Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How to Evaluate Books and
Articles about Stepfamilies

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/sf/help/books.htm

Updated 09-13-2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance (functional) stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both biological parents, or any of the three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily..

      This YouTube video previews much of what you'll find in this article. The video mentions eight lessons in this educational Web site - I've reduced that to seven.

      This article suggests how to choose practical (useful) printed and electronic materials about remarriage and stepfamily co-parenting. The article exists because most readers don't know what they need to know, and can't choose wisely among many competing self-help titles and articles on these subjects. 

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 6,

  • stepfamily basics, Q&A, myths, and problems

  • this quiz on stepfamily knowledge;

  • how to evaluate stepfamily advice; and...

  • this example of a real stepfamily

What's The Problem?

      A high percentage of average U.S. stepfamilies are significantly stressed, and over half eventually break up. That's probably true in other countries, because human nature knows no boundaries

      Premise - to form and maintain a high-nurturance ("functional") family, typical adults need to be aware of all these topics. My clinical experience suggests that over 90% of typical adults aren't aware of them, and don't know what that ignorance means for them and their kids.

      One thing it means is average adults can't discern practical divorce-recovery, stepfamily, and re/marriage books from those that are anecdotal and superficial, misinformed, and/or impractical.

      The scope of knowledge that stepfamily (and other) adults need is far broader than what typical authors cover. Result: most books and articles in this genre are too limited in scope. In other words, most authors and publishers don't know what they need to know to fully inform their readers.

      Typical lay and professional book reviewers give many stepfamily-related books glowing (misleading) reviews without really knowing how to judge them critically. Evidence of this is the high percentage of stepfamily titles that are "out of print."

Who Buys Stepfamily Books - and Why?

      My three decades of professional stepfamily research and experience (including publishing six self-help books) suggests most readers are ...

  • prospective, novice, and stressed stepmothers and re/married biomothers;

  • stepparents' supporters, like relatives and close friends;

  • (some) stepfathers and re/married biofathers who are in crisis and fear re/divorce;

  • some human-service professionals, including clergy, seeking to help their divorcing and stepfamily clients.

      And some book-buyers are...

  • academically interested, like librarians, students, instructors, social researchers, and media professionals.

      Listening to over 1,000 typical stepfamily adults (and my personal experience) has taught me that these readers want...

  • courtship information. to better judge what they're committing to; or...

  • validation that they are like other co-parents, and are not "crazy" or "weird;" and/or...

  • to better understand and name their alien stepfamily problems; and/or...

  • practical advice from credible authors on how to identify and resolve specific stepfamily problems; and...

  • useful resources like organizations, support groups, classes, Web sites, and other books; and...

  • optimism and hope that they can improve their situation. And...

  • Some stepfamily readers seek authors who hilight Christian and Biblical principles and advice in their text.

       And typical self-help readers want...

  • a stimulating reading experience, vs. slogging through some dry, over-detailed textbook. This partly explains the sales appeal of autobiographical books, often by "successful" (still married) veteran stepmoms.

      Can you think of other reasons people would buy stepfamily-related books?

An Unrecognized Paradox

      My research and experience suggest that average adults (like you?) have unknowingly inherited the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle from their ancestors. They and our society deny, minimize, or ignore the cycle and its toxic effects. Therefore, most adults aren't inherently interested in four essential topics until they and/or their kids are significantly stressed....

  • understanding these universal family hazards;

  • assessing themselves and their mates for psychological wounds and reducing them;

  • improving their relationship and communication skills; and...

  • learning what healthy mourning is, and how to promote it in their family.

      The paradox is: most adults need this knowledge to avoid or resolve significant problems in any family - yet from ignorance and denial, there is no demand for information on these topics from authors and publishers. Until you study these interrelated topics, you can't appreciate this paradox.

      Reality check: to understand this paradox, take these quizzes and learn what you (and most adults) don't know they need to learn.

      What Do You Need?

      Premise - to be useful, books and articles need to satisfy readers' needs. hundreds of average single parents and stepfamily adults have taught me that  most people don't know how to discern what they really need.

      To understand this claim, read these three examples of "digging down" to discern current primary stepfamily needs. Then reflect: what specific needs are you trying to fill via reading stepfamily books or articles? Possibilities:

      If you seek practical courtship advice on how to choose the right people (mate, stepkids, other parent, and kin) to commit to, for the right reasons, at the right time - my (biased) opinion is there is only one practical book available: Stepfamily Courtship (Xlibris.com, 2002). I wrote this book because I could find no others that provided thorough, practical advice about how to make these three vital courtship choices.

      If you seek affirmation, clarification and validation of your current stepfamily experience (i.e. you need reassurance you're normal and OK), then any book that includes examples of and direct quotes from real stepfamily members will probably please you - specially if it's upbeat, humorous, and optimistic, and has heart-warming outcomes.

      If you seek to better understand your current re/marital and co-parenting experience, ("Why do I feel so much irritation and resentment for my stepdaughter?") many lay and professional authors will offer earnest, credible surface explanations. With quotes and vignettes, they may genuinely clarify, vs. offer solutions for, some common stepfamily problems.


      If you seek effective solutions to stepfamily role and relationship problems, with rare exceptions, most lay and professional authors' proposed solutions will not offer effective strategies because...

  • the authors don't know the full scope of what you need to know, or

  • they focus on solving surface problems and not the underlying causes of the problems, and/or...

