DOES STEPFAMILY COUNSELING WORK?
by Robert Klopfer, LCSW
Many adults living in stepfamilies have undergone counseling or psychotherapy before. At least one of the adults has had to face the loss of a significant previous relationship. When life in a stepfamily gets difficult, should the adults consider another round of counseling? Will facing the issues bring more discord and discomfort? Should the children or adolescents be in therapy? What can we expect to get from Stepfamily Counseling?
While each stepfamily is different and the issues they face are wide-ranging, we know some basic facts about the advantages of stepfamily counseling and how it will benefit the participants when it is effective. We know that stepfamily living involves more conflict situations that are built-in to the family structure. Many of us hate conflict and hope to avoid it at all costs. Many of us come from previous relationships that had too much conflict. The areas of frequent conflict in the stepfamily system are: stepparent-children, former spouse(s), former in-laws, insider-outsider concerns, changes in family rituals, visitation, financial inequities, and many more.
Stepfamily counseling helps the adults to focus on these issues, break them down to bite-sized chunks, and look at them in new perspectives. Most of us had no idea of what to expect when we began our journey as a stepfamily. Dr. James Bray found a lack of understanding of this process and a failure to adjust to it were key elements that caused stepfamilies to fail and couples to re-divorce. The stepfamily counselor helps the family develop a map of the territory, a way of finding their unique way to traverse the process of stepfamily development and to find road-markers to help the process along. While conflict is more prevalent in early stepfamily life, it usually calms down when people get to know each other and, hopefully, over time, to care for each other.
Many children and adolescents bring unresolved losses into their stepfamily. If these losses increase, children and adolescents may get depressed or act out against authority. This leads to school adjustment difficulties. Counseling for youngsters who need understanding, support, and outside guidance is crucial to their well-being and will enhance the quality of stepfamily life for all members of the family. Our counseling orientation helps the parents by including them in parent-child sessions to help all to understand the bruises these children have sustained, how to treat them effectively, and help them to heal. An earlier research study (Visher and Visher) found the key to success for adults in stepfamily counseling was how the counselor addresses step-issues in an understanding and competent manner. These couples report a high degree of satisfacton with the process and significant improvement in their family life. Focus on resolving current conflicts and drawing a road map for the couple was crucial to a positive outcome. For children and adolescents, the counselor's understanding of their losses, their adjustment difficulty, and their unyielding wish to preserve their sense of a family they knew and cherished was key
to the successful resolution of current discomfort and helpful to their adjustment to their real family situations.