Lesson 7 of 7  - how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

How to Form and Maintain an Effective Self-help Group

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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

Updated 09-16-2015

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     This two-page article proposes a way to startr and maintain an effective support group for stepfamily co-parents and supporters. 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 Lessons 1 thru 7

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

  • this example of a real stepfamily

      Note  - tho this article is for stepfamily co-parents, the suggestions here apply to any mutual-help group.

  Why This Article? 

      Average stepfamily adults need more support with their and their kids' many concurrent stressors than first-marriers. One source of help is an effectively-run co-parent support group. In my experience as a stepfamily therapist since 1981, these groups are rare in most communities. There are a number of online support groups available now.

       Based on my experience participating in over 15 stepfamily support groups, This article outlines steps toward developing a group in which most participants steadily feel that (a) their main needs are met often enough, in ways that leave each member feeling good about themselves, each other, and their group process.


  • What is support (as in "support group")?

  • Ways to start a group 

  • How to maintain (run) an effective group, and...

  • Q&A about co-parent support groups.

      What Is "Support"?

           Premise - in stressful times, average people need to...

    vent; and...

    feel validated, "normal," and encouraged; and to...

    learn and problem-solve; and stressed people need to...

    socialize and help others; and... 

    feel realistic hope for the future. And typical kids and adults need...

    appropriate touching, like hugs and pats on the back.

Effective support groups can fill all these needs. Can you think of other needs they fill? Here's some perspective on each of these common needs:

The Need To Vent

      "Venting" is talking honestly about current emotions, needs, and thoughts. Effective venting happens when the speaker feels consistently heard, respected, accepted, and empathically understood well enough. Kids and adults who vent and get supportive feedback may get clearer on what they feel and need.

      When listeners judge or discount the speaker’s feelings ("You're still grieving your divorce?"), and/or they try to fix their situation ("Look, why don’t you ..."), the speaker’s needs may not be filled. 

      Because typical multi-home stepfamilies differ from intact ("traditional") biologtical families in over 60 ways, co-parents often feel little true empathy from their friends and kin. Unless human-service providers have had personal experience and/or special training (which is rare), they may understand intellectually but not really empathize with stepfamily adults or kids who vent.

      So for co-parents who feel isolated, self-doubtful, confused, overwhelmed, and alone, it can feel deeply satisfying to be with a group of people who listen empathically and say "I know!"

      Reality check: if you're in a divorcing family or a stepfamily, do you know anyone who seems to accurately empathize with how that feels to you?

 The Need To Feel Validated

      Most of the many hundreds of co-parents I’ve met have not studied "what’s normal'' in average stepfamilies. They unconsciously use intact-bio(logical)family norms, expectations, and solutions in coping with stepfamily problems. Too often, these efforts don’t fill kids and adults' needs well enough. 

       Mature women and men struggling with a mix of alien stepfamily stressors may feel confused and overwhelmed. As rosy early-re/marriage dreams inexorably morph into stressful realities, partners without accurate stepfamily education may begin to doubt their perceptions and competencies.

      This is specially likely for women, who’ve been trained by a patriarchal society to accept that they’re mainly responsible for making their (step)family happy.

      By telling parts of their current stepfamily story and consistently having other co-parents nod and say "Yeah, we’ve had that experience too," support group members can feel major relief that they’re normal and OK after all.

       Exception. there are over 100 structural types of stepfamily, so some group participants may not find others who can fully validate their feelings and needs. Still, a well-functioning support group can provide welcome affirmation that "we’re not crazy!" and "we're not alone!"

      Another common reason people attend self-help groups is to fill...

The Needs To Learn and Problem-solve

       As stepfamily problems emerge, typical adults seek help to understand and reduce their stress. They need to learn...

  • stepfamily (vs. biofamily) norms, and..

  • useful resources, and....

  • practical ways to identify and solve their problems.

An effectively-run real or online support group can be a great source of each of these.

      Besides needs to vent, be validated, learn, and problem-solve, average stepfamily adults also...

  Need to Socialize and to Help Others  

      Many divorcing and re/married men and women (and their ex mates) carry significant psychological wounds ffrom their early childhood. Such Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) may either seek or avoid social contact. They may also seek self worth through helping other needy people.

      Many wholistically-healthy people (with minimal wounds) also enjoy fellowship and helping others. Others are introverts and prefer to solve their own problems rather than seek support.

      Effective support-group leaders periodically poll the members to keep the right current balance between their needs for venting, validating, learning and problem-solving ("business"), and just socializing together.

      A benefit I’ve heard some busy re/married mates voice is that their co-parent meetings provided a regular "date" night - a scheduled time alone to talk, plan, and just enjoy each other. Also, good friendships for adults and their respective kids can evolve from a series of support-group meetings and multi-family events.

