For Therapists: Cultivating a Healing Attitude

Friday, January 21, 2011

With more than 4 decades of work with stepfamilies under her belt, psychotherapist Eleanor Spackman Alden offers fellow helping professionals guidelines for becoming effective healers, guides, and support systems in their practice with stepfamilies.

by Eleanor Spackman Alden

(Photo on home page © Claus Mikosch and courtesy of

Seldom is there a topic in the life of a therapist where the old-fashioned issue of countertransference—when the therapist projects his or her own feelings or wishes onto the client—can resonate so strongly. Therapists who value stepfamily life—and honor and respect the courageous people in stepfamilies—have an attitude that, in itself, is healing. In addition, those therapists who view stepfamilies as second rate or “even worse” than single-parent families will negatively impact the therapeutic outcome. If an unexamined life is not worth living, then, as a therapist, an unexamined attitude toward stepfamilies is a red flag to “refer to others”! To work well with stepfamilies, a therapist needs to value them and to know the differences and similarities among good parenting, good co-parenting, and good stepparenting.

Working with stepfamilies can be complex, complicated, challenging, and immensely rewarding. Family therapists who have a strong background in family systems theory will find their education to be immensely helpful in their practice. Yet, work with stepfamilies requires more than what the therapist learned in most family theory courses and training.

Stepfamilies Are More Than Just ‘Standard’

Unfortunately, the therapeutic community has often supported a negative image of stepfamilies. Perhaps this bias stems from a lack of the specialized knowledge and skills required to handle the more complicated stepfamily situation. Frustrated therapists may end up blaming the client’s illness for the lack of therapeutic success. Moreover, the majority of stepfamily members never enter therapy, and when they do, they frequently pass themselves off as “standard” families without “step” relationships, so the issues unique to stepfamily life may be overlooked by the analyst. With just a few added skills and knowledge, a therapist working with stepfamilies can be just as successful as in their work with any other family.

Given the sheer number of people in all cultures who are impacted by stepfamily relationships, it is hard to imagine that any therapeutic practice exists without stepfamily members somewhere among the majority of its clients. Issues of “step” may not be the presenting ones, but the underlying attitude toward stepfamilies can support or damage any therapeutic alliance around any topic. Too often the words and tone of voice convey a therapist’s negative bias toward stepfamilies, stepchildren, and blended families. A demeaning and patronizing attitude is not a predictor of a good outcome for successful therapy.

Take the case of “Anne,” who was in analysis because of her struggle with her negative self-image and problems with men. After working with her analyst for nearly 6 months, she overheard her therapist talking to a colleague about a celebrity who was marrying once again. The disdain and contempt the analyst held for divorce and stepfamilies came through loud and clear to Anne, who was divorced. That bias ruined the therapeutic container, and Anne left therapy several months later—enraged with her analyst and severely depressed.

How to Maximize a Successful Therapeutic Outcome

Therapeutic work with stepfamilies can be, but is not always, more complicated than with a so-called standard family in which no divorces or former spouses exist. Stepfamilies often have special needs in terms of mediation between coparents regarding goals, finances, visitation, and the development of a cooperative system. Such needs are seldom the case in non–stepfamilies.

To meet the unique needs of stepfamilies and to help maximize a successful outcome, therapists might take the following actions.

Emphasize the Gifts Stepfamilies Bring to Adults and Children Alike

  • Stepfamilies provide wonderful opportunities to exercise compassion, empathy, and the ability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

  • Stepfamilies often provide a structure in which everyone can grow and learn to be flexible and accepting of different opinions, values, and goals.

  • Stepfamily members demand that other members learn to listen deeply to each other.

  • Work with stepfamilies can lead to increased skills in self-soothing, learning to choose appropriate behaviors when emotions are running high, and learning diplomacy skills, which are highly valued by society.

  • Stepfamily structures provide the potential for children to feel loved and supported by different adults. Stepfamilies also offer a backup system for cooperative adults to enjoy time with their children and also have time alone as a couple.

  • A long-standing part of all cultures, stepfamilies have produced some of our most outstanding leaders and innovators of change: Moses, George Washington, King Arthur, a number of U.S. presidents, Queen Elizabeth I, and Marie Curie. Role models for step-relationships are in abundance.

