Lesson 7 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How to Select A
Stepfamily Counselor

19 Questions to Ask

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/help/counsel.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 article assumes you're familiar with...

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

    • self-improvement Lesson 1 thru 7

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

    • Q&A about counseling and therapy

    • perspective on "mental health and illness."

    • this example of a real stepfamily

      I've been a professional stepfamily therapist and educator for 36 years. This article hilights (a) why get professional stepfamily counseling (education) or therapy, and (b) how to shop for effective help. For perspective, see this New York Times reprint that says that skilled "talk therapy" can often produce the same results as prescription drugs.

       Why Get Professional Help?

      Many commentators estimate that over half of typical U.S. primary relationships involving prior kids and ex mates fail. This suggests (1) mates make unwise commitment choices, and (2) don't know how to avoid or resolve complex stepfamily problems like these.

      Whether you're considering stepfamily commitment or already "in step," it can be a great help to get some qualified professional coaching and/or therapy along the way. Some useful coaching targets for typical co-parents are:

Confirming that each partner is making wise commitment choices;

Helping assess for psychological wounds and/or personal recovery design and management;

Clarifying who belongs (is included) in your multi-home stepfamily, and resolving membership conflicts over this;

Forging realistic expectations in your new stepfamily;

Promoting healthy mourning in adults or kids of significant losses from  childhood trauma, divorce or death, and re/commitment and cohabiting;

Learning to help minor stepkids master their sets of up to 30+ unique adjustment needs

Learning how to avoid and resolve inevitable loyalty and values conflicts and divisive relationship triangles;

How to 4problems with child visitations, custody, financial support, holidays, names, and other issues;

Making wise decisions about legal stepchild adoption and conceiving "ours" children;

Clarifying co-parents' roles and responsibilities; and ...

Resolving significant relationship barriers between ex mates and/or  relatives.

       Whatever you need, there are specific traits to look for in picking an effective professional helper. Many seasoned pastoral and other counselors, psychologists, social workers, psychiatrists, doctors, mediators, life coaches, and family-law professionals are skilled and experienced at helping people with personal and family problems.

      If they've had no training in stepfamily uniquenesses and realities (which is common), they may unintentionally promote personal and family stress and unawareness. How can you guard against that?


          To raise your odds of getting effective professional help...

       Confirm that your true Self is leading your other personality subselves, and see if that's true of your partner. If false selves dominate either of you, they may choose unqualified help. See Lesson 1;

      Read and discuss each resource in the box above when you're not distracted;

      Authorize yourself to shop for help. As a consumer, you have a right to evaluate professional competence. Ask candidates questions (below), and note how they answer. If s/he responds confidently, clearly, and without irritation or evasiveness, then green light. If the professional seems bothered by your questions, look elsewhere.

      Option: print this article and use it as a shopping guide. Online lessons 1 thru 7 here will help you evaluate the answers you get to the questions below.

      Long-term, the most cost-effective help to get is (a) pre-re/marital counseling (education) and then (b) (step)family therapy (not "counseling.") The best work goes through several phases, which can overlap:

  • family therapy (including kids), then...

  • marital (couple's) therapy, then...

  • individual adult wound-reduction therapy. An effective therapist will have experience in all three types of work. 

  Shopping Questions (for a therapist)

      1) "Specifically, what kind of professional stepfamily (vs. family) training have you had? When?" If "None," or "A little," keep looking.

      2) " Why - specifically - do more stepfamilies break up than first-marriage families? What do you do to help stepfamily couples avoid re/divorce - specifically"? If the candidate shows any uncertainty, vagueness, or resistance to these questions, keep shopping.

      3) "Do you treat stepfamilies differently than biofamilies? If so, how - specifically?" If the candidate says something like "No, a family's just a family," thank them and look elsewhere.

      4) "What unique problems do you feel that stepfamily co-parents face, and (specifically) how do you help with those?"

      5) "Have you ever lived in a stepfamily? If so, "Has that biased you in working with stepfamily clients?" Many professionals are unaware and psychologically wounded, and some grew up as stepkids and/or have re/married or re/divorced.

      6) "How do you believe stepfamily values conflicts, membership disputes, and loyalty conflicts should be handled?" If s/he can't describe each of these and a believable solution for them clearly, look elsewhere.

      7) "How do you help stepfamily members spot and resolve (persecutor - victim - rescuer) relationship triangles?" Ditto.

