Stepfamily Support group, continued from p. 1

question mark  Should we have a group name? A logo?

      Like various athletic teams, some support-group members feel more group pride and loyalty if they’ve co-operatively forged a name, logo, or even have picked a symbolic or real mascot. Whether these would help you depends totally on who you all are as a unique group. 

       The adjective "step" offers possibilities for fun, nutty, or inspiring titles ("The Tuscaloosa High-Steppers", "Seattle Step Stars",...). Enjoy kicking this around at a group meeting from time to time. Your kids are rich sources of ideas and energy here!

question mark  What group-process guidelines will help us meet our goals?

       There are key factors that greatly shape a co-parent support group's effectiveness. I suggest you evolve and enforce clear group policies on these points...

  • Punctuality

  • "Air time" and interruptions

  • Couples arguing

  • Confidentiality

  • Smoking and other drug usage

  • Confrontations

  • Giving effective feedback

  • Griping and whining vs. problem-solving

          Let's look briefly at each of these.

Punctuality: Most members will feel better about the group if they can count on knowing when each meeting will start and end. People arriving after the meeting has started - or leaving before the end - disrupts focus, mood, and momentum.

      That takes everyone’s time to rebuild. If meetings consistently run longer than advertised or agreed, members (specially those with baby sitters) can feel stressed and resentful, and lean toward dropping out. You may find it useful to ask that if people are unavoidably detained, they be responsible for calling and letting the host/leader know that.

      Every group has a unique blend of members’ needs about timeliness. If in doubt what your group’s blend is - ask everyone what they need!

Smoking and other drug usage: An increasing number of people feel second-hand tobacco smoke is unpleasant and unhealthy. And a person who attends a support group meeting "under the influence" may distract others and turn off new people. 

      If your group tolerates members being high or drunk, you're enabling them (promoting an unhealthy habit). That’s opposite to your (presumed) shared goal of fostering personal, stepfamily, and group wholistic health.

       Poll all members on this point when you organize, and agree on a clear policy on chemical usage. Note that if your policy says "We ask that people who have just used mind-altering drugs not attend", that implies if someone comes in high, your leader must ask them to leave.

Confidentiality: Effective support groups feel consistently safe - i.e.  members can reveal personal details of their lives without fear of ridicule or reporting sensitive things to the outside world. It helps to build group trust and intimacy if you remind everyone at the start of each meeting "What’s said here stays here." 

      An ongoing option is for people who share sensitive information to ask everyone to keep it within the group. If someone discloses probable criminal behavior or child or elder abuse or neglect, you have a moral and legal obligation to report those immediately to the appropriate authorities.

"Air time" and interruptions: A standard group task each meeting is to balance the time available with members’ needs to vent, discuss, problem-solve, and get feedback. One way of doing that is for the leader to ask people to say during their initial check-in if they want group air time.

      Then try to manage the group process so that those who need time get enough. A structured way of doing this is to divide the "business" time available by the number of people who want time, and allocate the resulting number of minutes to each person.

      Have the group stay alert to how interruptions feel to them. Some interruptions can feel supportive, and others can distract from where the speaker is "going" or derail them completely. Talk together about how you all want to handle the latter. One option is to give responsibility to each speaker about their own tolerance for interruptions, and invite respectful assertions.

Confrontation: A challenging aspect to any support group is how to handle members’ inevitable disagreements. People’s values on co-parenting, marriage, finances, and "family health" vary widely. Your group will evolve a policy - spoken or unspoken - on what you all do when one member describes something that one or several others significantly disagree with.

      Average stepfamilies are riddled with emotional, controversial topics: child discipline, visitation, and custody; money management; relations with ex mates; grieving; stepparent rejection; adoption, privacy; etc. I suggest that when values conflicts occur in your group (and they will!), ask the disagreers to give their reaction in the form of a respectful ''I-message'' rather than a blaming or discounting statement.

      I-messages avoid name-calling and using adjectives like stupid, childish, idiotic, and ridiculous. "I messages" sound like: "Jack, when you describe using a belt to reprimand your stepson, I get really uncomfortable. I’m afraid that kind of action will generate fear, resentment and shame in Georgie. Are you open to feedback on other ways to enforce your discipline?

      The focus here is on the disagreer’s reaction, rather than blaming or accusing the original speaker. The group-divisive alternative is to come out with something like "Jack, that’s outright child abuse. How can you do that? Millie, how can you let him do that to your son - are you crazy?"

