Effective clinical interventions with wounded people and low-nurturance families

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

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this two-page article is http://sfhelp.org/pro/rx/p04a.htm

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4-4d)  Assess and correct client misconceptions about relationships with co-parenting ex mates and their relatives, as needed.

       Why? Many new stepfamily mates and supporters discount or reject stepkids' "other parent/s" and their relatives from full membership in their stepfamily. They believe they can minimize or ignore the needs, opinions, and effects of these relatives in family decisions and activities.

        The reality is that such relatives will always have major genetic, emotional, financial, and logistic effects on their stepfamily system for many years, whether actively co-parenting or not, and co-parents need to accept that.

Review the clients' genogram of their multi-home, multi-generational stepfamily, and assess each mate's degree of acceptance (none to full) of each stepchild's "other bioparent" and their relatives as full family members. If clients haven't made a genogram yet, invite them to do so now (intervention 3-3).

if possible, assess each minor or grown stepchild's "other bioparent/s' " acceptance of (a) their stepfamily identity and membership, and (b) their ex's new mate and co-parenting role ("stepmom/stepdad) and authority.

If there is significant ambivalence, discounting, or rejection in any co-parent, re-do Project-3 interventions as needed. Ambivalence is usually a symptom of false-self wounds and unresolved co-parenting barriers. See Lesson-1 and Lesson 7 interventions for options.

Option - Give clients a copy of this article on stepfamily membership &, and discuss how the ideas in it apply to their family.

4-4e)  Assess, and correct client misconceptions about step-grandparent and step-grandchild roles, role-titles, and relationships.

        Why? Misconceptions on these topics are common - specially if one or more co-parents "resist" fully accepting their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily. These misconceptions promote confusion, frustration, guilts, hurts, and resentments.

Review and clarify the concepts of "family role," role titles, and family job descriptions as needed;

Review the clients' multi-generational genogram and identify each stepchild's active, absent, and dead co-grandparents and the nature and past and current degrees of impact on the clients' stepfamily system (nurturing <> stressful).

Ask client co-parents to describe their opinions on the family responsibilities of each co-grandparent toward their biological and step kids and grandkids. If possible, ask each stepchild their opinion on this too. Note any significant conflicts and unrealistic expectations - specially that co-grandparents and step-grandkids must love each other as in an intact biofamily.

Ask clients to describe their attitudes and opinions on what step-grandparents and step-grandkids should call each other (role-titles and names). Assess whether these opinions enhance or hinder the client-stepfamily's nurturance level, and intervene as appropriate.

Option - give clients a copy of this three-page article & and discuss it, and/or refer them to it on the web (http://sfhelp.org/sf/kin/gp.htm).

Option - review typical stepkids' developmental & and family-adjustment & needs, and discuss how client grandparents can help to assess & and fill them.

Review the concepts of loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles & as appropriate. Then ask if any of these are significant now relative to step-grandparents, step-grandkids, and co-parents now. If so, explore client-adult strategies for resolving these among their family members, and respectfully suggest improvements as appropriate.

Follow up in future sessions to see if client adults and kids are adopting realistic expectations about step-grandparent - step-grandchild roles, titles, and names. If not, repeat any of these interventions as appropriate.

4-4f)  Assess and correct client expectations about stepsibling and half-sibling roles, titles, names, and relationships - even if there are no minor or adult stepsibs or half-sibs in the stepfamily now.

       Why? Misconceptions on these are common - specially if one or more co-parents "resist" fully accepting their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily. These misconceptions promote confusion, frustration, guilts, hurts, and resentments - specially if adults are wounded, and/or aren't fluent in effective communication skills (Lesson 2).

Review and clarify the concepts of "family role," role titles, and family job descriptions & as needed;

Review definitions of stepbrother / stepsister and half-brother / half sister roles with the clients as appropriate, and correct any misconceptions;

Review the clients' ideas about how biological siblings "ought to" relate to each other, and compare that to how any biosibs in their home/s and family really do relate.

Emphasize that stepsibling and half sibling are family role-titles, not people. Implication - if someone is a "bad stepsib," s/he is not a bad person.

Review the client's ideas on how stepsiblings and/or half-siblings "ought to" relate, and how that compares with any such relationships in their family now. Include any adult co-parents' sibs and/or half-sibs. Option - give clients a copy of this article on stepsibling basics &, and discuss how the ideas in it relate to their stepfamily.

Propose that the bonds between stepsibs and half-sibs are often weaker than those between healthy biosibs, and that it's more realistic to encourage mutual respect among the former, vs. idealized biofamily "love." The latter will usually promote guilt, shame, resentment, confusion, and pretending.

