Working with Stepfamilies

Abstract How do practitioners work with stepfamilies? Stepfamily education programs are presented along with a brief discussion of what is taught. Materials on the WWW, self-help materials, self-help groups, and bibliotherapy are briefly discussed. Topics presented in the chapter include: affinity strategies, learning coparenting skills, obtaining financial skills, variability in individual, relational, and familial life course, creating ritual and traditions, maintaining parent-child bonds, strengthening couple bonds, normalizing stepfamilies communicational skills, validating feelings, reducing feelings of helplessness, and reframing issues, among others.

Keywords Educational program modes • Skill development • Program content

In this chapter we examine ways in which practitioners work with stepfamilies. Many stepfamilies figure out how to function well on their own, through trial-and- error learning and by communicating clearly and often with each other. Many others do not fare well, however, which means that stepfamilies and stepfamily members frequently seek some type of help, usually after problems occur. Less often, they seek to prevent problems before they occur (Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, Markman, & Johnson, 2009; Ganong & Coleman, 1989; Higginbotham, Miller, & Niehuis, 2009). Oddly enough, it seems that stepfamilies with the greatest challenges and who are most at risk for conflict and divorce are the least likely to seek help early (Doss et al., 2009). It is not surprising, then, that stepfamilies who avoid seeking help to prevent problems are overly represented in family therapy caseloads as they attempt to rectify unhappy situations that could have been addressed or avoided altogether with early preparation. There is some evidence that fear of re-divorcing is an incentive to seek premarital education (Fox & Shriner, 2014), although it is also likely that fear of re-divorce keeps people from examining step-issues too closely in the “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach.

As in the previous chapter, we broadly define clinician in this chapter to include educators, therapists, and other helping professionals who work with stepfamilies. We build on the information in Chap. 12 as we examine methods and approaches clinicians use to work with stepfamily members to help them relate more effectively.

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017 L. Ganong, M. Coleman, Stepfamily Relationships, DOI 10.1007/978-1-4899-7702-1_13

The approach to working with stepfamily members that has evolved over the years is to: (1) educate them about stepfamily functioning and how it differs from first marriage families, (2) teach interpersonal skill-building that includes general (e.g., communication skills, problem-solving, financial skills) and stepfamily- specific competencies (e.g., affinity-building with stepchildren), and finally, if necessary (3) provide them with more intensive interventions (e.g., individual and/or family therapy; Adler-Baeder, Russell, et al., 2010 ; Ganong et al., 2002; Lucier- Greer & Adler-Baeder, 2011; Papernow, 2013 ; Whitton, Nicholson, & Markman, 2008). The first two strategies, education and skill-building, are common in both stepfamily education and counseling, and we focus mostly on them, reviewing educational programs and then skill-building approaches. An examination of intrapsychic therapy or family therapy for stepfamily members is beyond the mission of this book; we refer readers to excellent volumes by Browning and Artelt (2012) and Papernow (2013) for this material.

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