Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily

Group Role-play Exercise: Form a Stepfamily

Learn What a Becoming a New
Stepfamily Feels Like
- p. 1 of 6

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council

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      One of five hazards that stress most stepfamilies is unawareness of what's normal in this type of family. This 5-part, 3-hour role-play exercise will help 12 or more adults and/or teens experience some aspects of forming a new stepfamily.


Summary and Purpose

      Lectures about being in a stepfamily don’t convey what it feels like. This   exercise gives participants a chance to experience some of the confusions, dilemmas, and conflicts by forming participants into three to five-member “biofamilies,” and guiding them safely through two (truncated) phases of family change.

     The parts of this experience are:

1) Introductions, context, and role-play guidelines; (15” - 20”)

2) Small groups: Form a typical two-adult, two-child biofamily (~30”); 

3) Biofamilies confront common divorce decisions, as Dad, and perhaps one or both kids,  move out (~30”);

4) Form a typical new stepfamily by Dad re/marrying a divorced biomom with two kids, including planning the stepfamily’s first three-home Thanksgiving (~45”).

5) Large group debrief: ask participants what this role play felt like (~45” – 60”). 

      Participants will learn more if they don’t know the themes of parts 3 and 4 before experiencing them. 

Possible Settings

This group exercise can be useful in a wide range of situations…

  • As a stand-alone family-life education event for adults (e.g. single parents), high school students, or families;

  • Before other stepfamily-related seminars or events, to raise participants’ interest, awareness, and receptivity;

  • After other stepfamily-related seminars or events, to experientially illuminate and validate key points that were made, like membership, loyalty, and values conflicts.

  • As part of a co-parent support-group program, specially if kids participate. 

  • As part of a professional in-service program, to help apprentice and practicing clinicians or teachers better empathize with stepfamily clients or students.

  • To raise the stepfamily awareness of family-law professionals: e.g. divorce attorneys, judges, and mediators.

  • As part of a county, state, or church divorce-awareness program for separated or divorcing couples.

  • As part of the curriculum for prospective pastoral counselors and clergy.

  • As an awareness-raising exercise for family-law legislators, and law enforcement professionals.


This exercise needs at least 12 participants and one or more leaders. If there are more people, they can role-play or be small-group observers. Participants can be all teens, teens and adults, or adults. 

There can be one or two leaders (two is best) who need to be thoroly knowledgeable about stepfamilies and the parts of this exercise.

Participants can be in a stepfamily now or not.

Participants need to know this exercise will take about three hours. The leader/s need to monitor the elapsed time of each part to avoid rushing to finish on time.

Participants should view this as a safe learning exercise based on realistic role-playing, not a game or parody. People who are uncomfortable with divorce and/or re/marriage can compensate by clowning or joking about aspects of this role-play. That detracts from everyone's' learning.

Setting and Materials

      This exercise is best done in a comfortable, spacious, quiet area with movable chairs. The room should be large enough so that talking in adjacent small groups won’t distract each other. Alternatively, use “break out” rooms for each small group, though this makes directing the exercise harder and reduces participants’ peripheral learnings.

The group needs access to bathrooms and coat racks, and perhaps amenities for the disabled.

Consider providing refreshments 

Each participant will need a copy of three worksheets and something to write with and on. Leaders may choose to provide copies of several reference articles noted below.

Have a chalkboard or flipchart pad on which to summarize instructions and  collect group responses.

Leader/s (two is best)

The facilitators need to…

  • Be familiar with all five parts of the exercise,

  • Be at ease directing and facilitating a group of 12+ adults and/or teens, including handling group questions, and making process decisions as the exercise unfolds;

  • Have a watch or easily-visible wall clock

  • Be familiar with these resources:

The lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle

The five common re/marriage hazards

Basic stepfamily facts, Q&A, myths, and problems

Structural differences between stepfamilies and intact biofamilies

Typical adjustment tasks for co-parents and kids,

Typical new-stepfamily mergers

Solutions to these three common stressors, and…

This example of a real stepfamily

  • Ideally, have life experience with marriage, child conception and parenting, divorce, and re/marriage. (The “/” notes that it may be a stepparent’s first union.)