      A final reason people attend mutual-help groups is to satisfy...

The Needs for Encouragement and Hope

      Typical stepfamily problems are concurrent, and often feel alien. Several years of failed attempts to reduce these stressors can erode hope for effective solutions in the strongest optimist. As hope dwindles, so may courage and stamina to keep trying.

      If confused, weary, and discouraged co-parents are uncomfortable seeking professional help (or can't find any), they may hope that "going to a group" will solve their problems. Usually that won’t work, since support groups and therapy groups are very different in objectives, design, leadership, and process. Ideally, support-group members can tell when a newcomer needs professional help. and have a referral list of local stepfamily-informed mental-health professionals.

      Whether in a crisis or not, all stepfamily co-parents need sincere, credible encouragement that they can learn to manage their problems. This is a powerful reason to start or join a group, because many co-parents don't know other stepfamily veterans to talk with.

      Bottom line: adults (and kids!) in typical multi-home stepfamilies often need to vent, feel validated and encouraged, learn what's normal, solve their confusing relationship problems, socialize, help others in need, and strengthen realistic hopes.

       Effective co-parent support groups can help fill these concurrent needs. Conversely, ineffective and toxic groups promote impractical and/or harmful advice to those who attend.

 Ways to Start a Co-Parent Support Group

       The initial resource needed to establish a successful co-parent support group is one or several dedicated people. If you are one, Bravo! 

           To begin, group founders can... 

  • set clear group guidelines and goals in advance, then seek participants who agree with these goals; or...

  • get an initial co-parent gathering together and evolve a support-group structure and objectives from their collective input, orů

  • set some loose guidelines first, then refine them to fit whoever shows interest. 

The last option is the one I've seen work most often.

      For perspective on these options, let's look at... 

Five Types of Support-Group Participants

       Though there are many variations, the people I've seen who regularly attend co-parent support groups fall into five general categories. One trait common to these five types is one or both mates being psychologically wounded and unaware, and not knowing what that means.

      Type 1: Previously divorced or single people who have a serious new relationship growing but aren't yet committed. They may or may not be living together. These people are aware they're a stepfamily-to-be (vs. denying that), and want to "get it right" this time for their and their kids’ sakes.

      Such people are probably not in a stepfamily crisis. They - specially divorcing bioparents - want to learn relevant, accurate how-to information in advance. They’re drawn to hearing veteran co-parents tell of their experiences (and solutions), and knowledgeable guest speakers describe aspects of stepfamily life.

      These "newby" co-parents are apt to be more idealistic than...

      Type 2: Re/married couples who are feeling confused and somewhat stressed. They’ve been living together for months or a few years, and are probably finding their stepfamily doesn’t feel like what they were expecting. One or both partners may acknowledge they’re a stepfamily (or a "blended family"), but they probably don’t really know what that means.

      In these couples, one mate (usually a stepmom) is more interested in finding and joining a support group than the other. Type 2 people are likely to be in a custodial (vs. visitation) stepfamily home. They often have begun to encounter serious values and loyalty conflicts, and are uneasy about them. These pairs may or may not have conceived "ours" kids together. One or more of the stepkids may be "acting out" at home and/or school, and/or an ex mate has been "causing problems."

      While open to learning, Type 2’s have a higher need for validation than Type 1’s, because they feel somewhat blamed, misunderstood, guilty, self-doubtful, and anxious. The newcomer may feel frustrated their spouse isn’t solidly enthused about coming - or isn't there.

      Another kind of support-seeker is...

      Type 3Adults or couples in a major crisis, who are desperate for effective answers to their conflicts. They may or may not be in therapy, and may be interested in the group on their own or because a counselor referred them. Usually, these partners differ in their motivation to participate in a group, and/or have different motives (needs).

       These co-parents may frustrate other group members, because they’re scared, confused, and conflicted. They may be more interested in explaining and justifying their side of the battle, blaming (their partner, stepkid, or others), and griping ("Ain't it awful?"), than in mutual problem-solving.

      These co-parents can use up much group time doing these things and wanting the group to "prove" their mate or ex is "wrong" or "bad." Typical type-3 couples don’t know how to do win-win problem solving, and use these lose-lose alternatives. They may resist learning how to problem-solve out of misplaced pride or unconscious fear.

      Type 4: Re/married co-parents who would rather meet with same-gender peers ("Let’s have a stepmoms’ group!"). For a variety of reasons, they seem to be more interested in venting, validation, socializing, and commiserating than effective co-ed re/marital problem-solving.

