropriate, review the concepts of...

  • the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and it's effects;

  • the five common stepfamily hazards and their typical effects, and...

  • summarize (at least) Projects 3 and 4, as appropriate.

Facilitate participating adults' evolving a plan to approach each other family member - alone or in a group - and explain what they've learned about accepting their stepfamily identity and what it means to them all.

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're members of 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 other members are uncomfortable with them.

3-9)  Follow up in future contacts to see if client 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 - and you can "plant seeds" for possible future change.


        This article is one of a series outlining effective clinical interventions for typical low-nurturance clients. This summarizes basic Lesson 7 interventions aiming to help courting and committed clients genuinely (a) accept their identity as a normal, multi-home stepfamily vs. a traditional biofamily, and to (b) understand what this identity means to their co-parents, relatives, descendents, and supporters. These interventions may also be useful with divorcing biofamilies, including minor and adult kids; and with re/divorcing stepfamilies who need to help each other understand, accept, and grieve their losses over time (Lesson 3).

+ + +

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - on a scale of one (not motivated at all) to ten (very motivated), how do you feel about using some version of these nine Project-3 interventions with stepfamily clients? Who's answering - your true Self or "someone else"?

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Updated April 30, 2013