Leader's Guide

      This describes how to conduct the five parts of the role-play, including process and content options. Tailor these to design your version of this experience.

Part 1) Introduction (~20")

Welcome and settle participants, and introduce yourself. Hand out any materials, except worksheets 2 and 3. Option: hand out copies of these stepfamily facts and hazards. If you do, participants may start scanning them and tune you out.

Invite each participant to say a little about who they are and why they came to the group. Ask:

if anyone has lived in a stepfamily as a child or adult. Note anyone who says “Yes,” for they can comment on the reality of this role-play, in part 5. 

how many have living or dead kids, and perhaps who has the youngest and oldest kids in this group.

if anyone is a grandparent, and perhaps who has the most siblings. You’ll ask later about their divorce experience.

If they’ve ever had any training in stepfamily relationships before.

Summarize the purpose of this role-play experience. Put it in context of any related classes, seminars, programs, or events – e.g. explain (generally) what you’re all going to do together, and why (Omit any detail about parts 3 and 4).

      Highlight the rationale for this role-play - e.g. “The experience we’re about to create together will help you understand some key stepfamily dynamics so they won't surprise you in real life.”

Emphasize this is a safe learning experience, not therapy.

Describe (a) what participants will be asked to do, and (b) guidelines for keeping safe and comfortable enough. For example…

“This is a 5-part experience that will last (about) three hours. Each part builds on the parts before it. I’ll answer any questions that may come up as we go, and I’ll watch the time, and help pace and focus you. At the end, we’ll discuss your experiences, and recap what you learned.

“This is a fairly life-like role-play of adults and kids in evolving family situations. It is not meant to be a satire or a game. You’ll help each other learn more from this experience if you keep it as realistic as you can.

“Because people may share personal experiences during this exercise, please respect each other’s confidence and privacy. Let’s agree that any personal information you hear stays here, unless the speaker OK’s revealing it to others.

“A lot goes on in this role-play. You may wish to jot notes of key awarenesses, questions, or concerns as you go. Does everyone have something to write with?

“If something upsets you during this exercise, it’s OK to say ‘I need to be quiet for a bit, now,’ or ‘I can’t do that,’ or set some limit that respects your own limits and dignity. If anyone has a problem like this, please raise your hand as we go, and we’ll resolve it together. 

“In this exercise you each have chances to try out new behaviors. In the first step, you’ll be asked to pick a family role to invent and play – a mother, father, or a child between five and 13.

"This is a chance to safely experience a different role than your real-life one. If you’re a male, consider playing a female. If you’re an adult, try out being a son or daughter. This is not about acting skill. It’s about following your instincts and values, to see where they lead you.

 “You’re in charge of being the unique, special you in this experience we’re going to build together. There is no right or wrong here, and no good or bad role-playing. There are just tasks, honest reactions, and new awarenesses. These can help you and others you care about in real life.

If you have special things you want participants to be aware of, identify them here – e.g. “Pay special attention to how you feel, and what you think, as this exercise proceeds. Be alert for things that surprise you, or note things you want to discuss later.”

Ask for questions. Then go around the room and ask each person to say  one or two words about how they feel now, or “I pass.” This exercise is about raising personal and group awareness.

Cover any administrative details, like smoking policy, bathroom locations, telephones, and refreshments. When you feel the group is ready, move into the first part of the role-play.

Part 2) Form Biofamilies (~30”)

Note the time, and let people know this part of the role play will take about 30".

Set the stage: Ask people to describe (a) what they think a “family” is, and (b) what sets families apart from other human groups besides child conception. Note that stepfamily adults and kids always come from a childhood family, and some from a prior first-marriage family.

Choose from these options

      Review the rich mix of family types that comprise our culture: “traditional” biofamily, adoptive, foster, racially and culturally mixed, divorced, widowed, homosexual, step, childless, communal, etc. Each type has some unique attributes. Of these, stepfamilies have the most differences from intact biological (first-marriage) families.

      Briefly discuss the purpose of any family [e.g. "to nurture (consistently fill the needs of each member as they and the world constantly change."]. Option: read this family mission statement

       Note that all families range from…

* “Close” (strong mutual bonds) to “disengaged” (weak bonds), and…

* Low-nurturance (“dysfunctional”) to high-nurturance (“functional”).