      Stay focused that you are a support group, not the Grand Inquisition. If someone is doing something that seems harmful, then respectful confrontation is a gift. Not confronting is enabling, which is potentially hurtful, and erodes Self respect. Stay aware also that you’re not there to win the co-parenting Olympics. Hopefully, members come to encourage and learn, not compete with others.

Griping and group conflict vs. problem-solving. Probably the biggest support-group killer is that meetings turn into predictable "bitch sessions." People can leave such meetings feeling like stepfamily life is gloomy, awful, and chaotic - and that there’s no way out, or reason to hope. 

      A basic decision that all founding members need to make is whether they’re meeting to find effective solutions to their confusing stepfamily dilemmas or not. It’s easy to complain, whine, and play "Ain’t it awful." It’s harder - and far more rewarding - to use the group’s empathy, wisdom and creativity to seek effective new attitudes and behaviors.

       The next step here is for the leader or another member to confront the griper/s. Say something like "Sandra, I feel we’re over-focusing on your problem. Are you ready to shift now to decide what changes you want, and options for getting that?" Another way of confronting respectfully is for any member to ask the speaker "What do you need from us right now?"

Couples Arguing. mates' arguing or fighting excessively in the group is divisive and wastes time, It usually occurs because true Selves are disabled and people aren't using effective communication skills. Suggestions:

Hear and validate them: "you two are really having trouble finding a win-win compromise here. You’re in a standard loyalty (or values) conflict, and your subselves' frustration and anger seem to be blocking you from hearing each other."

Re/focus them: "Are you willing to have us help you problem-solve now?" What if they say "No!"?

Limit them: verbal combat in one couple can use up a whole meeting. Interrupt them respectfully, and ask each partner what they need - specifically - from each other and the group. Such interruptions will be easier if everyone has a clear idea on what the group’s consensual "air time" policy is.

Refer them: unless you have a trained clinician present and are a therapy group vs. a support group, suggest to a couple having the same problem/s meeting after meeting that they seek professional counsel.  Ideally, your group will evolve a list of local stepfamily-aware professionals to refer to.


Learn from them: Conflicted couples are a key reason co-parent support groups exist. If a couple is at an impasse in your group, observe them empathically and try to understand why they get stuck. It’s often far easier to see the causes in another couple than in your own primary relationship!

      Another important group-policy item is on ...

Giving feedback. Communication occurs to fill people’s current needs. Six universal needs are...

    1)  to feel respected by your Self and your current partner/s (always present),

    2)  to cause action, including regulating the emotional distance between the speaker and listener/s, 

    3)  to vent - i.e. to feel empathically understood and non-judgmentally accepted,

    4)  to get or give new ideas or information,

    5)  to feel intellectual and emotional stimulation, vs. boredom; and/or typical people need...

    6)  to avoid something uncomfortable.

      Unless members specifically ask for help or suggestions, assume their need is to vent. Avoid a barrage of advice-giving. It can feel like a shaming putdown if a group member says "Well, obviously, what you should do is...". Two helpful alternatives to "fixing" (advising) are ...

  • focus constructively (vs. critically) on how the person or couple is trying to solve their problem - i.e. focus on their process. Typically couples (or co-parents and kids) fight and argue, rather than problem-solve. Often, that’s the real problem; and ...

  • Join with the speaker/s (when they’re ready) and co-operatively brainstorm alternatives they can pick from.

       Option - have the group read and discuss this Lesson-2 article on win-win problem-solving and this example.

question mark  What is "effective group leadership?"

      This factor alone can make or break the eventual success of your support group. Like high-nurturance families, I’ve never seen a well-functioning support group without one or two wholistically healthy leaders. A key reason most groups end (or never get going) is because the leaders are burned out, ambivalent, or ineffective - i.e. inexperienced and/or unaware. 

      What does this key role entail? Some typical leadership responsibilities:

  • Provide the initial support group vision, spirit, and dedication;

  • Organize and conduct the initial meetings;

  • Hold planning meetings to determine the support group’s aims, policies, and logistics;

  • Arrange for volunteers to share the group’s administrative tasks. Delegate to and co- ordinate them, resolve conflicts in and among them, and recognize and appreciate them regularly for their efforts;

  • Conduct each support meeting effectively, or delegate that to another effective co-leader. Set each meeting’s tone (e.g. optimism vs. gloom) and agenda, and follow it - unless unexpected crises arise.