  • their chapters provide only superficial (or no) coverage of the key topics you need for effective solutions - e.g. wound assessment and recovery + effective communication + and healthy grief + relationship basics + stepfamily realities.

      If you have any stepfamily books nearby, check their table of contents and index (if any) to see if this premise holds true.  


      If you seek practical ways to stabilize or reduce a stepfamily crisis (e.g. potential breakup), I know of no books that can provide effective help - including mine. Typical stepfamily problems are complex, multi-layered, and often have been evolving for months or years. Expecting a book to provide instant cures is like expecting to find diamonds in a sandbox. This is why it's essential for couples to research stepfamily realities during courtship!

      Bottom line: Most stepfamily, stepparenting, and remarriage books are useful for describing and illustrating common relationship problems. And most of them will offer only superficial or impractical advice on fixing these problems because authors and readers don't thoroughly explore these vital topics.

      Before you invest in any stepfamily book, article, or program, I urge you to follow these...  


      If you seek stepfamily or stepparenting validation, examples, and some clarification, most stepfamily books will prove useful. Buy several, for author's backgrounds, experience, biases, and vocabularies vary significantly.

      Since 1981, I have read over 40 books about stepfamilies and co-parenting. The best overview books I know are:

      With the above cautions in  mind, also see these other stepfamily resources for alternative sources of help.

      Though each of these books has much to recommend it, none of them identify what readers need to know and do about these combined hazards.

      I caution you to not take any book's front-cover claims or book-endorser's quotes literally. Stepfamily roles and relationships are complex enough that no one book can provide "all you need to know" or be "the complete (or authoritative) guide to ____."

      Premise: most book endorsers - specially celebrities - do not know what typical readers need to know about stepfamily remarriage and co-parenting, and have their own agendas.

If You Seek Solutions to Stepfamily Problems...

      There are several ways to scan a book (or a stepfamily class or program) to see if its contents are superficial or practical. 

      Prepare by studying the articles in the box at the top of this article; and...

  • this introduction to the [wounds + unawareness] cycle;

  • these symptoms of significant psychological wounds (do you have any?);

  • this overview of the five hazards your family members face;

  • this example of the several levels of typical stepfamily problems;

  • options for analyzing and resolving most role and relationship problems,

  • Lesson 7 here (how to build a high-nurturance stepfamily). and...

  • the table of contents of my book Stepfamily Courtship.

      Together, these will give you enough perspective to judge whether buying someone's book on stepfamily solutions is worth your time and money. You can... 

      Check the author's credentials and experience. If s/he is not a veteran therapist or counselor, it's very likely s/he will provide superficial or impractical information and advice, no matter how many years of stepfamily experience s/he has. My experience is that even authors with Ph.D. or M.D. degrees don't know about these topics and what to do about them.

      If you're single or courting and the book doesn't have at least a full chapter on how to make wise stepfamily commitment decisions,  look elsewhere. If there are one or more chapters on courtship decisions, see if the author/s provide a list of courtship danger signs.

      Know that the book will provide only part of what you need if the Table of Contents doesn't include at least a full chapter on:

  • signs of psychological wounds, and co-parent recovery from them; and...

  • effective communication basics, skills, and blocks; and...

  • how to differentiate surface needs from primary needs; and

  • stepfamily identity and implications; and...

  • (a) grieving basics, and (b) spotting and (c) facilitating incomplete grief; and...

  • spotting and resolving values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles; and...

  • typical stepkids' unique family-adjustment needs; and...

  • resolving common barriers between co-parenting ex mates; and...

  • how to nourish your re/marriage amidst unavoidable stepfamily stresses; and...

  • common stepfamily myths and realities. Most authors hilight five or six myths out of over 60!

      Without all the chapters above, assume that any chapters on stepparenting, child support, discipline, visitations and custody disputes, family meetings, and holidays are superficial and anecdotal, not comprehensive and practical.

      Religious emphasis: if the author/s seem to give primary weight to Biblical laws and advice rather than to knowledge like the above, expect the book's practical use to be limited. If this offends you, please read this. By the way, did you know that some Biblical scholars feel that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were a stepfamily because of Joseph's older sons?

      Another way to check a stepfamily or stepparenting book for quality is...

      Scan the index, if any, for entries like these:


bonds or bonding




danger signs





grief (or mourning)


inclusion and/or exclusion


loyalty conflicts

membership conflicts




problem solving



relationship triangles




stepchildren's needs

stepfamily identity


true Self

values conflicts


The more of these topics in a book and the more pages per topic, the more likely the book is practical. Books without an index are usually anecdotal and of less value in preventing and resolving stepfamily problems.

      Scan the content to see if the author/s include both bioparents (both living ex mates) of a minor or grown stepchild in their definition of "your (nuclear) stepfamily." If they don't, look elsewhere.

      Together, these criteria can help you choose stepfamily, stepparenting, and remarriage how-to books and programs that are practical and useful.


      Typical divorcing-family and stepfamily co-parents and supporters need validation, education, practical advice, and inspiration. Many authors and publishers try to fill these needs with how-to books and articles.

      Readers face a bewildering array of new and used books on divorce-recovery, stepfamilies, stepparenting, and remarriage to choose from - and most people don't know how to evaluate the best books.

      From my 36 years' of stepfamily research and clinical experience, this article proposes

  • what typical readers need,

  • why most books in this genre seldom offer comprehensive, accurate information and advice, and....

  • specific recommendations on how to choose useful publications and programs about stepfamilies.

      Also see these related articles on evaluating stepfamily advice, and picking an effective stepfamily counselor.

      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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