Watch the Language!

Therapists can unintentionally emphasize demeaning perspectives through their use of language. However, therapy is a perfect venue for reframing society’s negative view and accentuating the potential for a positive outcome while empathizing with the challenges.

  • When referring to the divorced parents of a child, use the word coparent. Furthermore, keep in mind that referring to the former spouse as the ex-wife or ex-husband can harm the therapeutic process—if the goal is cooperative parenting—because those terms emphasize loss.

  • The term ex-spouse may be an accurate description when working with a divorced couple who have no children and no love left. Consider dating terminology: Most of us see more warmth in descriptions such as former boyfriend, last boyfriend, and old boy friend than in ex-boyfriend. The same thinking applies to terminology for former spouses.

  • Terms such as failed marriage or a broken home carry negative emotional energy. Discourage terms that imply divorce is a failure. Marriages may break, but homes grow, change, expand, and contract. When a divorce occurs, one home usually becomes two. Using the term two homes—the one with mom and the one with dad—lessens the sense many have that divorce equals loss.

Therapists must examine their own beliefs about divorce. When is divorce a spiritual path that is important for all? When is staying for “the sake of the children” is a good idea? When is it not? Therapists who guide children to see the abundance in a situation involving two homes, four parents, two birthdays, two Thanksgivings, and double doses of good things are helping stepfamilies make the best of their situation and its opportunities. Emphasizing what is in abundance in stepfamilies, yet also being honest about the scarcities, and then developing strategies and coping skills to deal with identified scarcities can be truly rewarding for both therapist and family, as well as a bonding experience for the stepfamily.

  • Love is a tricky word, and a discussion about the different kinds of love may be imperative. In Sanskrit, the English word love translates into 95 different words. In English we talk about loving sunsets, loving our spouses, loving ice cream, and loving our children, yet other cultures may find our use of the same word to describe feelings of affection toward a spouse and a child repugnant.

When working with stepfamilies, it is often a huge relief to talk about the differences in how people love each other. Loving a biological child is not the same feeling as loving a stepchild, let alone loving a spouse or a hamburger! It is neither equal nor the same, but it still is immensely valuable—different but not less important.

Children need many kinds of conditional love. The rest of society tends to be conditional in its acceptance and support, so an opportunity to have the less biased guidance of a stepparent regarding the confusing social world outside the home can be wonderful. A stepparent’s conditions that are too harsh, unreasonable, or inappropriate are destructive. In contrast, if those conditions encourage the child to achieve skills and behaviors that will make that child successful in society, then the conditions are valuable and just as needed as the less conditional love of a biological parent.

It is okay for a stepparent to feel differently about their stepchildren, and to love them differently. A therapist can examine the behavior of treating people as fairly as possible without the often extreme guilt and anger induced by the common accusations that “you don’t love my kids as much as your own.” Children and adults are often in situations in which they are not “loved as much as” another person, and fair treatment is still demanded.

  • Fathers and mothers almost always walk through a divorce with guilt about “what it is doing to the children.” Other family members experience grief about the loss of the marriage relationships, the original family structure, and the relationships that supported such structure. When hearing expressions of guilt or grief, deal with those feelings openly.

At times in my own practice, I have asked a young person about missing his or her biological parent in front of a stepparent. The child’s answer plus the facial expressions of everyone in the room reflect how taboo that kind of honesty has or has not become. Giving the child permission to feel okay about missing Dad when Mom and Stepdad are there helps that child to eventually feel fine about missing his or her stepparent. What a gift to love so many people! Hearing children talk about missing their absent parent may be painful for parent and stepparent alike, but empathy and support for such feelings is more healing than denial, anger, or guilt. If feelings result in bad choices about how to behave, it is imperative that the therapist accept the feelings while examining associated beliefs and how to make better choices behaviorally.

  • “Trash talk” by adults about other family members harms everyone, and the person dealing out the negative, hostile talk is often one who, in the long run, will most likely be rejected by the children as they grow older. Therapists must actively discourage any attempt to align children against their biological parent and must encourage respectful communication among all parental figures. This does not mean the therapist should minimize real-life problems, however. For example, if the biological father is an alcoholic, acknowledging that “Dad loves you, but Dad has a disease” is more helpful and less harmful than implying “Dad is a bad person and does not love you.”

