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Family Therapy with
Blended Families

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          Stepfamily Defined


        A household in which there is an adult couple at least one of whom has a child from a previous relationship


          To provide atmosphere in which important needs of all adults and children are met, stepfamily individuals first must move from diverse previous family cultures to an integrated stepfamily culture


          Transitional conflicts arise when individual or family subsystems do not adapt to the new culture in a synchronous manner


Tasks of stepfamilies according to characteristics


Stepfamily Characteristics


  1. Begins after many losses and changes
  2. Incongruent individual, marital, family life cycles,
  3. Children and adults all come with expectations from previous families
  4. Parent-child relationships predate the new couple
  5. Bio. Parents elsewhere in actuality or in memory
  6. Children often members of two households
  7. Legal relationship between step-parent and children is ambiguous or non-existent


Stepfamily Tasks


  1. Dealing with losses and changes
  2. Negotiating different developmental needs
  3. Establishing new traditions
  4. Developing a solid couple bond and forming new relationships
  5. Creating a “Parenting Coalition”
  6. Accepting continual shifts in household composition
  7. Risking involvement despite little societal support


General Stepfamily characteristics
(the first 8 tend to remain constant)


  1. Stepfamilies have a complex structure. Think in terms of suprafamily systems.
  2. There are different and unique structural characteristics.
  3. Stepfamilies have more stress than nuclear families.
  4. Satisfactory stepfamily integration generally takes years rather than months to achieve. Minimum is about 2 years.
  5. Very often there are cut-off relationships.
  6. There may be continual transitions.
  7. There is less cohesiveness in stepfamilies than in nuclear or single-parent households.
  8. There is a great variety in the patterns in stepfamily households.


General Stepfamily characteristics
(the last 7 changes as a stepfamily grows and develops)


  1. There are many unrealistic expectations and a lack of realistic normative information.
  2. There is no past history of homeostasis.
  3. Previous “givens” are no longer givens. New stepfamilies experience “culture shock.”
  4. There is no shared family history.
  5. Steprelationships have no solid foundation of understanding so the relationship is measured by what is happening at the moment.
  6. There are many loyalty conflicts. If the family does not achieve a satisfactory resolution, the integration of the family will be incomplete.
  7. Roles in the stepfamily are ambiguous.




          The marital relationship – marital satisfaction in a stepfamily does not ensure family satisfaction.


          Stepparenting – while boys exhibit more problems than girls following divorce, girls have greater difficulty than do boys following a remarriage, with the stepmother/stepdaughter relationship being the most difficult relationship to develop


          Adolescent stepchildren – their individual task is to develop independence conflicts with the stepfamily task to bond. Difficulty especially in the area of discipline. Adolescents tend to leave their stepfamilies to live on their own at an earlier age than in biological families.


          Stepfather families are less stressful than other types of stepfamilies


          Stepmother families exhibit much more stress than stepfather family. Implication for therapy – support stepmothers as new stepfamilies are forming


          Complex stepfamilies – when both parents in a stepfamily come into the relationship having children, this increases the likelihood of divorce.


Intervention Strategies


          Enhance self-esteem – stepfamily members tend to have lower self-esteem


          Use genograms – this helps family members identify the complexity of their situation and gives a sense of direction


          Make educational comments – specific knowledge is particularly helpful in the initial stages of counseling


          Fill in past histories – Help family members become acquainted with one another


          Reduce a sense of helplessness – setting rules and boundaries can increase sense of control in their own lives. Get all family members to do age-appropriate responsibilities


          Relate past family experiences to present situations


        Losses, couple and parent-child relationships in adult’s family of origin, child-rearing in the family of origin, past marriage experiences (often underestimated)


          Teach Negotiation – members will assault one another’s views. A good place to start negotiating is household chores – who will do what.


          Separate feelings and behavior. A good example is a grandparent who may not feel the same toward stepgrandchildren, but can learn to behave similarly in the interest of maintaining personal relationships.


          Restructure and Reframe – turn a “problem” into a “challenge.” For example, a child who pushes his way between two parents may be seen as “trying to come between us.” Reframe to “trying to find his place in the family.”


          Make specific suggestions – anxiety frequently blinds us from seeing alternatives, and stepfamilies have higher anxiety than bio families.


          Encourage dyadic relationships – couples need time alone, fathers need time with their daughters, etc. “The events of today become the memories of tomorrow, and the pattern of the present become the traditions of the future.”


          Reduce therapeutic tension – Biological families have a loyalty that helps them stick it out during times of crisis. Not so with stepfamilies. Chaos and  tension can lead to fragmentation along biological lines. Fragmentation augments the dynamic of two families living in the same house.


          Use accurate language – Don’t try to fit a stepfamily into a biological family mold. Listen to what the children call the parents and use their terminology rather than “mom” and “dad.” Using the word “visitation” sounds like the non-custodial parent is an acquaintance, rather than an active participant in the parenting of his or her child. May feel more like a “household” than a “family” to some stepfamilies.


          These Intervention Strategies are all important. This is not a hierarchy, but a list of suggested strategies for working with stepfamilies.




          Visher, E. B. & Visher, J. S. (1988). Old loyalties, new ties: Therapeutic strategies with stepfamilies. New York: Brunner/Mazel.




Week6:Blended Families


Please review the related Powerpoint in Course Content before responding to this board.


What experiences have you had working with (or being a part of) a step-family? How might the information presented here have assisted in the challenges faced in this particular family system?


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