Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How to Evaluate
tepfamily Advice

Beware of uninformed counsel

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/help/advice.htm

Updated August 12, 2015

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means both biological parents, or any of the three or more stepparents and bioparents co-managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily..

      This YouTube video previews what you'll read in this article. The preview mentions eight lessons ii this self-improvement Web site - I've simplified that to seven:

      This article exists because most people seeking to learn about stepfamilies don't know how to tell accurate information and practical advice from inaccurate, impractical, and harmful counsel. Based on 36 years' professional stepfamily research and clinical experience with over 1,000 average stepfamily adults, this article offers...

  • guidelines for choosing qualified sources of stepfamily information, and...

  • examples of common misinformation and impractical or harmful advice.

It assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site, and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • stepfamily basics, Q&A, myths, and problems;

  • this stepfamily quiz; and...

  • this example of a real stepfamily


      Average multi-home stepfamilies are far more complex and stressful than typical intact bio(logical) families. Sociologists estimate that over half of typical American stepfamily unions eventually fail legally or psychologically. Typical co-parents and their relatives and lay and professional supporters have a high need for accurate information about how to form and maintain a stable, high-nurturance stepfamily. 

      In this context, "accurate" information is any that helps step adults fill their and their kids' many needs. Impractical, superficial, misleading, incomplete, and toxic information and advice hinders adults from filling their and their kids' needs - or amplifies them.

      I've studied divorcing families and stepfamilies professionally for 36 years. During those years I've had thousands of hours of direct clinical contact with over 1,000 typical American stepfamily adults and some of their minor and grown kids.

      From this, I observe that perhaps 90% or more of printed, online, and verbal stepfamily "advice" is impractical, superficial, misleading, incomplete, and/or apt to create problems..

      Typical co-parents and most human-service professionals don't know how to judge stepfamily information or how to select an effective stepfamily coach, mentor, or counselor.

The Problem With Stepfamily Research

      Common sense suggests the most credible information and advice are from  formal "stepfamily research." For my Master's degree (MSW) thesis, I spent two years analyzing scores of books, journals, and formal stepfamily research studies in accredited professional journals like The Journal of Marital and Family Therapy (JMFT) and Family Relations. These included studies of studies, which summarized formal research trends and findings.

      What I learned from this (and since then) is:

  • There are over 100 variables that affect biofamily structure and dynamics - for example, adults' ages; prior marital and parenting history; race; ethnic background; education and income levels; number, gender, and ages of living children; geographic location; urban vs. rural environments; religious preference/s, family cohesion (bonding and loyalty), problem-solving styles, and years married or cohabiting.

  • Typical stepfamily systems have many more people, relationships, roles, and variables than intact biofamily systems. This makes designing replicatable stepfamily research inherently difficult. And...

  • Classic research design is based on previously-validated criteria. This means that newly-emerging (unproven) criteria get less weight in designing family research and in evaluating the findings.

          For example, most psychological and psychiatric research prior to the 1950s did not factor in the major influence of a "disturbed person's" childhood or current family dynamics in making "mental health" diagnoses and treatment prescriptions. Now researchers and clinicians who reject family-systems and communication theories are in the minority. 

          Another example: until the 1980s, mental-health workers were taught to assess and treat addictions and "mental illness" separately. The explosion of public and clinical awareness of adult children of alcoholics (ACoA) since the 1980s has begun shifting that premise - and related family research - toward seeing these conditions as interrelated symptoms of family dysfunction. 

      The point: most stepfamily research to date has not considered the interaction and impact of five key stressors:

  1. psychological wounds that occur in average adults from growing up in a low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") childhood; and...

  2. lay and professional adults' ignorance of

    • the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and its lethal effects;

    • effective communication and problem-solving skills;

    • bonding, losses, and healthy three-level grief;

    • healthy relationship and effective-parenting skills;

    • family-system concepts and uses; and...

    • unawareness of this ignorance.

  3. the effects of incomplete grief in typical dysfunctional-family members;

      These three factors combine to promote most couples making...

  1. unwise commitment and child-conception decisions.

      And when they encounter inevitable personal and stepfamily problems, average adults...

  1. find little effective help locally or in the media on these four hazards and what to do about them;

      In my judgment as a veteran engineer, stepfamily researcher, educator, and therapist, the above ideas imply that all stepfamily research to date should be questioned and reevaluated. Without in-depth learning about how these five stressors affect each other and typical stepfamilies, most lay and professional "experts" will disagree. 

      Bottom line: while "stepfamily research" is probably more credible than personal opinions, it does not necessarily provide accurate, practical guidance for typical stepfamilies and their supporters.

Who Should You Believe?

      Stepfamily adults and supporters need reliable, useful information and advice. They usually lack the experience and training to discern practical advice from superficial, impractical, or inaccurate counsel. What are they (you) to do? I suggest the following guidelines. From most to least credible, believe...
    1) advisors and authors

  • advanced degrees (below) who...

