Advice to therapists working with Stepfamilies

One important piece of advice I would offer as both therapist and stepmother to another therapist working with stepfamilies, is try not to push too hard and too soon for change. Whilst sometimes our role as therapist is to bring things to a head or shake things up a bit in order to bring about change, if you push too hard and at the wrong time you will definitely do more harm than good. 
The old adage, to get there fast you need to go slow definitely applies to stepfamily work. You really need to focus first on building up the resilience in a family through establishing a good, solid, trusting rapport before you move into active interventions. It must be held in mind that stepfamilies have been through lots of volatility, loss, change and even suffering before they come to your door. So establishing trust and a sense of safety is foundation to effective work with stepfamilies.
At the same time, make sure you notice, highlight and identify key strengths the stepfamily has cultivated and used in their troubles: How they have found a way to hold on under duress and the skills and lessons learned. Sometimes it’s easy to forget these skills and strengths under the weight of what can be and/or feel like relentless pressure. A therapist noticing and acknowledging these can be very validating and comforting.
It’s also important to notice the small victories, the inching towards progress and the gains made. When we are in the thick of struggle we can really yearn for big change. And when a stepfamily presents to you in this state, you can reflect back to them that that yearning and desire is totally understandable, although quite often not realistic given the circumstances. However, you can encourage reflection with a family about what a small step towards change would be like and highlight how small steps can result in significant progress. 
History demonstrates that human nature really isn’t capable of holding onto large change, in a manner that is sustainable, especially when the change happens suddenly. Look at what happens when people win the lottery; often a year later they are financially worse off than before the win. Humans are far more capable of holding onto small change and being consistent with that. Over time this can become the ‘new normal’ and reset the default position, which can be incredibly helpful.
Be clear on your role

A stepfamily therapist is going to be most helpful when they can maintain their grounded position, with empathy and not be drawn into the stepfamily vortex. This is about keeping perspective while showing respect, understanding, empathy and compassion. This is not easy. So be sure to get good supervision while working with stepfamilies. You then minimise the likelihood of becoming enmeshed with the family and can retain the position of ally, coach, and wise consultant. 

Your role really is to hold the big, long term picture and not get bogged down in the pain of the here and now that the family might be experiencing. By doing this, you can hold and contain a family until they are able to do that for themselves and then access their own resources in order to identify and create their own solutions. Be there, be present, gain as much appropriate knowledge on stepfamily issues as you can and keep an open heart.

Posted on 01 May 2017 in - Library - Family and Parenting - Therapy

Marcia Watts

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