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Addressing the Challenge

Do you know a stepfamily that is struggling?

Chances are good that you know or are in a stepfamily that needs help. 1,300 stepfamilies form each day and 1/3 dissolve in the first two years. Stepfamily stress levels can triple in the first three years. Why is it so hard? Why do so many who are in family counseling still break up, and what can we do about it? 

"My first counselor meant well when she told me to get more involved in the logistics of taking care of my stepkids in order to build a relationship with them. Now I know for sure that this pushed them away. Stepkids need space. They needed their Dad to get more involved, to take the steering wheel. He needed that too. I also should have let go of acting like they should treat me the same as their mother. Our expectations created so much of the stress. I could have put all that energy into other parts of my life, then we'd actually be closer!" 

Paraphrase of StepFamily Services Client, 2014

The Situation -

Without Specialized Support

Most StepFamilies BreakUp

In stepfamilies, daily situations can be intense hotspots that are damaging to connections and trust. What are hotspots for a stepfamily are more likely to strengthen an original family, such as meals together, arrivals of a family member, or cuddle time on the bed or couch. However, for stepfamilies, these situations often involve feelings of betrayal, disorientation, loneliness, awkwardness, anger, and other pain. How can a stepfamily find relief?

Many counselors are very good at supporting first families, and they bring the same good intentions to supporting stepfamilies. However, stepfamilies frequently report having been given guidance that backfired or simply did not address the core issues that are unique to stepfamilies. Dr. Roger Burt and Mala Burt, MSW explain what is widely known in the field of stepfamily care and what you might have experienced, 

"Clinicians are often unprepared for the complexity of stepfamilies and the intense affect they so frequently display. Lack of understanding may result in ineffective treatment or inadvertently prolong the process by not putting stepfamily issues in perspective. (Clinicians) need to have a strong knowledge base about stepfamilies so they do not inadvertently pathologize normal stepfamily processes" (Burt & Burt, Stepfamilies: Professionals and Stepcouples in Partnership, p. 28, 2011).

Have you ever heard the advice, "You need to spend more time with the kids" or "You need to assert your authority"? Those are just two of many examples of good advice for biological parents that can be harmful for stepparents, like pouring water on a grease fire.

Treating stepfamilies like original families has been shown to be ineffective and can actually aggravate the situation. It is not only the stepfamily that suffers. Those family counselors who are unprepared endure tremendous stress. Since 2010, stepfamilies have outnumbered all other family types. Today, over 100 million Americans are in stepfamilies (married and unmarried, custodial and non-custodial), yet few receive specialized support. To learn about opportunities to be trained to support stepfamilies, click here. 

66% is too many broken hearts. Get expert help.

The need is impossible to ignore. Without appropriate preparation, prevention, or intervention the impact of stress on mental health, academic and job performance, and other areas of life eventually results in the dissolution of a staggering 66% of stepfamilies during the childrearing years. 

The statistics are not surprising. Many stepfamilies face the additional challenges of combat PTSD, relocations and deployments, addiction or recovery, children with special needs, hostile relations with outside parents, and limited legal recourse for aid or protection for step-parents. The unique stressors of stepfamily dynamics can make it difficult for people to function well in their other roles in society. 

Specialized help is essential for a healthier stepfamily, community, and country. 

The Solution -

Do Not Treat StepFamilies

Like Original Families

Ideally, when we divorce we are offered co-parenting and stepcoupling education, then in the first 7 years of stepfamily life, specialized preventive support and crisis intervention are available. This seldom happens. Stepfamily Services fills the gap. 

If you are in a stepfamily, it will likely come as no surprise that the following support has been shown to reduce anxiety and depression, help stepfamily members grieve, help in making critical decisions, and renew a sense of hope while in a stepfamily.

  • Learning about how stepfamilies are different than first families
  • Getting clear about what is happening, why, and what you can expect
  • Learning new skills that work in stepfamilies
  • Building on your existing coping strengths that are healthy for stepfamilies
  • Receiving support for other issues that are aggravated by stepfamily dynamics
  • Setting appropriate goals with a stepfamily expert
  • Being in community with other stepfamilies for moral support

Your StepFamily Provider

If you are in a stepfamily, your task is to adjust to what may at first feel utterly unnatural until being in a stepfamily feels familiar and safe, and for many even rewarding. 

The job of your StepFamily provider, such as a counselor, coach, or educator is to guide you through new territory, which means to not encourage you to imitate a first family. Adjustment takes time, especially to something as counterintuitive as managing stepfamily dynamics. In stepfamily life, often your biological and cultural programming says to do one thing but it is best to do the opposite! Adjusting to this new way of being in a family is not easy, but can be done, even while grieving the loss of hopes and dreams about being in a more bonded family. 

What it takes to succeed in your stepfamily will likely challenge you to grow in other ways as well. Stepfamily members bravely face the healing of old wounds, addictions, anger management issues, insecurities, and letting go of certain hopes and dreams. Having professional expert support is critical. 

Fortunately, since the 90's much research has emerged and standardization in stepfamily care has evolved. Best practices now exist. StepFamily Services trains practitioners and program developers, and provides support to stepfamilies to promote the safety, mental health, and economic security of stepfamily members. To learn more about our services, click here. 

Why help stepfamilies thrive?

Many of the 34% who do remain together prove that StepFamilies can be healthy, supportive environments in which to raise children and grow together as a couple. Avoiding burnout and addressing psychological issues is key. 

When stepfamily members burn out or receive guidance geared toward original families the result can be psychological harm, financial loss, and other forms of distress, even abuse for the children as well as adults. Helping stepfamilies impacts academic and work success and mental health, which impacts not only the family members, but also their communities, and ultimately our country at large. 

Why is there little effective support?

1. The fact that stepfamily dynamics are different from nuclear family dynamics is rarely known. Funding, programming, degree programs, and research priorities have yet to catch up. For example, the U.S. Census has not captured data that addresses non-custodial households or unmarried stepfamilies. 

2. Many counselors and coaches wing it with such approaches as, "I draw on my experience as a stepdaughter to guide my clients", or "I try to get the kids and couple talking". This may not lead to using best practices that serve and protect the client or other members of the stepfamily. 

3. Social stigmas prevent stepfamily members from even thinking of themselves as being in a stepfamily or "admitting" it, which hides them from the attention of providers, researchers, and policy makers. Often, the term "stepfamily" is thought to refer to foster or adoptive families, but the term refers to when a child is the biological or adopted child of only one adult in a marriage or partnership.

Learn More about How

StepFamily Services Can Help


Decoding Stepfamilies

Mission: We help stepfamilies directly and train other helping professionals to

get faster, safer results.



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