      Since 1981 I’ve seen a number of such groups form among female co-parents and none among their men. Understandably, gay co-parents tend to fall in this fourth group of prospects, though they may truly seek problem-solving.

      Finally, there is...

      Type 5: A large group of couples are dating seriously or committed, and both mates deny or ignore their stepfamily identity. These pairs don’t know what they need to know about avoiding or resolving complex stepfamily problems.

      If they see an ad for your group, these people think "that doesn’t apply to us." They often become the Type 3 "crisis" couples that come to a group when they have major trouble. Skillful support-group advertising or the advice of an informed minister, doctor, or co-parent friend may motivate such people to try one meeting.

      You can use this typology to decide who your group is designed to serve.

Planning the First Meeting

      If you’re considering forming a support group, do you have any help so far? It’s more fun and less work if you can find at least one other person to team with you in planning and running the first meeting. If you can’t find a partner who’ll commit direct participation, can you find an advisor who has started some kind of support group before? Stepfamily couples who empower a support group together often seem to harvest important relationship and social benefits...

      The aim of the first gathering is to meet one or more stepfamily co-parents who are willing to help form a co-parent (vs. stepparent) support group. 

Set Realistic Expectations

       I’ve seen many instances where enthusiastic organizers put a lot of effort into planning and advertising a first support-group event. They expected dozens of participants (in the greater Chicago area) - only to find fewer than 10 people came. The organizers felt disappointed and frustrated, and saw their effort as a failure. Actually, that’s a pretty good first turnout.

      Some reasons why stepfamily adults don’t throng to even the best-promoted first meeting are...

      Many courting co-parents often don’t identify (yet) as a stepfamily. Or if they do, they’re apt to believe idealistically "Our love will get us through." Either way, they see little point in seeking "stepfamily" or "co-parent" support. And...

      Many co-parents choose jammed lives, and feel they have "too little time." Unless they're in a crisis, attending a self-help group is a low priority activity. And...

      Average stepfamilies have more minor kids (say three or more) than their biofamily counterparts (one to three). That means less "free" couple time. (Paradox: attending a support group is one of the best investments of time and energy co-parents can make!)

      Other reasons for not attending...

      One group of veteran (re/married) co-parents feel "OK enough," so they see little need to get support. The other veteran group does acknowledge significant problems and is uneasy or ashamed to admit that publicly by going to a support group. Most U.S. stepfamily mates have been divorced at least once. To admit that a second (or third) primary relationship feels rocky is pretty scary. It’s safer to stay home. And...

      If the support group seems to be linked to a church, hospital, or a mental health organization, some co-parents’ negative biases get triggered: "Looks like a group for sick divorced people (or "Jesus freaks") - no thanks!

      Another reality is that - because of inherited shame and distrust -  some ethnic groups can be specially private about their family affairs. Relatives can be scathingly critical if a family member "goes public" in a support group. Similarly, Some religious communities teach that divorce is sinful, and re/marriage is either invalid or blasphemous. Social pressure can powerfully inhibit such co-parents from trying out a support group. 

      The least obvious low-attendance factor (I think) is that most stepfamily adults seem to come from low-nurturance (traumatic) childhoods. Most such Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) learned long ago to be extremely independent, and not risk asking for or accepting help. This has to do with having been repeatedly let down by key early caregivers, feeling unworthy of help, and distrusting any that's offered.

      Despite these combined factors, the odds are high that there are co-parents in your community who are motivated to meet and exchange stepfamily help.

Motivating People to Come... 

      There are several ways to motivate (most) such people to attend an initial gathering. Here are four options I’ve seen work - i.e. five or more co-parents (vs. couples) show up:

      1) Advertise a support-group "organizing" meeting. This is the least-effort and most direct route. In my experience, it’s also the least likely to work. Despite tentative interest, most of us (who may feel over-committed to begin with) aren’t excited about going to an unknown place to have an "administrative" meeting with some strangers. (Have you ever been to a fun or "really satisfying" organizational meeting?) 

      Still, it’s worth trying. You may harvest even one other person who will team up with you to try another approach. You might also connect with a sponsor. Any advertisement will alert your community that there are stepfamilies "out there," who have needs and issues too...

      Another option is to...

      2) Hold a public information program. Given the right advertising "spin," this kind of initial support-group event can seem very interesting, or even fun! Several options:

  • A moderated panel of veteran co-parents, step-teens, or both, describing their stepfamily experiences and recommendations. To raise interest and energy, invite audience questions and supportive comments as part of the process. My experience is that a moderated panel of four to six people provides a lively, interesting 90" meeting.

  • A presentation about a key stepfamily topic by a qualified speaker; or...

