Working with the right people: Divorced and blended families

In a world in which parenting configurations have experienced profound change, the issue of blended families, how they are constituted, and how one might work with the children can be a challenging one within the therapeutic encounter. For this reason, it is important to be clear about who needs to be included to address the parenting task, as well as the therapeutic task. Here the issue of the absent or excluded parent and the legal rights and responsibilities of the key people concerned needs to be carefully addressed. We may find ourselves responding to an urgent request from a step parent concerning a child of their partner, in which they present themselves as being the caring ‘mother’ or ‘father’. Where the actual parent exists, it would be a mistake for us to go headlong into accepting the step parent as the person to include in the assessment. There are other examples in which parents may deliberately wish to exclude the biological parent, and present the current partner as having full responsibility. In these cases, our therapeutic task needs to focus on establishing who the key players are, and who needs to be involved in the best interests of the child or young person. We can make a hypothesis in this respect that the confusion that reigns for us in wondering who to include, will be multiplied many times for the children and young people concerned.

Children and young people are acutely observant and often struggle with their parents’ wish to create a new ‘big happy family’ whilst papering over the cracks and differences (Schmidt Neven, 2010). Children and young people recognise that they are not related to the new people who have suddenly arrived in their lives, but they may feel they have no choice in the matter. The issue of maintaining both the appropriate sense of hierarchy and relatedness may become extremely fraught and it is here that the therapist, by maintaining a duty of care and advocating for the child, can contribute significantly to lessening the confusion through clearly stating who has a right and need to be involved in any therapeutic process, and who has not.

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