  • Balance meetings’ content dynamically between stepfamily issues and group administration tasks. Effective, here, means that most of those attending get their major needs met in a way every-one feels good enough about.

  • Act as community spokesperson for the group, or delegate that job and monitor it.

  • Stay aware of general and special group needs, and co-ordinate the talents and resources of group members and the community to meet them.

  • Balance personal stepfamily needs with all group members’ needs. Avoid overusing the group as a personal resource.

  • Make clear, timely administrative decisions about group process. Confront problems promptly and assertively. Facilitate group problem-solving supportively, when members conflict.

  • Negotiate with any guest speakers, and co-ordinate their time, focus, and participation.

  • Monitor what group members come for, and whether they’re getting enough of their needs met. If not, take responsibility for problem-solving that.

  • Take (or delegate) overall responsibility for recruiting appropriate new members, and do so.

  • Ask for help with these responsibilities, and delegate, when they feel too much.

  • Groom another effective leader, and hand the baton to them when feeling burned out, or personally "done". Then let go; and …

  • Enjoy doing all this, (usually), over time!

       Because this is asking a lot of one person, having co-leaders can guard against overload, burn-out, illness, and responsibilities "falling through the cracks."

+ + +

      You just read an overview of how to initiate an effective co-parent support group. The next task is - once you're up and running...

 Help Your Group Thrive

       After the first general session, what will keep people coming back? What will attract new people? Both questions hinge on "What do typical stepfamily co-parents need"? Some suggestions, after taking part in ~15 co-parent support groups:

  • Keep clear and focused on your group's goals

  • Screen new people's needs

  • Choose useful meeting topics and guest speakers

  • Learn how to resolve group-process problems

  • set up an email list or phone-tree

      Let's look at these briefly...

Keep Clear and Focused on Your Group's Goals

           Again: typical stepfamily co-parents need to...

vent and feel empathically heard and accepted about their stepfamily frustrations, confusions - and successes!,

get consistent respect, validation, and encouragement, from knowledgeable and respected peers;

learn realistic step norms, and effective co-parenting and re/marital solutions, via caring feedback and suggestions;

commune and belong with similar-enough women and men;

be compassionately confronted, (vs. enabled) when appropriate;

get away together for a while, and enjoy time as a couple;

share and be helpful to peers and kids; and …

build and keep realistic (vs. idealistic) stepfamily and re/marital optimism, faith, and hope.

          Most busy stepfamily co-parents don’t need to...

Waste their energy, money, and time - i.e. get few or no needs met;

Listen to pessimistic others complain, whine, blame, fight, and drone on repetitively;

Be ignored, interrupted, criticized, lectured to, competed with, or discounted;

Feel overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of some other member’s situations and needs;

Be repeatedly stymied or discouraged; or …

Be burdened with unproductive group administrivia.

      If your leaders and members stay aware of these two sets of typical needs and help each other fill them together, your group will thrive! About one of six U.S. families is "in step," and the co-parents in many of them are confused, isolated, and needy. So there will always be stepfamily co-parents in your area who can benefit from and contribute to your group!

      I encourage you to evolve and use a concise (one page or less), flexible group mission statement and a clear policy statement to keep everyone focused each meeting on what you’re trying to do together, and how.

      Another way to keep your group productive is to...

Screen New People

       The effectiveness of your support group depends largely on whether the needs of individual members match the capabilities and motives of the group. One way of optimizing this balance is to screen people before they come to the group - or after they’ve come once.

      The main thing to screen for is whether they need support or professional therapy. In any vocal or media advertising of your group, it’s a good idea to have prospective participants call a designated group member and describe something of their stepfamily situation, what they’re looking for, and why.

       These are some indicators that family therapy, or a therapy group, is probably more appropriate than a support group: The inquiring person describes recent or current ...

Suicidal or homicidal thoughts or family events;

Chemical addictions to alcohol, food, or prescription or street drugs (self-medication for unbearable inner pain);

Probable or certain physical, verbal, spiritual, or emotional (including sexual) abuse in the home or family;

Serious adult talk of marital separation or re/divorce;

Hospitalizations for emotional conditions (e.g. major depression) and/or a family member taking medications for same;

Repeated "excessive" interference in the stepfamily’s life by a relative or "authorities;"

Reported extra-marital affairs or law-breaking behaviors or events by stepfamily members;

Kids running away, flunking school, doing drugs, being kidnapped by bio-relatives, or custodial bioparents refusing child visitations;

Prolonged court battles between ex-mates over child custody, support, visitation, or other issues;

An ex-mate stalking, harassing, or other excessively hostile acts, including "parental alienation."