  • Showing and discussing a stepfamily film or video; and/or...

  • Advertise a safe, educational stepfamily role-playing exercise.

      A third option for your first meeting is...

      3)  Advertise to a select audience like these:

  • Single-parent support groups like Parents Without Partners (PWP). Such groups are full of Type 1 prospects and a few twice-divorced parents. Search the Net for possibilities;

  • Church congregations or their adult-education committees and groups;

  • Family-related support groups like "Rainbows" and "Tough Love." These often have a high percentage of (troubled and highly motivated Type 3 and 4 stepfamily co-parents;

  • Parents who've been notified through a school or district PTO / PTA mailing; and… 

  • Community college or other local adult-education classes focusing on family and parenting topics.

      Lesson 7 here offers many stepfamily articles which can help design an interest-building presentation.

      During the introduction to any such program, mention that ideas for - and interest in - an ongoing support group will be invited toward the end. Promoting small and large group discussions during these programs starts a co-parent bonding and identity-building process. I’ve found consistently that there's a surge of enthusiasm as the co-parent participants discover mutual stepfamily interests, experiences, and conflicts - and a wish to share more.  

      Unless the program is too long, poorly organized, or too late in the day, many participants are often energized and "up" for discussing an ongoing co-parent support group! At the close of such initial events, ask any people interested in forming a support group to meet with you briefly. Plan time for this. 

      Confirm their initial interest, and invite them to a planning, exploratory, or brain-storming meeting. Get names, phone numbers, referrals to other people or groups who might be interested, and clear commitments for one more meeting. Iron out any scheduling conflicts. Describe the positive benefits of a viable support group clearly.

      Another way to start a group is to...

      4) Offer a stepfamily class. I’ve given dozens of 18-hour co-parent classes since 1981. My experience is that the "best" class format...

  • is for 12 to 16 people. Couples are encouraged, but not required; 

  • has clear, enforced group rules about punctuality, committed attendance, fees (if any), smoking, breaks, refreshments, and confidentiality; and...

  • is clearly educational, not therapy (i.e. deep emotional venting or serious interpersonal fighting is out of bounds); and...

  • covers the major interests and needs (above) of the attendees over time;

      And the most effective class format... 

  • mixes presentations with small and large group discussions at each session; and...

  • focuses on topical problem definitions and positive solution options; and...

  • includes handouts summarizing key points, and uses worksheets to promote couple and group discussions and value clarifications; and... 

  • is informative, supportive, safe, and (at times) fun!

          One benefit to offering a pre-structured class is that real group trust and bonding usually bloom across the class sessions. I’ve found often that as such a class ends, the participants don’t want to lose the empathy and comradeship that have developed. The suggestion to keep meeting - and perhaps expanding to include others in the community - is often welcome. 

          Option: tailor Lesson 7 content to fit your situation.

           OK - if you’ve done one or more of these first meetings, hopefully you’ll have harvested several other co-parents solidly interested in forming a support group. Now what?  

     The Next Meetings: Getting Organized

           When this group-planning meeting (or series) is over, you want to have forged ...

  • Initial group trust,

  • shared feelings of common purpose, commitment, and optimism;

  • a good-enough agreement on issues like those below, and...

  • agreements on who's going to do what next.


      Start each organization meeting with a summary of the general purpose, and the meeting’s agenda. Initially, ask people for...

  • their preferred name;

  • brief background on their stepfamily structure, status, and experience;

  • why they're interested in starting a group;

  • any experience in organizing or participating in a support group; and...

  • "What do you hope we accomplish at this meeting?"

  • any concerns for this meeting about smoking, confidentiality, and ending times.

Set the tone by saying that you’ve gathered to brainstorm, and any ideas or thoughts are welcome, no matter how weird or far-fetched.

ALERT! I’ve often seen an extra-needy person or couple vent at great length and take the meeting over. Avoid that by reminding everyone before they come and as you start that this is planning meeting, and that future meetings will provide the chance for sharing. 

      Be assertive and persistent on staying focused so you all feel it was a productive meeting when you finish.

      Links below lead to answers on the next page or click the "top" limk. Use your browser's back button to return here

    Useful Organizing Topics

          Questions to discuss at your organizing meeting/s include...

      1)  What are our co-parent support-group goals?

      2)  Membership: who is our group for - and not for?

      3)  How will we recruit or attract new members?

      4)  Who do we want to make referrals to us? How shall we invite them?

      5)  What kind of image do we want to present to our community, if any?

      6)  Should we limit our size? How big?

      7)  Site options: where will we meet?

      8)  What should our meeting format be?

      9)  How often should we meet? For how long (per meeting)?

      10) Will we need to raise funds? For what? When? How?

