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

Key Project-4 Interventions

Help stepfamily clients evolve
realistic expectations
- p. 1 of 2

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, based on this clinical model. 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. This article outlines key Project-4 interventions with courting or committed stepfamily clients.


        To get the most from this two-page article, study any of these you haven't read recently...

  • This introduction to professional family clinicians and educators,

  • These slide presentations on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is a root stressor with typical low-nurturance families, and these stepfamily basics.

  • These basic premises and key definitions,

  • this overview of the clinical model on which these articles are based, and this index of articles in this series;

  • This summary of requisites for effective professional service to low-nurturance clients;

  • This overview of effective clinical assessment of the six types of client families served by this model; and...

  • This introduction to effective interventions with (a) low-nurturance families and (b) persons recovering from psychological wounds; and...

  • This quiz on stepfamily basics. Then imagine typical stepfamily adults and supporters taking the quiz, and how you might use it with them.

Why Lesson 7 Exists

        Typical multi-home stepfamilies are similar to intact ("traditional") biofamilies in some ways, and concurrently may differ from them in up to 70 other ways! This paradox promotes average stepfamily adults, supporters, and uninformed human-service professionals assuming that stepfamilies will feel, evolve, and act pretty much like typical intact biofamilies. This misconception usually causes significant confusion, frustrations, conflicts, and resentments. It is part of the unawareness that stresses most stepfamily members.

        Project 4 builds on Lesson 7 (accept your stepfamily identity and agree on who's included) to help stepfamily adults and supporters avoid major stress by replacing unrealistic family formation, role, and relationship expectations (myths) with accurate ones.

        Typical courting and committed co-parents and their kids, relatives, and supporters (and many human-service professionals) "don't know what they don't know" about typical stepfamilies. Therefore, they won't ask clinicians to help them identify and replace myths with realistic expectations. The interventions summarized here build on those in Lesson 7. To be effective they require clinicians, supervisors, case managers, and consultants to be fully aware of (a) stepfamily similarities, differences, norms, and realities; and (b) what these usually mean to typical client families, as they evolve,

Key Project-4 Interventions

        These clinical interventions for courting and committed stepfamily members are among 12 hierarchical sets of interventions designed to prevent or reduce five common hazards and related systemic stressors. These interventions should follow an appropriate selection of Project-3 interventions. Both sets are best spread across several sessions, perhaps starting with intake contacts. They may or may not be triggered by a client's presenting problems. Follow the numeral links for more detail on each intervention.

The & symbol below indicates a printable handout for clients and colleagues.

4-1)  Affirm that all client-family adults accept their identity as a normal multi-home, multi-generational stepfamily (Lesson 7)

4-2)  Motivate client co-parents to (a) study stepfamily facts, similarities, differences, roles, and develop-mental (merger) phases, and then to (b) apply their learning to their stepfamily

4-3)  Facilitate (a) co-parent-couples agreeing on their long-term family priorities, and (b) resolving any significant disputes over them - specially inevitable loyalty conflicts

4-4)  Summarize the long-term benefits of Projects 3 and 4; and clarify, assess, and upgrade client expectations on these topics as appropriate:

   a) merging ,biofamilies and evolving a high-       nurturance ("functional") stepfamily

   b) requisites for a healthy couple relationship

   c) stepparent and stepchild roles, titles, names,        and relationships

   d) relationships with co-parenting ex mates and        their relatives 

   e)  step-grandparent and step-grandchild roles,         titles, and relationships

   f)  stepsibling and half-sibling roles, titles, names,        and relationships

   g)  stepfamily child-discipline responsibilities,         goals, and techniques

   h)  managing child visitations, and family         gatherings, holidays, and vacations

   i)  grieving prior and new losses (broken bonds)

   j)  effective stepfamily financial management,        including child support

4-5)  Strategize with co-parents on how to motivate  their other family adults and kids to form realistic stepfamily expectations on these topics

4-6)  Follow up with client adults to see if (a) they really do accept their stepfamily identity and what it means, and (b) are working proactively to spot and correct unrealistic expectations among their kids and adults

Affirm that all client-family adults fully accept their identity as a normal multi-home (unless stepkids' other bioparent is absent), multi-generational stepfamily.