       This isn’t a complete list. You see the theme. Grow your group's attitude that the best way of supporting co-parents involved in such current situations is to compassionately and assertively point them at qualified professional help - and then give them full responsibility for their own choices.

       Compassionately telling a group applicant that you feel, after listening to them, that they’d really be better off getting professional help (and giving them referral names, if you have them) helps both them and your existing group members. If in doubt, call your group’s qualified mental-health consultant or find one.

      If an adult describes a home excessively controlled by a willful (step)child, suggest they investigate local ToughLove support groups, which are for any caregivers in such situations. Search the Web for info on them.

         If anyone in your group describes what you feel is probable or certain current child or spouse abuse or illegal activity, you have a moral (and probably a legal) obligation to call the police immediately to report that.

      Another key factor in helping your group thrive over time is the topics you focus on.

Content Suggestions

       Support groups can be discussions and socializing only, or they can also include a learning experience. There is a wide range of topics that typical stepfamily adults need to know. Several sources of these topics are:.

  • Articles in each of the Lessons in this course; specially...

  • These Lesson-7 (stepfamily) articles and worksheets,

  • These basic-knowledge quizzes, and... 

  • These Questions Co-parents Should Ask

Group members can volunteer to study and make presentations on these topics, or you can invite guest speakers with special expertise in a topic. You may also

      Rent a stepfamily-related video or DVD from your local library. The reader's services and Media staff should be able to locate some for you, and help you get them for showing and discussion. The National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)  can provide a list of current media titles.

      Have a guest panel of older stepkids. This can be challenging to organize, and very rewarding. If you are blessed with three or more teen or preteen stepkids who would agree to "instruct" your co-parent group on what they (the kids) experience and need - ask them!

      At a pre-panel group meeting, ask your members to form questions like those below. Consider writing them out and giving them to the panelists in advance, so they can think about them:

"Do you see yourself as living in a stepfamily now?"

"What do you like about being in your stepfamily?"  Dislike?

"What’s hardest for you these days about being a stepson (daughter)?"

"Who do you include as real members of your ‘family’ now?"

"What would you change in your (multi-home) stepfamily, if you could?

"What’s it like having a stepbrother / stepsister?"

"What’s it feel like being split between two homes?"

"How do you feel about the way visitations (with non-custodial bioparents) are going for you all now? What would make them better?

"What worries you the most about your (multi-home) stepfamily now?"

"If you could teach stepparents one thing, what would it be?"

       Have an unrelated adult act as "talk show host" and invite the kids to honestly react to such open-ended questions one at a time. Guidelines: no blaming, judging, arguing, or interrupting! One option for avoiding the awkwardness of kids speaking in front of their own co-parents: hold the panel without the adults, and videotape it for replay and group discussion.

      Consider having a couple of all-family events during the year as part of your program. Picnics, bowling or Halloween costume parties, or camp-outs are some (of many) options. Such gatherings help everyone turn abstract names into real people, and raise the level of exchanged interest and caring among members. They’re apt to be fun, too!

      Because at first most of the kids and adults haven’t met, it can help to have a safe "ice-breaking" exercise or game at first to help everyone relax and join in. Ask your kids for ideas!

       After the first general session, what will keep co-parents coming back? What will attract new people? Both questions hinge on "what do typical stepfamily adults need"? A key factor is how the group generally reacts to members' stepfamily "problems."

Group Problem-Solving

       When people leave a co-parent support-group meeting with some practical new ideas on how to manage a difficult situation at home - everyone feels good! Some suggestions on how to promote that:

      After someone has vented for a while, ask something like: "do you need to be heard more now, or do you want us to help problem solve?'' If they choose the former - honor that. If the speaker/s want to problem-solve (vs. venting), ask them to honestly discuss three questions:

"Specifically, what do you (each) need in this situation?";

"What, specifically, have you tried, and what did you get?"; and …

"What’s in the way (of you each getting most of what you want)?" This works best if the speaker/s report factually, vs. blame!

      Avoid judging or discounting the speaker/s or telling them what they need. They’re the experts on their own needs, feelings, and limits! Be alert for the speakers unconsciously using biofamily expectations rather than appropriate stepfamily realities in forming their goals.

      If you feel they may have unrealistic expectations, ask if they're willing to do some open minded reality-checking with other veteran co-parents or authorities. Another option is to refer them to this article.

