Counseling Today, Features

Stepping up to the challenge

By Lindsey Phillips May 29, 2019

Stepfamilies are complex and feature unique differences, yet on the surface, there may be little to distinguish them from “traditional” families. In fact, as Joshua Gold, a professor in the counseling education program at the University of South Carolina, points out, some counselors don’t necessarily think to ask if they are working with a stepfamily or blended family.

But perhaps they should. According to a 2010 Pew Research Center report, more than 40% of American adults have at least one step relative — a stepparent, a step- or half-sibling or a stepchild — in their family. Gold points out that of the eight most recent U.S. presidents, four (Obama, Clinton, Reagan and Ford) were part of stepfamilies.

“Often for counselors, it gets overwhelming to think about working with stepfamilies because it does look like so many moving parts,” says Jayna Haney, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in private practice at the Wellness Collective and at Red Dun Ranch in Texas. “But what is also true is that stepfamilies [tend to] have similar problems.”

According to Institute for Stepfamily Education Director Patricia Papernow in her 2017 Family Process article “Clinical Guidelines for Working With Stepfamilies,” stepfamilies face five
major challenges:

1) Insider/outsider positions

2) Children struggling with losses, loyalty binds and change

3) Parenting issues and discipline

4) Building a new family culture while navigating previously established family cultures

5) Dealing with ex-spouses and other parents outside the household

Normalizing stepfamily dynamics

Stepfamilies often assume that something is wrong with them if the family isn’t working well, so counselors should reassure these clients that crisis and change are normal in stepfamily life, says Haney, the founder of the Bridge Across for Single Parents and Stepfamilies. She will often tell clients, “It’s not you. It’s your situation.”

One tool that Haney uses to educate clients about the challenges of stepfamily dynamics is called the stepfamily triangle. She draws a triangle, and at the top she writes in the name of the biological parent. She adds the name of the stepparent in the bottom right corner of the triangle and the name of the biological children in the bottom left corner. Then she explains how the biological parent and biological children have three bonds — emotional, biological and legal — and each bond is as old as the children are. Haney draws three lines to represent these bonds on the side of the triangle that connects the biological parent and biological children. The biological parent and stepparent have an emotional bond and a legal bond (if they are married), so Haney adds the lines connecting them. The stepparent and stepchildren have only an emotional bond (one that is only as old as their relationship) connecting them, which Haney illustrates with one line at the bottom of the triangle.

“So, when stepfamily couples are confused or frustrated because it feels like the family dynamics aren’t squaring up, it’s because they’re not,” says Haney, a member of the American Counseling Association. To illustrate her point, she’ll often put her hands together in the shape of a triangle and tip it over to the left because all of the weight is with the biological parent and child. She has found this visual helps families understand the dynamics and challenges that stepfamilies often face. 

Gold, author of Stepping In, Stepping Out: Creating Stepfamily Rhythm and editor of the newly released book Intervening for Stepfamily Success: One Case, Multiple Perspectives (both published by ACA), also uses education as a means of normalizing stepfamilies’ experiences. Rather than directly asking stepfamilies whether a specific issue affects them, he provides general information about challenges that stepfamilies often face to see if anything resonates with them. He often starts counseling sessions by drawing two large circles — one for the clients’ lived experiences and the other for common stepfamily issues based on his professional knowledge. For example, in his circle, Gold may write that some stepfamilies deal with gendered expectations, such as assuming the stepmother will automatically be nurturing with the children or expecting the stepfather to be the disciplinarian. If the clients say they have experienced that issue, Gold will add it to their circle. 

Both Gold and Pat Skinner, an LPC in private practice in Denver, agree that the schools offer one effective avenue for easily reaching stepfamilies and helping normalize their experiences. Gold recommends that school counselors hold stepfamily groups. These groups can be promoted in the school handbook given to parents at the beginning of the year.

Skinner, an ACA member who specializes in working with stepfamilies, thinks that holding stepfamily groups or classes at schools helps address some of the time and financial obstacles that these families might otherwise face in getting assistance. She also says that groups allow stepfamilies to hear stories similar to their own, helping them realize that they are not alone in their experiences.