      11)  Do we want a local business sponsor or affiliate organization? If so - who? Costs (risks, obligations, limits) and Benefits?

      12) Should we have a newsletter? For just group members, or others? Containing what?

      13) Do we need professional (clinical) backup and/or other resource people? Why? Who? Should we offer child care?

            The next links go to a new window. Close it to return here.

      14)  What group-process rules and guidelines will help us meet our goals?

      15) Should we try to compile a resource library? Of what? How?

      16) Should we have a group name and/or logo?

      17) Who’s in charge of what, for now? An effective leader will ask for volunteers to be responsible for coordinating key group-process functions like registration, refreshments, resurces, publicity, special events, a social-media page, and a newsletter.

18) Add any questions that fit your unique situation.

The resulting list forms an agenda for your organizational meetings. As you see, there’s a lot to decide! If this looks daunting, one option is to rank-order these topics by relevance to getting your group underway. 

      Another option is to rough-draft answers to some or most of these questions, and evolve firmer policies as you gain members and group experience. You don’t have to decide all these at once!

      Review all these questions one at time with your planners. Decide those you can, then ask for volunteers to work on options for some or all of the remaining questions. Have them bring back their ideas and recommendations to the next planning meeting. Investing patient, focused effort in group design (vs. jumping right in) really pays off, over time!

      My experience with over 15 co-parent support groups suggests that there is no one best group design. The mosaic of personal, couple, and stepfamily situations that your participants bring will form a unique blend of needs. To succeed, your group members should value getting clear on their respective needs and working together to fill them.

+ + +

       Decisions on these organizing questions form your group's policies, which should support your mission or vision statement. For clarity and consistency, summarize and write down these policies to use in advertising your group and informing new people.

question mark  What are our main support-group goals ?

      David Campbell titles his job-counseling book "If You Don’t Know Where You Want To Go - You’ll Probably End Up Somewhere Else." In the same vein, a support group without clear goals is like the proverbial boat without a rudder.

      I suggest evolving a concise (i.e. one or two paragraphs), clear mission statement - early - and reading it at the start of each meeting to focus everyone. This is specially helpful when new people are present.

       Basically, you’re coming together to fill members’ special needs to...

  • Vent - i.e. be empathically heard and...

  • Feel validated and accepted by co-parenting peers

  • Clarify, validate, and get effective solutions to current stepfamily problems

  • Learn relevant stepfamily norms, realities, and resources

  • Reduce stepfamily co-parenting isolation

  • Heal pre-re/marriage wounds

  • Raise the quality and effectiveness of your co-parenting

  • Socialize and enjoy each other’s company

  • Offer a vital resource to each other and the people of your community.

       Can you think of other needs the group can fill? Discussion and your increasing support-group experience may generate other key goals for you all.  

question mark  Who is our group for - and not for?

           Your co-parent support group may be for...

  • Any re/married adults, adults considering re/marriage, or both;

  • Stepparents only, stepmoms(dads) only, or stepparents and bioparents ("co-parents");

  • Couples only, or any interested individuals, or whole stepfamilies.

  • The general public, or just members of a sponsoring church congregation or community.

      My experience is the best option is to invite all interested prospective and veteran stepfamily co-parents, up to your group size-limit (if any). Couples are strongly encouraged, and individuals are welcome. All-stepfamily gatherings or events (including minor and/or grown kids, and maybe interested kin) may happen several times a year (e.g. a holiday meeting), with group consensus.

      Having separate meetings for members’ kids is wonderful - and a lot of work. If you have several adults who are experienced and willing to commit to organizing and supervising periodic meetings for your older pre-teens or teens - great!

      An important membership consideration has to do with the depth of people’s needs: Unless you have a qualified therapist attending and facilitating regularly, be clear that your support group is not meant as a substitute for qualified professional counseling. State that clearly in any verbal and media advertising, and include it in your mission statement.

      Some signs indicating that professional help is warranted: (even joking) comments about suicide or murder; extreme depression, anxiety, paranoia, or reality distortion; descriptions of family physical or verbal abuse or neglect obvious addicted to chemicals, activities, or people; couples arguing violently in the group; inappropriate sexual conduct at home or in the group; and the like.

      See "screening prospects" and "resource people" below for options. It’s a good idea to ask people who are high on any chemicals to stay home or leave.

question mark  How shall we recruit new members?

question mark  Who do we want to make referrals to us?

question mark  How shall we invite that?

      Once you’re clear on what you’re all trying to do, and for whom, you’re in a place to advertise. From my experience, there are some Do's and Don'ts about effectively publicizing your co-parents' support group for an initial meeting, or a regular meeting.