      Listen empathically: Paraphrase back to the speaker/s concisely and specifically what you hear their wants are (including any guesstimated stepkids’ and other co-parents' wants!), until you get agreement.

      This nonjudgmental feedback process usually generates more clarity on what people really want. It can sound like "So you want your stepson to acknowledge you more when you sit across from him at dinner - and you want your mate to support you in this.";

      Usually, stepfamily conflicts and dilemmas come in layered clusters, rather than neatly packaged one at a time. Help the speaker separate their layers and clusters. Pick one specific problem at a time to work on, and stay focused on it.

      Spot and avoid bringing up related and separate problems. Be alert for generalities: "I want us to feel more like a regular family" is too big and too general. Refine generalities down to small targets. "I want to get clear on how much money to contribute to my stepdaughter’s college fund" is specific and manageable.

      After loyalty conflicts, the most "popular" group of stepfamily stressors usually involves unfinished conflicts with co-parenting ex mates. Note your inevitable decision about whether such ex-mates are legitimate members of your multi-home stepfamilies or not. Your kids certainly include them! 

      If you don’t consider their needs equally with your kids’ and your own, I believe you have little chance to problem-solve effectively. You also guarantee putting your kids painfully "in the middle" - which promotes their shame, frustration, insecurity, acting out, and rejecting their stepparent/s.

      Consider asking a volunteer member of your group to role-play each of the speaker/s’ missing stepfamily members who are involved in this problem-solving situation - including ex mates, kids, and absent stepparents! Ask them to "speak for" the missing adult or child in as realistic a way as possible, and say honestly what they feel and want.

      Stay aware: this is an awareness-raising exercise, not an acting competition or a blame festival! Even if the stand-ins aren't on target, the process can help focus on and clarify what everyone feels and needs.

      Once agreed on who wants what, brainstorm as a group on options for meeting everyone’s needs, not just the speaker/s’ needs. Don’t shoot down ideas as they emerge, just collect possibilities. Be free to be as nutty and creative as possible. Focus steadily on what might work, vs. what won’t.

      Avoid this turning into a contest over "Who can think of the best idea." This is a team effort in which often everybody can win, for the group brainstorming process usually generates helpful ideas for each member on their own stepfamily issues...

      Stay focused on stepfamily members’ needs, not their personalities or actions. Stay focused on your shared problem-solving process, If it turns into a competition, a lecture, or a blaming carnival, rather than a team effort - stop and refocus the group on it’s own process. Ask how the current process feels, and whether it feels productive - or "is this (process) why you came here?"

      Stay with this process until (a) the speakers say "Thanks - that’s enough" or (b) you run out of group time. Stay clear on who owns the stated problem: the speaker does, not your whole group or another group member. You each retain the responsibility for attending your own needs.

      If a member who requested group brain-storming doesn’t offer feedback on the outcome over time - ask them respectfully "What happened?" You’re all unique students and teachers here. Everyone can learn from each other’s individual co-parenting and re/marital experiments and actions.

      Stay aware that some people need to vent more than to problem-solve at times - but that can be done to excess. Venting doesn't solve (change) anything. Incidentally, you can use this same problem-solving framework on your group-process conflicts, just like members' stepfamily conflicts ...

       You can see that this multi-step problem-solving process takes time, dedication, and concentration to harvest it’s full benefits. If you use a group session for problem-solving, allot at least 30" or more for one problem. If you have too much other business - including too many people who need to vent - postpone this process, or encourage the problem owner/s to do it at home and share the outcome.

      Notice that this group problem-solving process invites your members to act like a high-nurturance ("functional") family. What would happen if each member took this conflict-resolution process home and practiced it consistently in and between their stepfamily homes?

          Another way to help your group thrive is to...

    Use an Email List and/or "Phone-tree"

      To extend your group’s support, ask members to set up an email list and/or a phone-calling tree. If any group member falls into a stepfamily crisis, they’ll have some support people to contact right away rather than waiting a week or more for the next meeting.

      A phone tree can also help effectively broadcast group news (e.g. "meeting canceled, rescheduled, or moved because..."). This helps protect the group’s leader/s from telephone burnout.

       We just reviewed five ways to keep a co-parent support group running successfully:

  • Keep clear and focused on your group's goals

  • Screen new people's needs

  • Choose useful meeting topics and guest speakers

  • Learn how to resolve group-process problems, and...