        Why? Typical co-parents and relatives who don't accept their group identity won't really be motivated to discern and change their myths into realistic expectations. This - with other core problems  - promotes significant stress in and between co-parenting homes, and possible eventual re/divorce.

Clarify and illustrate the concept of a "family identity" as needed, and confirm clients understand the concept.

Ask clients to define what a stepfamily is, and affirm or correct their definition as needed. Options - if useful, add definitions of a simple stepfamily (only one partner has prior kids) and complex or blended stepfamily (both mates have prior kids).

Use their (amended?) definition to propose that their related adults and kids are members of a normal multi-home stepfamily, and resolve any questions or reservations they may have. If any client adults are ambivalent about or firmly reject their identity as a stepfamily, repeat Project-3 interventions as needed.

Intervention 4-2)  Motivate client co-parents to (a) study stepfamily facts, similarities, differences, roles, and development phases, and to (b) apply their learnings to their unique stepfamily.

        Why? client adults need to do this to understand and accept the difference between common stepfamily myths (unrealistic expectations) and typical realities. To do this, they need an accurate knowledge of how their stepfamily differs from typical or idealized intact biofamilies.

  • (a) Describe the US (re)divorce epidemic & and the five common re/marital hazards &, and (b) assess the clients' reaction to these. Indifference, deflection, discounting. and/or intellectualizing suggests false-self dominance in one or more client adults;

  • Review typical stepfamily similarities and differences & with intact biofamilies.

4-3)  If you haven't done so recently, facilitate (a) co-parent-couples agreeing on their long-term family priorities, and (b) resolving any significant conflicts over them - specially inevitable loyalty conflicts.

        Why? Because an essential for long-term re/marital and stepfamily success is couples consistently agreeing that their integrities and wholistic health come first, their relationship second, and all else third, except in emergencies. Living by other priorities (e.g. "My kids will always come first") risks significant denial of some challenging stepfamily realities, like "As a remarried bioparent, I must repeatedly face loyalty conflicts which require me to choose between my marriage and my kids." (Ref. this article and intervention 9-x)

Ask each partner to describe their mate's recent basic life priorities, as judged by their actions, not their words. Illustrate this as necessary, ("For example, common priorities are physical and mental  health, job and career, money management, friends and socializing, worship and spiritual growth, raising and enjoying kids, and home and grounds.") Then ask the other partner to comment ("So do you agree with you partner's perception?"

Outline the three-tier priority scheme above and illustrate it as necessary. Propose that if either mate often ranks anything as more important than (a) their personal wholistic health and integrity and (b) their primary relationship, they risk eroding the relationship, increasing family-wide stress, and eventual psychological or legal divorce.

Note that this risk justifies intentionally helping each other stay aware of their demonstrated priorities over time, and confronting any related problems honestly and promptly. ("Pat, I'm feeling increasingly concerned and resentful because you're putting more energy into relating to your sister than to me.")

Ask the clients' reactions to this proposal, and to use it to reevaluate their recent priorities. 

Note that true resolution of life-priority disputes requires (a) both partners' true Selves to be guiding their personalities (Lesson 1), (b) fluency in the Lesson-2 communication skills, and an effective joint strategy on spotting and solving values conflicts. Option - discuss clients' status with these three factors, and intervene as appropriate.

4-4)  Summarize the benefits of Lesson 7, and clarify, assess, and correct client expectations on the topics below as appropriate.

        Why? to provide rationale, motivation, and opportunity for clients to convert common stepfamily myths into realistic expectations, and minimize significant family stress.