It is okay to validate a child’s experience, especially when that experience is painful, but the validation must be done without attacking the other parent. The therapist might encourage one parent to say, for instance, “Your mother, at times, gets very angry when her feelings are hurt, and then she says things she probably will wish she had not said later on. I know it hurt you to have to listen to that tirade, and I am glad you can talk about it. I hope you know we all love you and will do what we can to make this different, or at least protect you when we can.” If the other parent truly is so ill, addicted, violent, or sexually abusive that he or she is a danger to the child, and the child must physically be protected from that parent, then acknowledging the illness so that the child does not feel that half of his or her own identity is flawed, evil, or unlovable is critical. A child has a right to love a flawed parent.

Stepfamilies excel at teaching the spiritual and life lesson that love is not a scarce commodity. The more we love, the more there is, and the more comes back to us. It is even possible to love two people when one hates the other!

  • It is essential that therapists acknowledge the prejudice with which stepfamilies are often treated. Police, court evaluators, counselors, ministers, coaches, and many others often treat the best of stepparents as if they were invisible, under suspicion immediately, or in a patronizing fashion, as if their love and caring was invalid or second rate. In addition, school professionals often are restricted in their ability to include stepparents in conferences and decisions. In my book StepWisdom: Knowledge from the Ages for Successful Stepfamilies, I describe one case in which the stepmother, the primary person who helped the children with homework, was banned from all parent–teacher conferences. Dismissing this difficulty or encouraging an aggressive stance or dialogue would, in the long run, have served no one. Instead, mediation and empathy for all parties involved allowed the relationships between the coparents to grow, and the children continued to be successful students.

  • A “Five-to-One Rule” for adults and children is an effective way to encourage compliments. No one can say anything critical about anyone else without first having five compliments in the emotional bank account. You can withdraw from that account with respectful criticisms only if you already have something in the account. If you can’t think of anything nice to say, then you must stay quiet and contemplate five reasons why you have any “right” to criticize. If you can’t think of anything you like about another family member, then that needs examining.

This rule is helpful for a number of reasons:

  • Most people want to be accurately heard and their criticisms taken seriously. But if all a person does is criticize, even if only half of the time, the audience may view that person’s comments as trivial.
  • Parents who want their co-parent to honor their wishes, value their opinions, and treat their new marriage and role as a parent with dignity will find the Five-to-One Rule to be effective.
  • Those in a stepfamily who cannot think of one thing good to say about any of its members may need to rethink their commitment to the family.

Over the past decades, having supervised therapists working with stepfamilies has certainly deepened my belief that stepfamilies can be successful, loving, dynamic, and creative families. Therapists: Being aware of your own myths about stepfamily and divorce and recognizing personal biases and prejudice will aid you on your path to becoming an effective healer, guide, and provider of support for stepfamilies. Yes, stepfamilies can be challenging work for therapists, but the rewards—as with anything that demands our best skills—can be great.

Eleanor Spackman Alden, LCSW, BSD, is psychotherapist who, for more than 40 years, has helped stepfamilies and those going through divorce navigate painful or difficult transitions. Author of the recently published StepWisdom: Knowledge From the Ages for Successful Stepfamilies (Wheatmark), one of her main interests is changing the paradigm about how our culture views stepfamilies. You can read more about Eleanor, who resides southwest of Denver, Colorado, at

Top 10 Remarriage & Stepfamily Blogs for 2010

Friday, January 21, 2011

We’ve done the homework for you! After reviewing nearly 100 blogs about remarriage and stepfamily life, has narrowed the list to provide you with the best of the best.

by Bonnie Welch

Google the terms remarriage and stepfamily today, and you’ll find more information and blogs on these topics than even 5 years ago. Continuing our mission to deliver credible and valuable resources to remarrieds and stepfamilies, the staff pored over close to 100 blogs to handpick 10 that we think are the most informative, supportive, and inspiring.