Integrating multiple perspectives 

Working with stepfamilies means having multiple voices and perspectives in each counseling session, which can further complicate the process. “The more complex the situation, the more flexible you need to be,” says Gold, a member of ACA and the International Association of Marriage and Family Counselors (IAMFC), a division of ACA. “If I’m dealing with one client, I’m trying to meet one client’s expectations. If I’m dealing with five, I now have five sets of expectations.”

“It takes more skill and more orientation as a clinician to figure out how to integrate all these different voices,” he continues. “Most conflict is founded in the notion that it’s an either/or situation. Either you’re right or I’m right.”

Gold, a contributing editorial board member of IAMFC’s The Family Journal, advises counselors to help stepfamilies switch to a both/and mindset so that situations won’t become win-or-lose propositions. For example, rather than focusing on how the kids from one family ate yogurt and cereal for breakfast and the other family ate eggs, the new stepfamily could include both breakfast options.

Haney, who specializes in high-conflict situations, parental alienation and stepfamilies, has developed an integrated family protocol in which she spends three to four family sessions discussing how to convert high-conflict tendencies into something productive. High conflict involves rigid thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behaviors and blaming others. She advises stepfamilies to do the opposite: engage in flexible thinking, manage their emotions, moderate their behaviors and own their actions.

In the first session, Haney always discusses flexible thinking. She puts eight or nine items with various textures (such as slime, play dough, Kinetic Sand, putty and therapy dough) on trays and passes them around. Each family member plays with the items and discusses how the items feel. Haney then asks what all the materials have in common. Someone typically responds that all the items can be mushed or smashed. Haney points out that no matter what the family members do to the items, the materials remain flexible. To emphasize this point, she asks the stepfamily to consider what would happen if they punched slime versus punching a wooden box. The answer: Only the wooden box would break.

Haney connects this exercise to the importance of being flexible in one’s thinking and explains that all people and situations have some good and some not so good features. With this new perspective, she asks each family member to tell her one thing that they like about their other family members.

Next, they take turns telling Haney one thing that drives them a little crazy about their family. For example, a family member may say that they don’t like it when everyone is yelling or how one of the parents is constantly asking the children how they are doing. Haney purposely uses the phrase “drives you a little crazy” because she finds it helps clients think of small problems, not big ones. She also advises counselors against asking clients what they wish were different because that is often counterproductive, she says.

When a stepfamily walks into Darrick Tovar-Murray’s office, he observes where each family member sits and how they communicate with each other. Take for example a session with Jim (the custodial parent), Jeff (the stepparent) and James (the child). Tovar-Murray will call attention to the way the family is arranged in the room: “James, why did you sit closer to Jim than to Jeff? Help me to understand what you make of the way … the family is sitting in the room right now.”

Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, also points out subtle verbal and nonverbal communication: “Jim, when you said James is not doing well in school, your voice went up, and at that moment, James turned his back to you. Can you tell me what James may be feeling right now?” Teaching stepfamilies effective communication skills helps them to understand one another’s experiences and emotions, says Tovar-Murray, a member of ACA.

Haney encourages clients to explore the narratives they are telling themselves about certain situations while simultaneously accepting that everyone has their own perspective on those situations. For example, if a stepmother says that her husband is always looking at his phone and waiting for his ex-wife to call, the counselor can say, “I understand that bothers you. What’s the story you are telling yourself?”

The stepmother might say she feels like the ex-wife is still more important to her husband than she is. The husband says he’s simply concerned that he’ll miss a phone call from his children. To which the stepmother responds, “I don’t want you to miss a phone call from your children. I just feel like you’re always looking at your phone when we’re out at dinner.” The couple can then make an agreement for the husband to either put his phone away for an hour or call his children before going out to dinner.

Recently, Haney had a stepmother come in by herself because her 25-year-old stepdaughter was constantly fighting with or upset with her and her husband. Haney worked with the stepmother to help her understand that she could not control the adult child’s behavior — but she could control how she reframed the situation and responded to the stepdaughter. With Haney’s guidance, the stepmother changed her perspective and learned new skills so she would no longer get surprised, upset or disappointed when the stepdaughter turned argumentative.

“The hardest part in relationships is to realize the amount of power you have or don’t have to make change,” Gold says. “You have endless power to make change in self. You have less power to make change in others. And, sometimes, part of being in a relationship means you accept things you don’t really like.”