  • Use an email list or phone-tree to stay connected between meetings.

 Q&A about co-parent support groups

1)  When is a co-parent support group useful?

2)  What is an effective support group?

3)  What happens in a typical support-group meeting?

4)  How can I find co-parent local support groups?

5)  How can we evaluate a prospective group?

6)  Are there any risks in participating in a co-parent support group?

7)  What if one partner wants to use a group and their mate doesn't?

8)  What are common problems in a co-parent support group?

9)  What are the traits of an effective support-group (co)leader?

10)  What's involved in starting an effective co-parent support group?

11)  Are there support groups for stepkids?

12)  Are there any resources available to help us start or maintain a co-parent support group?

If you don't see your question here, please ask!


Q1)  When is a co-parent support group useful?

      The best time for typical stepfamily co-parents to seek an effective support group is before they're in a crisis - i.e. in the first several years after co-committing and cohabiting.

      Typical co-parents don't know what they need to know about inherited  psychological wounds, effective communication, healthy grief, stepfamily realities, teamwork barriers, problems, and adjustment tasks, so exchanging information with other stepparents and bioparents early can motivate them to study these vital topics.

      Ideally, stepfamily mates will have taken this self-improvement course while courting. They may also want to attend a co-parent (vs. "stepparent") class if they can find one. In classes that meet for several weeks, student couples often bond and form informal support groups that continue after the class ends.

      When stepfamily mates and relatives are seriously stressed, they should consider qualified counseling rather than a support group. Typical lay-led support groups can provide priceless empathy, validation, and encouragements - and they often lack the knowledge, wisdom, and group-dynamic skills to guide troubled couples toward effective solutions.

      Group leaders who don't refer couples in crisis to professional helpers can evolve a room full of people bitching, blaming, venting, and playing "ain't-it-awful," vs. helping each other do constructive problem-solving.


Q2)  What is an effective support group?

      It's one which fills the stepfamily-related and other needs of it's participants well enough, often enough. This suggests the value of co-parents knowing specifically what they need as they seek or start a group, and how to evaluate a group before joining. Typical co-parents attend mutual-help groups to...

  • vent, and be heard and accepted without judgment;

  • feel validated, normal, and respected;

  • learn and problem-solve;

  • socialize and help others (i.e. to feel useful); and to…

  • build and keep realistic hopes .

Can you think of other motives? See this for more detail.


Q3)  What happens in a typical support-group meeting?

      Every group is unique and will have its own format and agenda. Typical support-group sessions include...

a welcome to old and new members, and an invitation to each person to "check in" - i.e. to say a few words about how they are and what they need from the group in this meeting;

an agenda summary, and any group "business" discussion like finances, advertising, location, or format issues;

perhaps an opening prayer and/or reminder of the group's purposes;

a venting and problem-solving period, moderated by the group leader/s;

an optional focus on a particular topic or theme, perhaps with a guest speaker;

some unstructured "social time" with refreshments; and...

closing words, and reminders about the next meeting.


Q4)  How can we find local co-parent support groups?

      My experience is that stepfamily (co-parent) support groups are rare because (a) typical family-support organizations are under-funded and overworked, (b) their leaders often aren't aware of the great need for stepfamily support groups; and (c) co-parents aren't making their needs known. To find if any groups exist near you,

search the Web for "stepfamily, blended family, co-parenting, or stepparenting support (or self-help) groups"; and...

call local churches, hospital outpatient-service departments, school counseling departments or PTO's, and public and private mental health agencies. Be alert for the difference between stepparent groups (stepmoms and/or stepdads only), and co-parent groups (all stepfamily caregivers).

If you find no groups, consider starting one (Q10 below) with other interested co-parents, and/or search the Internet. There are now many active "forums," "message boards," and "chat groups" for co-parents. Investigate the Web links here for starters.


Q5)  How can we evaluate a prospective group?

      Find out...

How long the group has existed, and whether it has a reputable sponsoring organization;

What are the goals of the group, and who is it for?

How often does it meet, where, and how long are the meetings?

Who leads the group, and what are their credentials in (a) stepfamilies, and (b) group leadership?

How many people usually attend. Is there a limit?

What are the group's guidelines and policies about punctuality, confidentiality, punctuality, spirituality, group conflicts, sobriety, child care, and referrals to professional help?

Are group participants screened in any way (preferable), or is the group open to anyone?

Are meeting agendas free-form, or are there topical discussions? (preferable). Are there guest speakers?