Here are our Top 10 blog picks for 2010; where you can find them; our quick assessment (in italic type); and a rundown of what excited us most. We hope these Top 10 will enrich your life.

#1  Becoming a Stepmom

Blogger: Jacquelyn Fletcher

This blog by Jacquelyn Fletcher, author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom, is intelligent, witty, warm, and inviting—like spending an hour over coffee talking with your best friend.

Jacque, a great sharer of knowledge, has created a blog that stands out among the others because it offers the “whole package”—not simply written blog entries, but also video and podcasts, as well as thoughtful resources. Her blog is well rounded, offering more topical variety than many we read, from advice, to education, to support. What really made an impression on our staff was that she clearly works hard to share viewpoints in addition to her own. An added bonus: Becoming a Stepmom oozes with positivity.

We especially loved the insightful video she shared on November 30, 2010, from TED, a small nonprofit devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading” through In that recording, William Ury, author, expert mediator, and speaker, talks about transforming conflict. Jacque introduces the video and then challenges us to think about how we can transform conflict in our homes.

This number-one blog shares ideas about stepparenting, becoming a stepmom, and being remarried that are worth spreading.

#2  Wednesday Martin: Official Blog for the Author of Stepmonster

Blogger: Wednesday Martin

It’s uncanny how the blog by Wednesday Martin, the author of Stepmonster, captures so candidly and dynamically just what us stepmoms go through everyday!

Wednesday, a psychologist who writes for Psychology Today, offers her readers professional advice and solutions via her page-turning writing style. Her blog entries are a pleasure to read, and the accompanying graphics are delightful!

What strikes us most about her blog is that she keeps it real with her word choices and topics. We bet a lot of people can relate, whether they are experiencing “Barnacle Syndrome,” which she describes as “feeling like you just got ‘tacked on’ to your husband’s life—that it’s all about the way he and his kids do it…,” or are wondering, as one blog title says, “Why Did the Remarried Couple with Kids Make Two Turkeys?”

#3  Co-Parenting 101: Divorce Ends Marriages...but Families Endure

Bloggers: Deesha Philyaw and Michael Thomas

Deesha Philyaw and her former husband, Michael Thomas, offer an honest look at the trials and errors of co-parenting and provide heartfelt advice plus an array of resources.

This blog should be a mandatory read for any divorced couple with children. It represents what all of us should strive for: cooperative co-parenting for the sake of the kids. (And, we don’t take “shoulds” lightly!)

Deesha and Michael are not advocates for divorce. Instead, their focus is on how to “establish a successful, congenial co-parenting relationship which allows our children to thrive….” They provide a list of helpful resources, and readers can even nominate co-parenting heroes who are then featured on the bloggers’ BlogTalkRadio show Co-Parenting Matters.

Given that 65% of remarriages include children, we think Deesha and Michael can be a model for many of us remarrieds. We love their approach: inspirational and positive.

#4  The Stepmom’s Toolbox: Tips, Tools, Advice

Bloggers: Peggy Nolan and Team

This blog is teeming with gold nuggets of information, resources, and event “homework” for stepmoms.

Peggy’s passion “to help others live true, authentic lives” is not just words on a Web page. Rather, her energy and enthusiasm to help women are boundless. She’s kicked cancer and corporate stress, and even was chosen for AOL’s Career in Transition Image Makeover. And, she is pursuing her second-degree black belt. On top of that, she is the wife of a U.S. Army soldier—and that takes a special strength, because her husband has been deployed to the Middle East. Powerful stuff, and many stepmothers will benefit from Peggy’s inspirational life story.

According to Peggy’s website, her BlogTalkRadio show The Stepmom’s Toolbox, is one of the most popular and downloaded shows in the category “women.”

What stepmother wouldn’t want to seek tips, tools, and advice from another stepmom who has accomplished so much?

#5  Stepmum of the Year

Blogger: Mel

This Australian newly engaged “stepmom,” who, in her blog, refers to her partner as “The Lovely Man” and to each of her sons as “Boy A, Boy B, and Boy C,” tackles a topic not often addressed: stepparenting part-time and from a distance.