Establishing stepfamily structure

Haney often begins counseling with the stepcouple first because she believes the partnering piece needs to be in place before other issues can be addressed effectively. “If the stepfamily couple can create the structure within their relationship and they can get on the same page with some of these issues, the kids fall into line,” she says.

Stepcouples often face challenges with establishing and maintaining clear parenting roles. In fact, a primary area of conflict for stepfamilies is the parent–child relationship, Haney notes.

The stepcouple need to agree on what they want to teach their children and what the family rules are in the home, she continues. For instance, if the stepmother thinks the children should stop using their smartphones at night and tries to enforce the rule without the biological father’s support, it will cause problems. In such situations, Haney often finds that the biological parent agrees with the overarching rule; the disagreement is in the details. Perhaps the father thinks that 8 is too early to restrict phone use and that 10 would be a better time.

“The moment that you allow the biology to divide, then the house is really two different houses,” Gold says. “So, there’s got to be a set of rules for the house.”

Haney suggests that stepfamilies establish basic rules about bedtime, homework and family dinners. Every family member should also have his or her own space in the house, she says. For example, one person shouldn’t sleep on the couch while the others have their own bed.

Haney believes that the biological parent needs to parent, and the stepparent needs to let that happen. Gold agrees. The stepcouple should figure out the household rules, and then the biological parent should present those rules to the family, he says. Then, both parents can enforce those rules.

If a couple disagree on this point, Haney draws the stepfamily triangle so they can visualize the dynamics. This can help the stepparent realize that he or she may have been overstepping. Haney then asks, “What does the family need to do to make the triangle stay upright?”

First, the partners must be on the same page and create a supportive relationship in which they respect each other’s experiences and perspectives, Haney says. Sometimes, stepparents will need to take a step back, she adds. Haney tells stepparents, “When you assert yourself as a biological parent when you are not … you’re putting a target on your chest because you will always be the bad guy. You will never win.” The biological parent’s job is to protect the stepparent by doing the parenting, she stresses.

Second, Haney says, stepparents have to strengthen their relationship with the stepchildren, but they must also accept that it will take time. One activity she uses to help with this is the emotional bank account. When stepparents marry or move in with the biological parent, they assume a parenting role, she explains. Because biological parents already have a strong emotional, legal and biological bond with their children, they can discipline, set boundaries for, and offer advice and make comments to their children, Haney says. However, stepparents don’t have this emotional connection yet, so with every negative action (e.g., punishing, yelling, making comments, rolling eyes), they make a withdrawal from the emotional bank account with the child, she continues. “It’s not one deposit and one withdrawal,” she points out. “It’s one deposit, but for every negative nonverbal or negative interaction, it’s five withdrawals.”

Haney often helps stepparents realize that they are depleting this emotional bank account faster than they recognize. In such cases, they need to stop making withdrawals and start making deposits. Recently, one of Haney’s clients, a stepfather, was having a difficult time with his 14-year-old stepdaughter. He expected a lot of her and often critiqued what she did. For example, he would point out that he often needed to remind her to take out the trash and even made comments about the way she tied the garbage bag rather than thanking her for her efforts. Haney encouraged him to start making deposits in his stepdaughter’s emotional bank account by giving her compliments, texting that he was proud of her, or saying that he noticed how hard she had been working. When he followed through, their relationship took a 180-degree turn within a week’s time, Haney says.   

When a biological parent finds a new partner, the children are often expected to show love and respect for that new partner right away, Skinner says. However, it’s important to remind stepfamilies that neither children nor adults love immediately. It takes time.

In addition, the child’s developmental stage can affect the degree to which the stepfamily bonds. If children are approaching or into adolescence when the stepfamily forms, they may never feel connected to the stepfamily unit because they are focused on forming their
own separate identities at that point, Gold notes.

In her stepfamily, Haney and her husband developed a plan to handle the stresses and problems they faced. She encourages couples to follow a similar plan, which includes:

  • Talking to and reassuring each other that things will be OK
  • Creating daily habits that provide a sense of connection and support
  • Going out on dates
  • Limiting how much time they discuss children, stepchildren and exes

Haney also reminds clients to laugh. She and her husband found watching a daily episode of Seinfeld helpful during the difficult early part of their stepfamily’s life.

