Stepparenting and becoming a happy step-family can be hard. We sometimes don’t even know what we don’t know! It’s human nature and common sense to reach out and try to find some help. Sometimes that help is sought from family and friends, and sometimes we decide it’s time to call in the experts.
This is where it can get tricky!
People might know a lot about their situations, or about other people’s situations. You might even have family therapists who know a lot of families. None of those people are the expert in YOUR family dynamic. None of those people know you and your situation and family members as well and as intimately as you do.
This brings us to the first thing to beware of.
One size does not fit all.
Any friend, therapist, or coach who tells you that there is one way to do things right is wrong.
There I said it. Sometimes coaches and therapists are wrong too. Or at least wrong for your family, or rather not a good fit for the dynamic you are working with. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with over the years who have been made to feel like failures by well-meaning coaches and therapists.
There aren’t yet a lot of opportunities for coaches and therapists to study step-family dynamics. Often they are operating from a therapeutic framework designed for families of origin or first families. The techniques and suggestions might work well when you have 2 parents living in the same home who have created a family and a family culture together. Those same theories and techniques don’t always fit in a step-family dynamic where there are more than one household, family culture, and set of parents to wrangle.
If you are looking for professional help, ask questions.
Ask about the person’s experience with step-families, ask if they see the dynamics as needing different approaches than a first family. If the answer is no to either of those questions, I’d recommend you keep looking.
This is even more important if you are dealing with a high conflict situation. Conventional wisdom is that ‘it takes two to tango’ or that both parties are equally responsible for the conflict. This is not how it works if you have a pathogenic parenting situation, or are dealing with a disordered ex. Those situations require careful handling and an understanding of the pathology at play.
Ask questions to probe… does the professional understand what pathogenic parenting or alienation is? Have they worked with high conflict situations before? Do they understand some of the problems this can cause for children and how those problems might present? It’s a highly specialised area and needs an expert who understands this.
If it doesn’t feel helpful and supportive, it probably isn’t.
Sometimes therapeutic conversations can be confronting. They can be challenging. They can be uncomfortable. What they shouldn’t be is leaving you feeling like you are failing or that you are the problem on a consistent basis. There will be sessions where you might not feel that great afterward, even my clients have those moments. Those will be a one-off and we will talk through why it felt like that and resolve it the next session. If this isn’t your experience and you don’t feel supported, it might be time to consider another professional.
We can inadvertently give away our power when we are feeling overwhelmed. Navigating the whole step-family dynamic can be overwhelming at times, so it’s unsurprising that we can feel like we don’t know what we’re doing and should just do what we’re told.
At times, it might be helpful to try something that feels uncomfortable or counterintuitive. If it doesn’t work, it’s not because you aren’t doing it right or there is something wrong with you and your family, it could be because it’s not the right intervention for you and yours at this moment. It might also be that you haven’t understood exactly how it’s supposed to be implemented and might have missed a vital piece.
It’s important you feel safe enough to go back to your professional and tell them it hasn’t worked.
Things not working include you not wanting or managing to engage with a suggested intervention or technique. If I make a suggestion a client doesn’t end up going with, it’s not the client being lazy or not doing their homework, it’s that I have not been able to find an intervention that resonated enough for the client to engage. It’s not time to make the client feel bad about not doing the things we’ve discussed, it’s time to look at what about that particular thing felt too hard or didn’t work.
In our indigenous language, we have a word awhi. It means to gather in with love, to hold with care. This is how I want my clients to feel when they work with me, it’s the concept and way of being I want them to be able to bring into their families.
If you aren’t feeling held and supported, the expert may not be the expert for you.
Anita specialises in helping individuals and couples dealing with childhood trauma develop healthy couple and family relationships. She also works with families dealing with Parental Alienation/Pathogenic Parenting. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
She is the Lifestyle Editor at Stepparent Magazine, a Master Coach in the Stepmomz App, and a step/mum to 7, ranging from tweens to adults. She lives in New Zealand but works with clients in the US and Australasia. Her passion is mentoring divorced and step-mums to step into their power and couples to navigate the challenging waters of step-family life. She is a certified step-family coach, with graduate and post-graduate qualifications in psychology.