    • have studied each of the five stressors above, and who...

    • acknowledge the vital difference between surface and primary problems:

  • have some years of professional experience working clinically with a wide range of...

    • average divorcing-family and stepfamily members and...

    • early-childhood trauma survivors, (Grown Wounded Children)

          and who also have...

  • personal divorce + remarriage + parenting + stepfamily + psychological wound-recovery experience.

      Members of the nonprofit NSRC (National Stepfamily Resource Center) Experts Council are highly-qualified advisors.

      If you can't find someone with these qualifications (which is likely), then trust...

    2) advisors who (a) have an advanced human-service degree like these:

  • psychiatrist (MD)

  • licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT)

  • certified family life educator (CFLE)

  • clinical psychologist (MS, PsyD, PhD)

  • clinical or psychiatric social worker (LCSW, MSW, DSW, ACSW),

  • licensed professional counselor (LPC)

      and (b) who lack significant clinical and/or personal stepfamily experience.

      Next, trust...

    3) advisors with training and expertise in general human-service fields like divorce mediation, law enforcement, family-life education, family finances, child-development, or family casework, but who lack the criteria above and/or training or experience in (a) stepfamily research, and (b) all these topics;

      And be skeptical of...

    4) advisors without the criteria above who rely heavily on "Biblical or Christian principles" and/or "stepfamily interviews" without formal study of (a) stepfamily research, and (b) all these topics;  and be wary of heeding...

    5) "successful stepfamily couples" or veteran stepparents who use personal experience as their authority ("If we can make it work, so can you!"); and...

      ...be very skeptical of...

    6)  advisors with no (a) professional training or (b) no marital or parenting experience who (c) have informally surveyed some number of stepfamily members (d) with or without referring to formal stepfamily research - e.g. a journalist or human-interest reporter.

Overall: be cautious about accepting stepfamily advice from anyone who (a) lacks the credentials above, and who (b) implies or claims authority and credibility from any of these...

  • promoting or keynoting family-related seminars;

  • publishing materials about family-related subjects, including stepfamilies, stepparenting, stepkids, and divorce;

  • appearing on radio or TV talk shows and/or in national print media;

  • being endorsed by Ph.D. "experts." or who claim to have "studied stepfamily research" but who lack the boxed criteria above;

  • having an unspecified "advanced" (e.g. Ph.D.) degree, or being an ordained minister, pastor, preacher, or rabbi;

  • have glowing endorsements from laypeople or unqualified experts; ("Dr. Jones' book saved our marriage!"); or be cautious about someone who...

  • manages a stepfamily-related Web site, and/or moderate a stepfamily Internet chat room; and/or anyone who...

  • publishes a stepfamily-related newsletter written by them or others; or who...

  • includes advice from a "stepfamily expert" in their Web site, materials, or program.

      Though these qualifications sound impressive, none of them are reliable indicators of an advisor's stepfamily knowledge!

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - what are you thinking and feeling now? Do the opinions above feel credible and practical? Useful? If not - why not?

      To make these abstract ideas more real, consider these...

Examples of Impractical and Harmful Advice

      Three main causes of impractical stepfamily advice are the advisor's unawareness of...

  • these core topics,  and...

  • focusing on surface problems, not the primary needs that cause them; and

  • psychological wounds that prevent people from following good advice. To see this in action, read this true story and return here.

      By definition, impractical advice is vague, over-general, and/or difficult or impossible to follow - e.g. "You should appreciate what you have, and be happy." Who can argue with this suggestion? Can you name someone who is able to do it consistently by "will power"?

      Even impractical self-help advice will help by increasing self-awareness, within limits. However, most authors, advisors, and advisees don't know what they don't know about stepfamilies - which puts uninformed co-parents and supporters at risk of wasted efforts, false hopes, and increased stresses.

      Typical self-help publications; e-newsletters; tapes; and Web articles and discussion groups; are jammed with well-meant, impractical advice like the examples below. Needy people will feel "That's great advice!" and then find that "for some reason" (a) they're unable to follow it, or (b) they try, and the advice doesn't work (fill their primary needs.)

      Have you ever been unable to keep sincere New Years resolutions? Ever tried and failed to quit smoking, stop overspending, or keep off 15 unwanted pounds? How do you explain that? I propose that happens when a person is controlled by well meaning ''false selves.'' Lesson 1 in this site describes how to test for such control and how to free your true Self to guide you.

Common Examples of Impractical Advice

      These are taken verbatim from a well-regarded self-help book for stepfamily mates. Typical wounded co-parents will agree with these ideas - and their false selves and unawareness will prevent them from acting on them:

  • use rough times to enhance rather than destroy your relationship

  • be empathic and as ... supportive as possible

  • realize that there are some gender differences

  • collaborate on a (conflict) settlement

  • come up with an agreement that you both consider fair

  • air your angry feelings

  • don't be afraid to disagree

  • agree to disagree, or postpone a decision

  • communicate personally and creatively

  • base your talks on facts

  • you must flush out your immediate ... concerns

      This advice is taken verbatim from a well-known stepfamily Web site:

Recognize the hard fact that the (step)children are not yours and they never will be.