“A lot of times with stepfamilies, you’re sacrificing the me for the we,” Haney says. “If the couple … is willing to make these changes for each other, then it can be a really powerful experience.” In addition, the behavior of asking for help, finding solutions and making changes serves as a powerful model for the children, she says.

Focus on the solution, not the problem

“I think the big mistake that counselors make is they try to start with the problem,” Haney says about counseling stepfamilies. Often, stepfamily couples come in experiencing so much angst, frustration and confusion, they don’t know where to begin. If the counselor asks the couple to talk about their problems and feelings, the couple and the counselor all become problem saturated and risk becoming overwhelmed, she says. 

To avoid this, Haney starts sessions with a basic genogram, which provides her with all the names and connections between the family members. She uses colored markers and construction paper, drawing a circle for each woman and a square for each man in the family, including the stepfamily couple, the ex-partners and the children. Haney then asks the stepcouple’s ages and living arrangements, when the couple first met and when they started dating, and she adds that information to the genogram. For those who are married, she will also ask if they lived together before they got married, when they got married and how long they have been married. Finally, she asks about the most serious relationship that each of the partners had before they got involved with each other.

Next, she draws smaller circles and squares for the ex-spouses or ex-partners and asks similar questions such as age, length of time together, when they separated and if they have children together. If they do have children together, Haney connects the ex and adds in the children’s names and ages, as well as how the parents split their time with the children and how involved each one is with the children.

Haney always ends this exercise by asking, “Is there anybody else that we’re going to be talking about today or who is creating challenges in your stepfamily life?” By asking this question, she often discovers other people, such as one of the partner’s siblings, a grandparent or even the ex-spouse’s new partner, who are adding to the stepfamily’s problems.

In addition to serving as a reference tool that counselors can use throughout their work with the stepfamily, the genogram provides structure to the session. “Structure is a big part of doing a successful stepfamily session,” Haney says. “[It’s] knowing what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it so that you don’t allow [the session] to become problem saturated.”

Tovar-Murray uses a narrative approach to separate the family from the problem. For example, if a child feels divided between family members, he would have the family name the problem and then ask, “When did the sense of divided loyalty enter your family system? How has it caused you to think you are not a family who can be a cohesive unit? What would your future look like if divided loyalty were no longer present and you were operating as a family unit?” This approach encourages the family to fight together against the problem rather than letting it divide them, he explains.

To strengthen stepfamily cohesion, counselors can also ask family members to describe activities that might make them feel more connected and then encourage them to carve out time over the next week to engage in those activities, Tovar-Murray suggests. “We’re always looking for those unique outcomes, and those are the times in which the stepfamilies are not being saturated and influenced by whatever the problem is,” he says.

Separating the family from the problem is also helpful when there is resistance to the new family structure, such as when one of the partners resists embracing or blending two racial or ethnic identities. For example, in a household with a Latinx stepfather and an African American biological father, the biological father might say, “Maintaining my African American identity is extremely important, and I’m not giving that up. I’m going to see this as an African American family.”

“That resistance piece is just showing [the counselor] how important that identity is,” Tovar-Murray says. With this situation, the counselor could attempt to separate the family system from the resistance piece and reframe it. For example, the counselor could respond, “I can see that you have a strong sense of pride in being African American. Now, I also wonder how you can have that same sense of pride in the relationship that you just formed.”

The counselor can help the family reframe this racial pride and create pride in the new structure the family is developing. Otherwise, the stepfather may feel isolated, which makes cohesion and integration almost impossible, Tovar-Murray says.

Take a step forward

Both Gold and Skinner acknowledge that busy schedules and finances can be big issues for many stepfamilies. As a result, these families often are not looking to engage in long-term counseling.

Gold says that any counseling approach that is more “present-focused” works well with stepfamilies. He often relies on a brief therapy model — six to eight sessions — and finds that most clients will make a commitment to therapy if they know how long it will take. This model also works well with family schedules, he adds.

Counselors “need to remember that a stepfamily couple is going to be less likely to come once a week, every week, for six months,” Haney points out. “So, when [counselors] work with stepfamily couples, [they’re] really doing that solution-focused piece.”

In fact, Haney finds that when stepfamilies come to see her, they have already thought and talked a lot among themselves about the issues they are struggling with, so they want to know what to do. “They know where they are and they know where they want to be, but they do not know how to get there,” she says. Haney doesn’t direct stepfamilies on what to do, but she does help them figure out different paths for getting where they want to be.