We love how Stepmum provides details and anecdotes from her life, especially quotations from her children. It really helps to know the kids’ perspectives and that other stepfamilies have children who say the same kinds of things your own kids do!

Mel has brought up and discussed unique topics and resources, such as “How Narcissists Abuse Children During Divorce.” Thanks, Stepmum for sharing remarkable stories from your life and the lessons you have picked up along the way.

#6  Rockstar Coparenting: Divorce and Co-Parent Children Like Grown Ups

Blogger: Jenn

This straightforward, engaging blog strives to “build a community of like minded parents who want to coparent their children of divorce a little less Jerry Springerish and a lot more awesomish.”

This down-to-earth blog makes us feel like we are sitting in our neighborhood café, talking with the most hip, stylish, and fun person we know. We knew we were on to something good when we saw that the main navigation bar on the home page includes “get support,” “good to know,” and “talk to me.”

Click on “get support,” and you’ll be pleasantly surprised. According to Jenn, “Knowledge is Totally Power,” and she isn’t kidding. She has one of the most comprehensive resource lists we have seen, with subtopics ranging from “Divorce,” to “For the Kids,” to “Stepping & Blending,” to “Professional Associations.” The list is impressive.

Her insights are so interesting and thought provoking, we’d like to see Jenn write a book!

#7  Stepmother’s Milk: When We Need a Place to Spill

Blogger: Izzy Rose

The welcome message by Izzy Rose, author of My (not-so) Glamorous Transition From Single Gal to Instant Mom, captures why we like her blog so much: “The best pacifier is the voice of another woman, telling her unique story that lets you know you’re not alone.”

We love Izzy’s premise that “Stepmother’s Milk is a metaphor for how women nurture and care for each other in trying times.” Izzy has the unique perspective of becoming a stepmom after a successful career as an Emmy award-winning TV producer, and it definitely shows through her voice and style—entertaining and often humorous.

Although her latest blog entry is from early 2010, don’t skip reading this blog, which is accompanied by a robust list of resources.

#8  Smom: The Heart of the Blended Family

Blogger: Heather Hetchler

Stepmom coach Heather Hetchler serves up positive advice and encouragement in her inviting and colorful blog entries.

Heather’s vision at Café Smom [pronounced “smahm”] is to “serve up a hearty cup of uplifting words, encouragement and support and to connect you with other stepmoms around the world going through exactly what you are going through.” We seriously wish we lived near her so we could hang out, laugh, cry, and vent together.

This blog imparts practical, real-world advice—whether it’s helping you to create a concrete action plan to set your goals for the year or tips on how to deal with your husband’s ex. Heather’s conversational writing style, sincerity, and empathy make you feel like you’re sitting right next to her and she’s someone you can trust right away.

#9  Stepmom Magazine Blog

Bloggers: Brenda Ockun, Publisher of StepMom Magazine, and Others

The short blog entries covering a wide range of topics are a welcome respite in a stepparent’s busy world.

It’s not often that stepmoms get to be the center of attention, but in the StepMom Magazine blog, stepmoms receive the TLC that they deserve. Many of the bloggers named in this Top 10 list have contributed to StepMom Magazine, which is top-notch.

When the staff reviewed this blog, entries ranged from a list of remarriage statistics to the “hotly debated topic” of disengagement, and just what that term means. The majority of the blog page describes content in recent issues of the online magazine.

The real gem of the website, though, seems to be the discussion forum, where—as a subscriber—the reader “will receive access to our private, support group forum where you can talk to other stepmoms about issues that concern you most.”

#10  Mama J’s Parenting Posts: Conversations About Raising Girls

Blogger: Diane Fromme, also known as “Mama J”

Author of Stepparenting the Grieving Child, Diane Fromme embraces an important topic that is often at the fringe of the stepfamily conversation: stepparenting a child whose parent has died.

For those of us who are widows or widowers—or are married to someone previously was a widow or widower—this blog is a wonderful resource. To our knowledge, there isn’t another blog devoted to this topic.

Diane has said she “constantly ponders family issues and dynamics.” She posts on stepparenting issues every Wednesday and is writing a guidebook for stepparents living with children who have lost a parent or parents. This blog will likely be helpful to remarrieds or people who have adopted a child too.

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