      Note that typical stepfamilies differ from intact biofamilies in over 60 structural and dynamic ways. In other ways, they’re just like average biofamilies. Most co-parents (stepparent-bioparent partners) and lay and professional supporters aren’t aware of these differences and what they mean

      This unawareness promotes up to 60 myths about stepfamily life (give several examples). These combine to promote co-parents’ unrealistic expectations, conflicts, and stepfamily stress. Stepfamily unawareness and four other factors cause over half of U.S. stepfamily re/marriages to fail psychologically or legally, despite ~90% of them following one or both mates’ prior divorce.

      This role-play aims to raise participants’ awareness of some key stepfamily realities, like role confusion, anxieties, values and loyalty conflicts, and stressful rela- tionship triangles.

Hand out worksheet 1. Explain that this will guide people through the first part of the role-play. Don’t hand out the other two worksheets yet, to simulate spouses not expecting divorce and re/marriage in real life. 

      Ask people to break into groups of four, per the worksheet. If the number of participants warrants it, groups of three are OK (Mom, Dad, and child 1), but four are better. You need at least three “families” (groups) for the exercise to work.  Ask them to space their groups apart to minimize distracting each other. 

Note: you may wish to use a different occasion than Thanksgiving in this part of the exercise. If so, change the worksheet to reflect that, ask related questions, and make the same changes to worksheet 3.

      If any participants are too uneasy about role-playing, invite them to observe – i.e. to be part of a small group, and keep notes on what they experience, like a reporter. Observers can provide valuable feedback in the last part of the experience.

      If your number of participants isn’t a multiple of four, ask one or more groups to have either three people or five. The fifth person will play the role of a third child, a live-in relative, or be an observer.

      Ask members of each group to introduce themselves to each other, and anything they want their new “family” to know about them in real life (“I have a six-year old son, and grew up in Montana. We’ve had pet ferrets for four years.”)

      Walk through the worksheet, highlighting each task. Explain that each group’s mission is to use the worksheet to invent themselves into a realistic biological (first-marriage) family, in the next ~30”. Encourage people to try a different role than their real-life one/s.

      Answer any questions. When everyone is clear on their mission, note the time, and begin. If a group has problems, ask them to raise a hand. If that happens, monitor the time, and decide whether to make a decision for the group or let them resolve their struggle.

       Circulate quietly among the groups. Listen in unobtrusively to what they’re doing, and keep them on track. If a group is lagging, defocusing, or arguing, guide them. If a group seems to be too intellectual, ask each person how they feel about this process. If they’re too noisy, ask them to stay aware of distracting neighboring “families.” Remind them that there is no right or wrong about what they’re doing – this is not a race or competition! 

     When (a) all groups seem finished “enough” or (b) about 25” has gone by, ask everyone to complete their worksheets and finish up. Invite them to note any current thoughts and emotions.

      Ask any observers to note a few things about what they saw their “family” do, as they invented themselves ; e.g. whether they were nervous, or serious, or intellectual, or their mood shifted, they clowned and avoided engaging, who dominated and who was silent …   

      If people need a quick stretch or bathroom break, do that now. Don’t debrief yet - that comes in part 5. Reconvene people in their biofamily groups.

Part 3) Biofamily Divorce

Set the stage: Note that…

      “About half of typical American first-marriage couples divorce legally. About 75% of them have one or more kids. The majority of divorced or widowed bioparents re/marry within seven years of divorce. About nine of 10 average U.S. stepfamilies follow the divorce of one or both new partners, vs. mate death.

      “Divorced biofamilies with kids don’t end, they reorganize. They split into two homes, which are linked for decades by parent-child love and responsibilities, genes, traditions, memories, losses, emotions, expectations, needs, finances, and legal contracts.

      Ask how many people come from a divorced childhood family. Then ask, if they’re willing to say, how many are divorced parents. Frame any who answer as valuable resource people on what’s about to happen.

      Tell people the biofamily they just co-created is divorcing, and about to separate. Repeatif anything in this part of the role-play upsets anyone too much, encourage him or her to honor their feelings and needs without guilt. 

      Note what happens to the emotional “tone” or energy level among the large group now.