Discipline styles must be sorted out by the couple.

The norms and forms of (child) discipline must be discussed and agreed to by the couple.

The conflict of loyalties ...are normal and must be dealt with.

Approach issues with the intention of partnering to a mutual agreement, not winning the argument.

Don't take (step)kid's negative behavior as a personal insult.

Over-disciplining your stepchildren" Watch It! Under-disciplining your own children" Watch It!

Go slow. Don't come on too strong (as a stepparent).

Establish clear job descriptions between the parent, stepparent and respective children.

Begin to get information on how to best handle the prior spouse.

Be patient with your husband, the kids, and yourself.

Be a sounding board for your partner as the two of you discuss the household setup.

Schedule time to go out alone, to dine alone. Don't talk about step(family issues).

Know the dynamics of step. Know when to attribute (blame) the step situation and know when it is something that you as a couple must sort out.

Be prepared for conflicting pulls of sexual and biological energies within the step relationship.

      If one or both partners' true Selves are disabled, partners will find it hard or impossible to benefit from vague generalities like these. Over time, that's apt to lower their self-esteem and confidence, raise their guilt, and degrade their hope for effective problem-solving.

Potentially Harmful Stepfamily Advice

      In this context, advice or misinformation is harmful if it significantly...

  • lowers the stepfamily's nurturance level, and/or promotes psychological wounds in kids and adults, and/or...

  • increases these core problems, and/or...

  • hinders filling re/marital needs and/or kids' developmental or family-adjustment needs; and/or...

  • promotes these common co-parent teamwork barriers, and/or...

  • reduces family members' wholistic health, in the eyes of a neutral, knowledgeable observer; and/or...

  • misleads other people considering or in stepfamilies and/or their supporters.

      "Significantly" is a subjective judgment. Implication: to judge whether advice is harmful, co-parents and supporters need to be familiar with all these criteria - and few are.

Common Examples

      In my research since 1979, I have identified over 60 unrealistic, potentially harmful expectations ("myths") about stepfamilies. Here's a sample, which are often found in well-meaning self-help publications, Web sites, and professional counsel:

  • Remarried bioparents should put their kids' needs first, and stepparents should support and accept that.

  • Love and/or pious faith in a loving God will conquer all (stepfamily problems).

  • The other divorced parent (ex mate) is not a co-equal member of a new stepfamily.

  • Stepparents and stepkids, stepsiblings, and co-grandparents should love each other like healthy biofamily members.

  • New stepfamilies will "settle down" within a few months after re/wedding.

  • Bioparents shouldn't have to choose between pleasing or supporting their new mate and their prior child/ren.

  • Divorced parents are wiser the second time around, and won't make the same mistakes.

  • Stepfamily marriage is basically the same as first marriage.

  • Stepfamily courtship and/or cohabiting is a reliable indicator of life after re/marriage.

  • Having an "ours" child will reduce existing stepfamily conflicts and strengthen a fragile re/marriage.

  • A stepparent legally adopting a stepchild will surely increase the bonds and loyalty among household and stepfamily members.

  • Stepfamily holidays and gatherings should feel pretty much like regular / normal / traditional (intact-biofamily) celebrations.

  • Typical co-parents and supporters know all they need to know about bonding, losses, and healthy grief.

  • Any licensed, veteran human-service professional with advanced degrees can be trusted to give practical, useful stepfamily, re/marital, and co-parenting advice.

      Every one of these opinions is usually wrong. There are many other common examples of toxic or harmful advice, but you get the idea...

The bottom line: authorize yourself and your partner to (a) study this online course, or at least learn stepfamily basics; and to (b) critically evaluate the credentials of anyone offering you stepfamily advice!


      Two of the many challenges that adults in typical divorcing families and stepfamilies face are to (a) discern who is qualified to advise them, and (b) how to tell practical, useful advice from misguided, impractical or harmful counsel.

      Because typical adults don't know what they need to know, it's difficult for them to discern whom to trust with what advice. This is critical, for one of five hazards most such adults face is unawareness.

      Based on 36 years' stepfamily research and experience, this article offers perspective and guidelines about (a) whom to trust as a qualified divorce, stepfamily, or re/marital author or advisor, and (b) how to judge whether advice is relevant and useful, impractical, or potentially harmful. The article includes real examples of the latter.

      Also see these related articles:

  • test your stepfamily knowledge with this quiz

  • how to select a qualified stepfamily counselor

  • how to select useful re/marriage, co-parenting, and stepfamily-related self-help materials

  • how to choose or evolve an effective support group

+ + +

      Pause, breathe, and recall why you read this article. Did you get what you needed? If so, what do you need now? If not - what do you need? Is there anyone you want to discuss these ideas with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

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