      8) "Do you believe that both divorced parents are equal co-parenting members in a child's two-home stepfamily?" If "yes," ask "Then are you comfortable working, if needed, with ex mates who are co-parenting together?" If you get "No," or "It depends" to either question, look elsewhere. Ignoring the needs and values of any of your kids' co-parents steeply raises the odds of escalating conflict.

      9) "About how many stepfamily couples (or co-parents) have you worked with?" "Over 50 couples" is a reassuring answer. More is better.

       10) "What special needs do you feel typical minor stepkids must fill that intact-biofamily kids don't face?" (There can be over 30!)

      11) "In your opinion, what's different about stepparenting?" The key aims are usually the same as bioparents goals, but the family environments are different in almost 50 ways.

      12) "Do you have training and experience with helping clients harmonize their personality subselves?" "Yes" is a great asset, and you may have to settle for "No." This special skill can help typical co-parents (and kids) heal psychological wounds, which promote to most family problems.

      Currently, few therapists, coaches, counselors, family-life educators, attorneys, mediators, judges, case workers, or clergy have this Lesson-1 training. Option: ask if the candidate is trained in Inner-family systems therapy, Voice Dialog, and/or Psychosynthesis.

      13) "What experience do you have at helping people assess if they're psychologically wounded? If the candidate seems credibly experienced, ask:

  • "How do you help wounded clients recover?

  • "Are you in personal recovery? If so...

  • "Is it 'working' for you?"

A professional who is controlled by false selves is far less likely to  provide effective stepfamily help.

      14) "Do you have special training, experience, and skill at promoting healthy grief, and spotting and freeing up incomplete grief? If s/he does, ask: "How do you do that?" Incomplete grief is a common family, marital, and personal stressor.

      15) "Are you comfortable working variously with individual adults, couples, kids, and everyone together in a client stepfamily?" "Yes" is a big asset: successful education and clinical work with stepfamilies often requires working with a mix of family members alone and together over time.

      16) "What training and experience do you have in teaching adult couples effective communication and problem-solving?" If "none" or "little," keep looking.

      17) "Do you have special training and experience with (a) assessing and (b) managing all four kinds of addictions (substances, activities, relationships, and mood states)?"

      If they do, ask: "Generally, how do you approach helping addicts and their families?" If s/he seems vague, yellow light: addictions are common in divorcing-family and stepfamily "trees," and are clear signs of wounded ancestors and co-parents, and low-nurturance families.

      18) "How do you manage client families who have groups of complex, concurrent problems?" Most divorcing and step families have multiple simultaneous problems, so consistent clinical focusing and prioritizing with the co-parents is essential.

      19) If the professional works for an agency or is in a private practice, ask: "Does your  supervisor or clinical consultant have special training in (all the topics above)?" If "No," ask: "Then if we work together, are you willing to seek and consult with a local clinical specialist who does have special stepfamily and re/marital training?" Often, it's hard to find a fully-qualified consultant.

+ + +

       If you discuss questions like these thoroughly with a prospective professional consultant, you'll probably spend your first hour without getting into your current stepfamily problems.

      Option: do a phone interview first. In the long run, this shopping is a high-return investment of your time, funds, and energy, compared to having five or more unproductive (expensive) hourly sessions with a consultant who works from inappropriate biofamily rules, norms, biases, and expectations.

      For perspective, it takes most stepfamilies five or more years to merge and stabilize after (each) re/wedding. It's healthy and OK to take your time in choosing a qualified helper!

reminder An effective professional will work steadily to empower your family adults to identify, clarify, and resolve your problems, not to solve them for you... Option: refer your consultant/s to this nonprofit educational Web site (http://sfhelp.org) and use the free self-improvement Lessons here as resources in your work together.


      This Lesson-7 article extends this Q&A article on counseling. Based on my 36 years as a stepfamily therapist, This article offers 19 questions you should ask any prospective professional stepfamily helper, including counselors, therapists, clergy, social workers, life coaches, family-life educators, mediators, and legal professionals.

      The questions exist because stepfamilies are significantly different from intact biofamilies, and have many unique, complex problems to avoid and resolve. Few human-service professionals are adequately trained in stepfamily dynamics and realities, so they may unintentionally offer useless or harmful counsel.

      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 shopping questions with? Who's answering these questions - your wise resident true Self, or ''someone else''?

          For more perspective, see...

    • guidelines for avoiding useless or toxic stepfamily advice,

    • suggestions for choosing useful stepfamily books and programs; and...

    • ideas on evaluating or starting an effective co-parent support group.

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