Is the group open to courting co-parents, or just those who have already vowed their commitments?

Does the group use and/or refer to a local mental-health consultant? If so, who, and does s/he have any training in stepfamily realities and problems?

Are there any racial, religious, gender, and/or spiritual themes or biases in the group?

Does attendance cost anything?

      If you find or start a group, an indefinable trait that will affect your experience is the unique "chemistry" or "personality" of the mix of participants, leader/s, and the site. Some groups feel better than others...


Q6)  Are there any risks in participating in a co-parent support group?

      Risks to be alert for in any support group are...

  • A leaderless (unfocused. unfulfilling) group, or ...

  • leader/s who aren't experienced with group dynamics and/or who...

  • allow problems or promote excessive griping and venting, rather than emphasizing education and problem-solving.

Attending such a group is often demoralizing, frustrating, and a waste of time if you're looking for encouragement, constructive confrontation, helpful referrals, and group help on problem-solving.

      The other risk is group leaders or sponsors who provide or allow inaccurate or misleading information and/or advice about stepfamily realities - i.e. who unintentionally promote unrealistic expectations and ineffective solutions to your stepfamily problems.

      These are apt to increase your stress and confusions and your need for support! To guard against accidentally choosing such a group, invest time and effort in (at least) co-parent Lesson 7, and read and discuss this.


Q7)  What if one partner wants to use a group and their mate doesn't?

      Such couples have a significant values conflict. Evolving an effective strategy to manage these inevitable family stressors is more important than choosing a useful support group. Guarantee: your related homes will be riddled with values conflicts and associated relationship triangles - specially in your first several family-merger years!

      In general...

Check to see if the "anti-group" person (a) really accepts that you're in a stepfamily, and (b) knows what that means. If so, s/he'll believe that you're all at significant risk of years of stress and eventual psychological or legal re/divorce for five reasons. 

      Option: work at self-improvement Lesson 7 together, if you haven't yet. Procrastination, ambivalence, or reluctance to do this suggests one or both of you may be ruled by a false self. 

Use Lesson 1 concepts and resources to ensure that your true Selves are leading your respective personalities. Then...

As partners, dig down below your surface needs ("I just want to talk to other stepparents ") to discern the  primary needs underneath ("Parts of my personality are confused, insecure, guilty, and worried that I'm doing something wrong, and they really need credible, empathic validation and reassurance from others whose judgment I respect and trust."); and...

As teammates, review your short-term and long-term priorities to see if they match. If not, you mates have a major values conflict to resolve. Then...

Review this article and these common communication blocks and tips to see if your communication process is hindering an acceptable compromise about attending a supportgroup.


Q8)  What are common problems in a co-parent support group?

      A problem is one or more unfilled needs (discomforts). Support-group "problems" occur when the participants don't get their needs met (Q2 above). Most such problems result from poor group planning or leadership (below) and stepfamily ignorance. Problems may include:

  • excessive griping, blaming, and whining

  • one or more members dominating the meeting

  • inaccurate, superficial, or impractical stepfamily advice

  • leader/s allowing arguing, interrupting, and disrespect

  • not enough relevant, accurate education

  • lack of confidentiality

  • not referring to competent professional help when appropriate

  • not starting or ending on time

  • an uncomfortable or distracting setting

  • participants smoking or using chemicals

      Support-group planners and leaders should know how to avoid or manage  problems like these. The participants share ultimate responsibility for identifying and asserting their needs clearly and respectfully, and for deciding whether to continue attending or not.


Q9)  What are the traits of an effective support-group leader?

      An effective group leader (a) stays aware of what the participants need, and is able to guide the group so that most people get most of their needs met well enough most of the time. To do this consistently, leaders need traits like these:

Their true Self (capital "S") guide their personality, or s/he is in effective true (vs. pseudo) recovery from psychological wounds; and...

A genuine enjoyment of socializing, an interest in families, a strong motivation to fill personal and group-participants' needs, and enough self-confidence to work at guiding the group despite significant challenges; and...

Knowledge of, and experience with, (a) group dynamics, and (b) managing common "group problems" effectively using these skills; and...

Knowledge of stepfamily hazards, problems, realities, and tasks, and...

Enough personal support + time for the group + balance in their lives.

Can you think of other core requisites for effective support-group leadership?


Q10)  What's involved in starting a co-parent support group?

      Tailor and build on the experience-based suggestions in this article.


Q11)  Are there effective support groups for stepkids?