Option - if the client family includes teenagers, explore (a) what each co-parent expects of each teen, (b) what each teen currently needs &, and (c) which adults are responsible for filling these needs.

Option - review (a) these typical developmental and family-adjustment needs, (b) assess how well each client-child's set of these needs is being filled recently, and (c) which client adults are responsible for filling them. Option - review, illustrate, and discuss the pros and cons of evolving client-co-parent job (role) descriptions.

Review the concepts of loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles & as appropriate. Then ask if step-siblings and/or half-siblings' roles are causing any of these. If so, explore client adults' strategies for resolving these related stressors, and respectfully suggest any useful improvements.

Ask co-parents how clear each minor and grown child in their family is on (a) their stepfamily identity, (b) their stepfamily roles and role titles, (c) their first and last names &, and (d) what to call each other and their main caregivers. If there are significant problems with any of these, discuss who's responsible for resolving them, and options for doing so effectively.

For correcting other child-related misconceptions, see Lesson 7 interventions.

Follow up on any of these that seem significant, and repeat any of these Project-4 interventions as needed.

4-4g)  Assess, and correct client expectations on stepfamily child-discipline responsibilities, goals, and techniques.

        Why? The odds of significant stress over setting and enforcing child discipline limits are high in and between a typical stepfamily's related homes - e.g. values differences over if, when, and how stepparents should discipline their stepkids, and what's "fair" between stepsiblings and family co-parents. Typical co-parents and supporters underestimate the complexity and probable conflict over child discipline in their stepfamily.

Ask clients to describe their expectations about aspects of child discipline in their stepfamily like these:

  • What is "effective child discipline"? Be alert for major values conflicts here, and use these principles and model the Lesson-2 communication skills to illuminate and resolve them. See this for perspective.

  • Who should be responsible for setting and enforcing limits on each minor child in your nuclear stepfamily? (Usually the bioparents at first, until stepparents and stepkids have developed mutual trust and respect, and stepfamily behavioral rules have merged and stabilized.)

  • Do you feel child discipline in your stepfamily is basically the same as in a biofamily? (Yes and No. Effective-discipline principles are the same, and there may be over 20 potentially-stressful environmental differences that co-parents need to be aware of. Option - give clients one or more of the articles in this series & and discuss them as needed.

  • If you experience major conflicts over child discipline in  or between your homes, whose needs and opinions should come first, and why? See intervention 4-3.

4-4h)  Assess and correct client expectations about managing child visitations and family gatherings, holidays, and vacations

        Why? These related topics usually evoke major concurrent values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles among kids, co-parents, and relatives for years - specially after courtship politeness and tolerances fade. Typical courting couples rarely discuss their values and needs on these topics adequately before exchanging commitment vows and/or cohabiting.

        The main misconceptions here are that typical co-parents and supporters suppose that (a) child visitations will not develop into a major marital and family stressor, and that (b) stepfamily gatherings, holidays, and vacations will feel pretty much like those in intact biofamilies.

Ask clients to describe what an effective child visitation is, and (b) the key factors that affect the quality of average visitations. Then compare their answers with your version of these ideas, and make suggestions as needed. Option - give clients a copy of this article &, and discuss as appropriate.

Ask clients to describe...

  • a successful stepfamily gathering (e.g. a birthday, house-warming, retirement, or graduation celebration), and how that may differ from a typical intact-biofamily gathering; Option - invite clients to use their childhood and/or former-marriage biofamilies as illustrations.

  • what key factors affect the success of a stepfamily gathering, and...

  • how these factors compare to the elements of a successful intact-biofamily gathering. (Generally more people; more complex planning and logistics; less overall comfort, familiarity, and spontaneity; and more chances for concurrent inclusion, values, and loyalty conflicts, and associated relationship triangles.)

  • a successful stepfamily holiday celebration. Option - pick one to illustrate, like Thanksgiving, a religious holiday, July Fourth, etc.

  • what key factors affect the success of a stepfamily holiday celebration, and...

  • how these factors compare to the elements of a successful intact-biofamily holiday celebration. (Same as above.) 

  • Option - give clients a copy of this article &, and discuss as appropriate. And...

Ask clients to describe...

  • a successful or effective stepfamily vacation;

  • the main elements or factors that determine the degree of success, and...

  • how these factors compare to the elements of a successful intact-biofamily vacation. (Same as for stepfamily gatherings above.)

4-4i)  Assess, and correct client expectations on grieving prior and new losses (broken bonds)

        Why? Every new stepfamily follows - and causes - complex sets of losses (broken bonds) for all adults and kids. Many stepfamily adults are survivors of low-nurturance childhoods, and didn't learn how to grieve well, or at all. Co-parent Lesson 3 focuses on this important factor.