Terminology Can Be Key

      Some people may be turned off by, or not understand, the terms "stepfamily"  or "stepparent" (mental associations: wicked, second-best, etc.). Alternative publicity adjectives are blended or reconstituted (also confusing), remarriage, or second-marriage families.

      Fortunately, the negative bias against "step-" seems to be shrinking, as people get used to this "new" type of normal family (estimated to be about one of five U.S. households, in many places...).

       Advertising a "stepparent’s" group potentially leaves out the many bioparents who are married to a stepparent, but have no stepkids. They need just as much support! Better alternatives are to say clearly you’re a group for "stepfamily adults", or "stepfamily co-parents", or "stepparents and their partners" - if you are.

       The most effective support-group recruiting publicity seems to be periodic human-interest stories in your community paper, with a photo or two. Focusing on an actual couple or family will get people's attention, and lead them into reading about and considering your support group.

      Notices in the community- meeting section of local papers, as well as radio and cable and network TV public-service announcements (usually free) work well. These often need to be submitted in writing to the newspaper or broadcast station two or three weeks in advance of the event.

Other places to advertise

  • (Liberal) church bulletins and newsletters

  • Middle and high-school district PTO/PTA newsletters

  • Local-government and organizational flyers - e.g. park district, junior college, hospital, or public mental health center adult education programs

  • Public and private counseling agencies - including hospital outpatient departments, and mental health, family-medicine, and family-law private-practitioners, are usually glad to know of support groups to make selective referrals to them.

  • Have your members tell their doctors, pediatricians, dieticians, pharmacists, and dentists of your support group when they visit. Perhaps 20% of their patients are in stepfamilies!

  • Divorce-mediation and family-law lawyers can be helpful, too - if they clearly understand you don’t need emotionally chaotic or warring people...

  • Colorful posters can attract wide attention in high-traffic places like libraries, grocery and drug stores, fast-food outlets, copying centers, video-rental stores, entrances to public transportation, etc

  • Local banks or realty offices may allow reputably-sponsored organizations to include co-parent support-group flyers in their mailings

  • Local single-parent support-groups may have newsletters which will advertise you. Even if they do, visit their meetings periodically and describe your group. About 70% of U.S. single moms and dads remarry within five to seven years...

      See if local organizations are sponsoring any "Rainbows" (grief-support) groups. Often the kids in them are in stepfamilies. Also, a majority of the adults in "ToughLove" support groups are (pretty troubled) stepfamily co-parents of teens. Search the Web for info on them.

      Some liberal ministers may agree to make referrals and/or post notices. Ministers who re/marry couples are potentially the best people to alert new stepfamily co-parents of what they’re (all) getting into. Clergy and other counselors are often handicapped by lack of qualified stepfamily training and direct experience.

      If one or more of your members is computer-literate, consider creating a home page on the Internet. If your local city government and/or a local major hospital has their own home page, they may be willing to include a listing for your group as a community resource.

      One way of advertising is to invite relevant community people to sit in on a meeting or two - specially if they’re re/married. Typical human-service professionals have no comprehensive idea of the scope and kind of problems stepfamily co-parents and their kids are routinely faced with. When they hear some typical stories from your members, they may gain empathy and motivation to refer people (and/or funders!) to your group.

      Build a mailing list of potential referral sources from your phone book, and send a descriptive flyer every quarter or so. The more planned and thought-out your group design, and the more established you are, the more likely such organizations and people will be to endorse and cooperate with your group - specially if they're are in a stepfamily!

question mark  What kind of image do we want to present to our community?

       Some options about key themes you want the public to "get" about your support group from your advertising:

  • We’re here for all (adult?) members of potential or actual stepfamilies with live-in and/or visiting, minor and/or grown stepkids;

  • We are (or are not) affiliated with any local religious or mental health organization, or a 12-step movement;

  • Our primary purposes are education and re/marital and stepfamily support (vs. therapy), because millions of U.S. stepfamilies ultimately re/divorce;

  • We are an open, drop-in (or call-first) group, with clear confidentiality policies (if you are);

  • We strive to be realistic, informed stepfamily and re/marriage optimists committed to helping our members finding effective solutions to their problems. We are not here to gripe or complain (if true).

question mark  Should we have a group size limit? How big is too big?

      My experience is that eight to 16 people per meeting is optimal. Less than seven or eight people seems to be under the "critical mass" that will attract and hold group interest and loyalty.

      That’s partly because there are so many stepfamily variations, a small group lowers the chance that attendees will meet "someone a lot like me/us". More people means more potential experience, wisdom, and creativity to draw on for solutions.