Review the five common stepfamily hazards & and 7 self-improvement Lessons  as needed. Option - refer clients to this slide presentation on stepfamily basics, and discuss and assess their reactions.

Propose that co-parents' and supporters' personal attitudes about key subjects will shape their expectations and behaviors. Then review these key attitudes & one at a time, note client reactions, and intervene as appropriate.

Refer clients to (or provide a copy of &) this article and checklist of common stepfamily myths and realities, and discuss it thoroughly. This will probably take several client sessions. An ecological way of transferring this knowledge is via a seminar or class for stepfamily adults.

4-4a)  Assess, and correct client expectations on (a) merging biofamilies, and (b) evolving a high-nurturance ("functional") multi-home stepfamily.

        Why? Typical stepfamily adults and supporters significantly underestimate or deny the complexity and duration of merging their three or more co-parent families over many years. They also have vague or simplistic views of (a) what their family's purpose is (to consistently nurture all members well enough, in a changing world), and (b) the specific factors that promote this. This is specially true for average unrecovering Grown Wounded Children (GWCs). The myth to correct here is "Creating a stepfamily is about the same as evolving a normal (bio)family, and we know how to do that well enough."

Review typical stepfamily developmental paths &, note client reactions to this (e.g. agreement, conflict, discounting, or rejection), and intervene as needed;.

Review the 16 things typical new-stepfamily adults and kids need to merge & over four or more years, and the value of an intentional merger plan & among all family adults and supporters. Note client reactions, and intervene as appropriate;

Option - ask clients to describe...

  • where their nuclear stepfamily is on the merger continuum of one (we haven't started) to ten (we're essentially done), one topic at a time;

  • whether their co-parents have a consensual merger plan (expect "No"); and...

  • what specific factors help and hinder their merger progress.

Review what the clients expect to accomplish with their stepfamily long term, and - if appropriate - review the concept and benefits of a family mission statement (Project 6). Expect typical clients to be vague, superficial, unmotivated on this.

Suggest that all families exist to nurture their members - i.e. to fill many or most of their current primary personal and group needs. Then describe and illustrate the concept of "family nurturance level" - e.g. ask clients to think of their own childhood families. See if the clients agree with the concept and how they feel about it.

Propose that any family - like the client's - can be ranked somewhere on a continuum of low-nurturance to high-nurturance. Offer the client this handout & proposing key traits of a high-nurturance family, and discuss it. Option - ask each adult what they think their childhood caregivers would say to this concept and trait summary.

Propose that if co-parents are (a) guided by their true Selves (Lesson 1) and (b) armed with accurate knowledge of stepfamily norms and realistic expectations (intervention 4-2), they can help each other merge their biofamilies and develop a high-nurturance, multi-home stepfamily. Discuss and illustrate this as appropriate, and discuss the client's reactions.

Option - review (a) typical kids' developmental & and family-adjustment & needs, and (b) typical stepfamily adults' merger-related & and relationship & needs. Tailor these to fit the client, and propose that these comprise most of the basic needs their co-parents need to fill as they merge - i.e. the needs that will determine their stepfamily's nurturance level, over time.

4-4b)  Assess and correct client expectations about requisites for a healthy couple relationship

       Why? It's widely estimated over half of typical US re/marriages - specially in stepfamilies - fail psychologically and legally. Key reasons are that typical needy, over-busy, wounded partners (a) make unwise courtship choices, (b) don't give their primary relationship consistently-high priority, and (c) aren't able to think, communicate, and problem-solve effectively. The myth to correct here is "Our maturity, experience, and love will automatically overcome all major relationship problems."

Ask each client adult to describe the key factors that promote a healthy, satisfying primary relationship.

Review this checklist & with them, noting respectfully how it compares to the factors they described. Expect clients to be startled and perhaps uneasy.