After Haney finishes the genogram, she asks the stepcouple directly, “How can I help you today?” Some couples may get to the heart of the matter, whereas others may not have an answer. In those cases, Haney provides the stepfamily with information on the importance of partnering together, the stepfamily triangle and the emotional bank account.

Haney also asks the stepfamily, “What are the two or three things you want to accomplish or work on while you are in counseling?” The family’s answers must be something they have control over, she says. “You don’t have any control over the ex or the stepchild,” she explains. “You do have control over how you respond to the ex. … You do have control over how you respond to the stepchild, how you talk to your partner about the child, and what kind of stepparent or parent you want to be.”

In part because stepfamilies may attend only a few counseling sessions, Haney often spends a longer amount of time in the initial session getting to know the family members, figuring out why they came to counseling and making sure they leave with an action plan. In the initial session, which often lasts up to two hours, she spends approximately 15 minutes on the genogram and 15 minutes educating clients about common stepfamily issues. For the remaining time, she helps families determine two or three things that they want to accomplish.

By the time the family leaves, each family member “need[s] to have something that they’re going to do that’s doable and that they can work on,” Haney says. “Then they leave empowered because they know what to do. [They] leave … educated because you’ve shared with them some insights that help them change their perspective and reframe how it’s working. And … it helps them see their story and their family differently.”

 

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Invisible stepfamilies

The concept of stepfamilies can challenge traditional assumptions of the word family, which often evokes an image of a married father and mother with their biological children. But as Darrick Tovar-Murray, an associate professor of counseling at DePaul University, points out, this image doesn’t account for the diversity found within stepfamilies. In fact, because this assumption doesn’t recognize other types of partnerships or unions, it renders them “invisible,” he says. That’s particularly the case when these families include a noncustodial and custodial parent with at least one child from a previous relationship and encompass multiple racial, ethnic and sexual orientation identities — which he refers to as invisible stepfamilies of color.

“When you look at invisible stepfamilies of color, they tend to come from cohabitating relationships where there isn’t a marriage or legal contract,” Tovar-Murray says. “That legal contract should not be what defines a family.”

As society continues to grow more diverse, counselors will encounter more invisible stepfamilies of color and thus may need to challenge their own views of what family means, Tovar-Murray argues. Counselors also shouldn’t assume that a couple is married, he continues. In addition, asking “How long have you been dating?” implies that the couple’s relationship may not be as close or as integrated as a couple who is married, and that may not match the perspective the clients have of their relationship.

Tovar-Murray also advises counselors not to make assumptions such as thinking that a stepcouple’s decision not to hold hands is related to their lack of affection for each other. Based on their experience of racial/ethnic or sexual orientation microaggressions, many of these couples may engage in this or similar displays of affection only in spaces they consider to be safe. “As counselors, we cannot assume that invisible stepfamilies of color are going to be out in all spaces that they walk in,” he says.

For this reason, Tovar-Murray, an ACA member and co-author of a chapter on blended families of color in the book Intervening for Stepfamily Success, advises counselors to be open and direct about microaggressions. He will often tell clients, “I want to talk about something I think is important. We know that racism exists and sexual orientation microaggressions exists, and I’m wondering if you as a couple or if this family has ever experienced those things.” He also suggests saying, “I know biases exist, and some of the things that may affect a family system like this may even be biases within your own cultural groups. Have you experienced any of those? How have you successfully dealt with those things?”

“The assumption that [counselors] make sometimes is that [they’re] not going to bring [these issues] up because the client didn’t bring it up,” Tovar-Murray says. “But sometimes clients, couples and families may not know that [counseling is] the space [where they] can talk about those things.”

— Lindsey Phillips

 

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Lindsey Phillips is a contributing writer to Counseling Today and a UX content strategist living in Northern Virginia. Contact her at hello@lindseynphillips.com or through her website at lindseynphillips.com.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

 

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

2 Comments

  1. David Novelli

    Would love to see an illustration of the triangle to ensure I understand the illustration. Great discussion!!!

    Reply
  2. Lindsey Phillips

    Hi, David! Jayna Haney does have an illustration of the triangle she uses. Please send me an email and I will put you in touch with her.

    Reply

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