       More than around 16 participants risks too many who need to vent at a meeting, and some winding up feeling "cut-off" or frustrated. Large-group decision-making gets lengthy and cumbersome, too. Often, a major group-size factor is the capacity and facilities of the meeting site. Either can determine the other...

question mark  What should our meeting format (agenda) be?

      Your co-parents' support group can be on a continuum between totally structured to completely unstructured. My experience is that moderately structured often works best. That means have a loose, standard format, like...

  • An opening,

  • A "working" (learning, venting, and/or problem-solving) segment,

  • A short refreshment break,

  • Some socializing / administrative time, and ...

  • A closing.

      The opening is an important ritual which builds group identity and "gets everyone in the mood." Options:

  • Welcome and introduce any new and/or resource people present;

  • Someone read the group’s brief mission (and maybe policy) statements;

  • Each person give a brief statement of what they're feeling right now if they wish to;

  • Some groups may want a brief prayer, meditation, or inspirational idea;

  • Review this meeting’s agenda; and...

  • Ask "Who needs air time?"

      "Working time" is where everyone attends their needs to vent, exchange affirmation, clarify, learn, problem-solve, and belong. Again, you have several options:

Invite each member to "check in" or "pass": introduce themselves, if new people are present, and describe briefly (~ 5" each) how they are, and any important stepfamily or re/marital events, problems, and successes. This may be the place to learn if they need air time;

Have a guest speaker focus on some topic relevant to most (or ideally all) people present, followed by discussion;

Have "air time," where a few members speak at length about their current stepfamily situation, and get feedback if desired;

Do focused problem-solving for member/s who asks for it, and/or ...

If you’re doing a self-led stepfamily class together, do one segment of the class;

Take a break, get refreshed, and regroup. Then...

Attend any administrative business (funding, advertising, recruiting, planning, etc.),

Relax and socialize, or …

Complete any unfinished matters from the "working time."

      Close the meeting: perhaps with a (physical) friendship circle, a prayer, a summary of what you’ve just done together (specially positive options and solutions that emerged), and/or an expression of thanks and encouragement to troubled members and to all.

      You may choose to ask each person to say what they're aware of, as you end. However you design it, your closing segment is a powerful way of forging group identity, loyalty, community, and continuity. Some 12-step and other groups close with "Keep coming back - it (our group) works!"

       The "looseness" of such a meeting format comes from your ability to mold each segment to fit your collective circumstances at the time. Sometimes you’ll have a speaker, other times not. Sometimes you’ll have a lot of administration subbjects, other times little or none. 

      Sometimes many people will need air time, other times everyone will be in a pretty good space and will just enjoy socializing. The one constant at every meeting is your members' set of common needs to vent / validate / learn / problem-solve / belong, and socialize, / help, and / build optimism and hope.

      My experience is that co-parent support groups who’s meeting agendas are consistently free-form (i.e. the meeting agenda is no agenda) don’t last long. Similarly, groups that are run with an over-rigid schedule and format are a turn-off for all but people with high needs for structure . So you’re looking for a dynamic balance of these that usually works for enough of your members …

      An important administrative task is for the group leader/s to periodically poll all members on their comfort level with the average meeting format, and to adjust the format if enough people want to. You’ll evolve your own best-fit routine over time.

question mark  Where will we meet?

       Options: (a) member’s homes, or (b) somewhere else. Your group's basic needs are a nearby bathroom, moveable, comfortable chairs (ideally), "enough" elbow room and quiet, a sink and counter space, an accessible public phone, perhaps a refrigerator, and places for parking and hanging up any heavy-weather clothes.

      Many co-parent support groups I’ve been in have rotated the hosting responsibilities among the members. This was partly because no one could find a suitable "outside" site.

      The advantages to this approach are economy (free), simplicity (no outside people to negotiate with), and all sharing the site-prep and refreshment responsibilities. The disadvantages are (a) group size may be limited to fit the smallest home/s, and (b) often, phones, kids, and pets can be distracting.

      Possible non-home sites can include meeting rooms at a local church, school, civic building (library, park district, city hall, ...), hospital, business, or a public or private mental health agency. One Chicago group found a comfortable (free) home in a local realty office’s conference room.

      Again, where choice exists, you may lower chances of limiting group attendance by avoiding church and mental-health sites, and people’s (unfortunate) related biases. Conversely, some people would be attracted because you were in a church...

question mark  Meet when, how often, and how long?

      These choices will evolve from your group’s unique personality. The norm I’ve seen is to meet once or twice a month, on a week night or early Sunday evening, for two to two and a half hours. For eight or more people, meeting for less than that often doesn’t allow enough air and administrative time. That breeds frustration and dropouts.

question mark  Do we need to raise funds? For what? When? How?