      They are rare. Typical stepkids have a daunting array of concurrent developmental and family-adjustment needs. In 36 years' full-time professional work with Chicago-area stepfamilies, I only found two groups to help stepkids with these complex needs. One was at a suburban public high school, and was created and sponsored by two dedicated social workers. The other was sponsored by a community mental-health agency, and was for the kids of adults who were attending their own support group.

      Average co-parents and mental-health workers aren't aware of the scope or complexity of stepkids' needs, and kids can't understand or articulate them. The net result is that most kids survive as best they can, unintentionally stressing their co-parents who have their own array of concurrent domestic, re/marital, and alien stepfamily- merger and team-building needs and tasks.

      One bright spot in this picture is the non-profit Rainbows organization, which sponsors lay-led grief-support groups for kids and adults around the country. A main focus is helping children of divorce or parent death grieve their losses (broken bonds). This partially counteracts many wounded, unaware co-parents who unintentionally pass on the family "anti-grief" policy they grew up with. This toxic bequest is the reason for this Web site.


contact your church, school PTO or PTA, or local mental-health agency and ask if they would do a needs-assessment survey to see if organizing a support group for stepkids in your community would be justified; and...

scan the non-profit National Stepfamily Resource Center  (NSRC) for possibilities.


Q12)  Are there any resources available to help us start or maintain a co-parent support group?

      Yes. Before choosing resources for your group, consider this perspective on evaluating stepfamily information and advice. Then start with this article. Then review the resources below. Note that none of them acknowledge these five hazards and the scope of information you'll find in Lesson 7 here.

      If any of the following is inaccurate, please let me know.

Effective Stepparenting is a 158-page softcover workshop guide covering developing roles and creating a new family structure, divided loyalties, the "instant love" myth, competition, discipline, and family rules. Questionnaires, checklists, exercises, and a bibliography are included. Available from the Alliance for Children and Families) ~$20;

Smart Steps for Adults and Children in Stepfamilies - developed by Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder and colleagues. This 12-hour research-based, educational program curriculum is for remarried or partnering couples and their children, and focuses on building couple and family strength. The program uses informational presentations, hands-on exercises, group discussions, and media.

      The 250+ page Curriculum includes: leader lesson guides for adult and child programs, background readings, hand-out masters, resource list pre/post evaluation questionnaires, two videos (the movie, "Stepmom" and "Smart Steps Video Vignettes"), and CD with power point slides, hand-out files, and evaluation forms). Order from the National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC). $150.00

Starting and Operating Support Groups: a Guide for Parents; (1992); 22 pages, published by The Family Resource Coalition of America: (now "Family Support America") 200 S. Michigan Ave., 16th floor; Chicago, IL, 60604: Item # CO13, about $5.00. (312)-341-0900; FAX: 312-314-9361.

       "...This manual defines support groups, gives (parents) tips for planning the first and subsequent meetings, and offers thoughts on maintaining a healthy group...." This is written for parents in general, not stepfamily co-parents. It’s a wealth of practical ideas from those who have done it before. Other references are included.

Strengthening Stepfamilies, by Linda Albert and Elizabeth Einstein (1986), is a set of three audio tapes, participant workbooks, exercises, and leader materials. It's flexible and modular, and can be done on a weekend or (better) in five sessions.

       Main topics include "The Stepfamily is Born of Loss"; "Realistic and Unrealistic Expectations"; "Effective Stepparents"; "Stages of Stepfamily Living", and "Building Family Unity". Tapes include vignettes on other step topics: money, conflicting needs, ghosts from the past, "instant" love, having a new child, adoption, sexuality, recognition, step-sib rivalry, grandparents, and others.

       Designed for study groups of up to 15 people, the kit is available from American Guidance Service, Publishers' Building, P.O. Box 99, Circle Pines, MN 55014-1796. The kit is approximately $150, and participant packets are $23-$25 each. Order online (select "Parenting") or call AGS at 1-800-328-2560.



      Average American multi-home stepfamilies are far more complex and stressful than typical intact (one-home) biofamilies, and are prone to psychological or legal re/divorce. Typical stepfamily adults and kids need a lot of education, patience, and knowledgeable support for years after they cohabit and merge.

      From experience with over 15 Midwestern co-parent support groups, this two-page article covers......

  • What is support (as in "support group")?

  • Ways to start a group 

  • How to maintain (run) an effective group, and...

  • Q&A about co-parent support groups.

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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Updated 09-16-2015