Review, tailor, and discuss these typical surface and primary problems & that combine to stress stepfamily-couple relationships as they merge their biofamilies and develop their roles and rituals;

Review the concept of false self wounds and Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) as appropriate, and how that may affect their stepfamily-couple (and other) relationships. Then ask client co-parents if they have honestly assessed for these wounds, and if so, whether they're in proactive recovery from them. If not, consider switching to Lesson-1 interventions.

Option - invite couples to thoughtfully fill out and discuss this inventory & of relationship strengths and stressors.

Option - discuss and assess whether client couples appreciate the importance of helping each other patiently learn and practice effective communication and problem-solving skills (Lesson 2) to nourish their key relationships.

Ask couples whether anything has changed for them (after these interventions) about what's needed to nourish healthy long-term primary relationship in their stepfamily. If not, suspect a false self rules one or more client adults.

Review and discuss Project 7 (for courting clients), and/or Project 8 (for all committed couples). If appropriate, shift to Project 7 or 8 interventions.

Follow up in future sessions to see if client couples are practicing the priority hierarchy proposed here - specially with the loyalty and values conflicts they are experiencing..

4-4c)  Assess and correct client expectations on stepparent and stepchild roles, titles, names, and relationships as needed.

        Why? Typical stepfamily adults and supporters have vague or distorted ideas (unrealistic expectations) about these topics, which promote misunderstandings, conflicts, self-doubts, and frustrations in and between related homes. in particular, they may mistakenly expect stepparents and stepkids to love each other like healthy biofamily members.

Review, illustrate, and discuss the concept of family roles and rules. Option - note that these are two key elements in any human group (system) which shape it's nurturance level.

Ask client adults and kids to describe the role (main responsibilities of) an effective "co-parent." If appropriate, suggest that the main responsibilities are to...

  • to know, assess, and patiently fill dependent kids' main current needs, while...

  • intentionally balancing other dynamic current responsibilities (), and...

  • valuing and filling their own current primary needs effectively (self-nurturance).

Ask clients to (a) define what a "stepparent" (role) is, and to (b) summarize the main differences between the typical roles of bioparent and stepparent. Propose that their goals are similar, and the environments around adults choosing these complex roles can differ in up to 40 ways &. Note whether client adults agree on this or not. If they don't, decide whether to refocus on resolving this important values conflict now or later.

Ask clients to discuss the traits of (a) an effective stepparent, and (b) a responsible stepchild. Expect them to be vague and superficial on this, and clarify as needed.

Option - (a) review these basic considerations & about stepparent - stepchild relationships, and (b) ask for (and assess) clients' reactions (harmonious - conflictual). Give special emphasis to the unrealistic expectation that stepkids, stepparents, and step-grandparents (or other relatives) must love each other & right away. (Reality - strive for mutual respect, and hope that some genuine (vs. dutiful) degree of love will evolve over time.

If the client family has adult stepkids, assess each co-parent's opinion about what their family roles should be, and what to title and call each one. Option - give the clients a copy of this article & and discuss it with them.

Review the importance of stepfamily members agreeing on (a) what to call (title) their key family roles, and (b) what first and last names & to call each other. Option - note that members' names and role-titles are elements of their family system which can promote intra and inter-home harmony or discord.

If appropriate, review these pros and cons of legal stepchild adoption &, and discuss how they relate to the clients' family now. Assess whether this topic is causing any significant loyalty and/or values conflicts in and between client family members, and if so, how client co-parents are trying to handle those. Coach them on these using Lesson-2 interventions as needed.

Discuss how client adults can best teach kids and supporters what they're learning here, and who's responsible for doing this with each person.

Follow up to see if client adults are promoting their family members forming and using (a) healthy attitudes about, and (b) realistic expectations of each other relative to their stepparent-stepchild roles, titles, and names. If not, suspect false-self dominance and wounds in one or more co-parents, intervene as appropriate.

Continue with more Project-4 interventions on page 2

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Intervention basics and index

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Updated January 16, 2015