      How will you pay for postage, advertising, printing, space, refreshments, speakers, educational kits, and supplies? Many groups use a combination of passing the hat at each meeting, fund-raisers, and soliciting community or participant donations (of supplies, copying service, or space, vs. money). 

      Fund raisers can take many forms: car washes, bake and garage sales, wine tasting or meet-the-cast parties, artist benefit performances, mail solicitations, raffles, etc. These can be fun group-building events as well as work. They provide good community advertising, too.

      My experience suggests that unless your group gets "big," the idea of fixed dues and formal memberships is generally a turnoff. Dues take time to account for, can imply exclusivity or formality, and will take periodic group time in discussion and haggling.

      Their advantage is that they provide regular and (fairly) predictable income, enabling more or "wider" activities. Who in your group will handle the money-management responsibilities?

question mark  Do we want a local business sponsor or affiliate organization?  If so, who? Costs and benefits?

      A well-known community organization's endorsement of your co-parental support group can lend it instant credibility. Mental health agencies, hospitals, clinics, or churches, however, carry a mix of associations for prospective attendees.

      If any such sponsor already has a good community reputation for unbiased and positive family-life education programs, fine. Otherwise, if you advertise such sponsorship prominently you may get credibility - and limit the scope of the people who'll try out the group because of biases about or against such organizations.

question mark  Should we compile a resource library? Of what? How?

      Typical co-parents often don’t know what they don’t know about stepfamily norms, co-parental tasks, special stepchild needs, and effective solutions. One solution to this is to provide informed stepfamily education. Your support group is a perfect place to do this!

      Collect printed and media stepfamily information that members contribute, or you buy with group funds. Make it available for loan or purchase at your meetings, and build motivation for members to use it.

      Develop and maintain a stepfamily bibliography and resource list, and pass it out to members and community libraries, hospitals, mental health centers, churches, and school counseling departments. See if one of your members will be your group's "resource director" (!), and coordinate this key project...

Option: as you do this, consider these guidelines for selecting useful stepfamily books, and avoiding inaccurate, impractical, and toxic resources.

       Some good stepfamily information sources:

The articles and worksheets in this Web site - specially those in Lesson 7;

The nonprofit National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)

Searchable online bookstores like Amazon.com, and these...

Online stepfamily resources

    question mark  Should we have a group newsletter and/or Web site? For just our members, or others, too? Who? Containing what? Published how 0ften? In print, and/or via online social media?

       A newsletter is hard work - and an effective way of welcoming new members; advertising your support group's presence, agendas, events, and any donors' or sponsors' services; distributing useful stepfamily facts or articles; and promoting a feeling of "group-ness" and continuity.

      Many stepfamily and stepparenting Web sites offer newsletters, teswources, and blogs. Browse and see what appeals to you (format, content, length, tone, layout, etc.).

question mark  Do we need professional backup and/or other resource people? Why? Who?

      Besides your participants, there are three kinds of resource people that can add a lot to the quality and effectiveness of your support group:

  • knowledgeable guest speakers,

  • qualified clinicians, and...

  • support-group and public-relations consultants.

Before selecting any, read and discuss this.

      "Knowledgeable speakers" are any local people who have stepfamily-relevant knowledge, and the time and heart to share it. At the head of the list of experts are your older stepkids! Close behind are your co-grandparents and other stepfamily relatives.

      Other options include family-law lawyers or judges, professional (post- divorce) mediators, specialized teachers and therapists (including clergy), and consultants in child development, relationships, parenting, verbal communications, and family finances.

       Qualified clinicians can be psychiatrists (MDs), clinical (vs. research) psychologists, clinical and psychiatric social workers, or marriage-and-family and pastoral counselors. "Qualified" here means they have - in addition to therapy fundamentals and experience - some special interest and training in, and experience with, the topics in this course and these common problems

       It’s a great asset to build and use a referral list of qualified local mental-health professionals and local support organizations (like Rainbows, Tough Love, and Mothers Without Custody) for steppeople in crisis. Such resource people can be  excellent guest speakers.

       Don’t hesitate to ask qualified clinical people to help your group! Many mental-health professionals are interested in the chance to help (and learn!), and in possible sources of client or patient referrals. Some professionals are stepfamily co-parents themselves!

      The third type of helpful support-group resource persons are consultants who have special experience and training in establishing and maintaining a flourishing non-therapy support group. Such people may be lay or professional, and local or distant.

      Local public and private mental-health agencies, hospitals, and larger churches usually sponsor a range of public support groups. They may have a group liaison person or coordinator who would advise for free, and/or point you at other local resource people.

      Effective Support Group - concluded on p. 2