        Typical divorcing and courting co-parents and the American public aren't aware of healthy mourning principles and the toxic psychological, physiological, and systemic effects of blocked grief. My experience since 1979 suggests that (a) this is one of five major stressors that burden typical low-nurturance families, and that (b) co-parents (and many clinicians) will rarely be motivated to explore it in depth.

        For perspective, review this quiz, this research summary, these requisites for healthy grief, this article & on healthy family grieving policies, and these common symptoms of blocked grief.

        Common client misconceptions in any family are...

  • "Mourning is what you do when someone die" (vs. when any significant bond breaks);

  • "We (co-parents) know all we need to know about grieving,"

  • blocked or incomplete grieving in one or more family members will not be a significant problem in and between our related family homes; and...

  • "Our minor kids are learning to grieve well enough."

Ask clients to describe (a) what bonds and losses are, (b) what grieving is, (c) what causes it, and (d) how to tell when grieving is blocked, and "done." Respectfully correct any misconceptions about these as needed, including "We don't really need to know much about these topics.".

Ask clients if they believe that normal mourning can be blocked, and whether any of their family members may be blocked (vs. incomplete). 

Ask clients to describe their family grieving policy. (Premise - all persons and families have a semi-conscious grieving policy - shoulds, ought to's, have to's, and musts, tho many aren't aware of it, or its implications.) The myth to dispel here is that the client has no grieving policy. Use clients' response as input to Lesson-3 interventions as appropriate.

Ask clients if they know how to tell the difference between grieving and depression, and why such knowledge can help their stepfamily. (Spending money on expensive therapy and anti-depression medication will not free or speed up necessary grieving, and stepfamily members have a lot of broken bonds to mourn.)

        The myth here is that there's little need to be able to distinguish between these in family members or other important people. Option - giver clients a copy of this research summary & and discuss it as appropriate.

4-4j)  Assess and correct client expectations about effective stepfamily financial management,                including child support

        Why? Conflicts about finances, assets, and debt management are among the three most common surface stressors in and between typical stepfamily homes. These conflicts are usually muted or tolerated during courtship, so often couples are unprepared for them.

        Significant frustrations and conflicts over income allocation, savings, investments, insurance, child support and expenses, and debt responsibilities (specially credit card debts) are always symptoms of the primary problems "underneath" them: psychological wounds + ignorance of effective communication skills + unresolved prior-divorce issues + related and concurrent values conflicts and relationship triangles. 

        The myth to dispel here is some version of "We (partners) will have no significant conflicts over financial matters," or "We partners and co-parents will be able to resolve any significant stepfamily financial disputes effectively."

Create interest by saying something like "Did you know that financial conflicts are among the leading source of stress in typical US stepfamilies? Do you think that might apply to your stepfamily?"

Ask clients to describe their version of "effective stepfamily financial management" or equivalent, and ask if family adults agree on this definition. Often they've never discussed this clearly, unless there have been major problems already.

Option - ask clients where "financial management" falls in the current life priorities of each of their main co-parents. Note how this topic ranks compared to couple's primary relationships, and use this in Project 8 interventions, if and when appropriate. 

Review the common categories of potential stepfamily financial confusion and stress, and ask if any of them have caused significant problems i and between their homes so far.

Review the concept of surface and primary needs, and that "problem-solving" is identifying and filling each person's current primary needs Then suggest than any dispute over family finances is a symptom of deeper primary problems (above).

        Ask clients to identify a past or present financial conflict, and assess the surface and primary problems in it. Option - give clients a copy of this article on digging down & (if you haven't so far), and discuss this example in it as appropriate.

Summarize or review the concepts of loyalty and values conflicts and relationship triangles as needed. Explain that any (surface) "financial conflict" will surely involve several to many of these.

        Use client examples to illustrate and validate this premise, and the value of evolving effective strategies to resolve each  of these stressors in and between the client's members and homes.

4-5)  Strategize with co-parents on how to motivate their other family adults and kids to form realistic stepfamily expectations on these topics. See Intervention 3-8


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

        Why? Because typical client adults may intellectually understand the need to adopt realistic expectations after these interventions, but may have little motivation to assert this need with other relatives - specially antagonistic, argumentative, distant, bigoted, and inactive ones, and any who reject or discount their stepfamily identity and it's implications. See Intervention 3-9.


        This article is one of a series outlining effective-intervention steps for typical stepfamily clients. The interventions summarized here are for motivating client adults who genuinely accept their stepfamily identity to identify and replace any stepfamily misconceptions with realistic expectations. These interventions may also be useful with re/divorcing stepfamilies who need to understand, accept, and grieve their losses (broken bonds) over time.

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Updated January 17, 2015