      Option: check with any observers to see if they’d like to participate in the next two parts of the role-play as a grandparent.

Hand out worksheet 2 and walk through it with everyone. Hilight:

“The goal of this part of the role-play is to raise your awareness of (a) some key decisions that typical divorcing families with minor kids face, and (b) how the biofamily’s reorganizing feels to each family member. 

 “There are no right-wrong decisions here, only normal human reactions. 

      Ask participants to note what each of them is losing as this step unfolds. A key aspect of divorced families and all stepfamilies is the need to grieve important losses (broken emotional bonds, or attachments). Typical divorced adults and their kids don’t identify or discuss what they’ve lost, which makes healthy grieving harder.

      Note that for the sake of the role-play, Dad is moving to a new dwelling within 40 miles – with or without any kids. Obviously in real life, Moms leave too. Also acknowledge that in real life, families take months to explore and stabilize answers to the complex questions in worksheet 2.

      Encourage people to take their time deliberating these divorce decisions, and not just make snap decisions for the sake of filling out the worksheet. If conflicts occur, let them evolve as in real life.

      Invite people in parenting roles to notice how they feel about making the kids part of these decisions, and invite “kids” to note how it feels to be included or excluded. Encourage “kids” to ask parents questions and freely vent their emotions and needs. 

      Notice any alliances that form as the family reorganizes. Who sides with whom? 

      Try not to intellectually “compute” answers to these questions - live them. Don’t analyze a divorcing family, be one! Follow your emotions and heart as you try to resolve these real-life family dilemmas. If non-worksheet questions come up among biofamily members, note and process them, if time allows. 

      Let people know how much time they have to do this step, and that you’ll watch the time and pace them.

      Again, you’ll be circulating, observing, and helping everyone stay on target or resolve role-play problems. Ask for a raised hand if a group needs something.

      Invite and resolve any questions. When the group feels ready, begin filling out worksheet 2. 

      Note the time, and circulate. Note any shifts in the group’s energy, volume, or dynamics. Be alert for anyone who seems unusually quiet, or looks notably upset. If anyone does, ask her or him if s/he’s OK. If not, negotiate with that group to see how to best continue with the role-play. Try to be quiet with this, to minimize distracting other groups.

      Don’t force anyone to participate. If any family seems to be escalating into a serious argument, intervene. If useful, remind them this is an educational role-play. Ask anyone who’s very upset to reflect on what’s upsetting them, and why.

      Be alert for someone venting at length about their real-life situation in their small group. Limit that, respectfully, to keep to your overall timetable.

      As this part of the role-play evolves, pace the group, like “You should be at least halfway through your worksheet by now,” and “You have about another 10 minutes…”

      If families finish early, have them quietly review the divorce decisions they reached, and suggest things they can focus their remaining time on together. The keys are processing how this divorce feels to each adult and child, and noticing how their family reacts to these tough losses, changes, and decisions.

      When (a) all groups seem finished enough or (b) your allocated time has elapsed (at least ~25”), ask everyone to complete their worksheets and finish up. Ask them to reflect and note any current thoughts and emotions.

       Ask any observers to write down a few key things about what they saw their “family” do as they evolved their divorce – e.g. whether they were nervous, or serious, or intellectual, or defocused, or… Take a time check:  you should be approaching halfway (~90") through your allotted time for the whole 3-hour role-play now. Adjust your pace as needed.

      If people need a quick stretch or bathroom break, do that now and reconvene quickly. Encourage silent reflection, to preserve participant’s moods and thoughts.

Part 4) Form a New Stepfamily

Leaders: You’ll guide this part of the role-play more confidently and empathically if you’ve recently read the Web-page articles in the box above. 

Options: (a) hand out copies of this sample genogram (family map) to help everyone visualize the members in their new three-home nuclear stepfamily; or (b) hand out this map of a full multi-generational (extended) stepfamily; or (c) have a flip-chart diagram or chalkboard copy of the former diagram to refer to

Option: add a step where Dad and any kids move in with their new partner and kids before re/marrying. Then process planning a re/wedding as a separate event in the role-play (20-30"). This can be specially relevant for courting co-parents and clergy. Planning a typical stepfamily wedding ceremony is amazingly complex emotionally, financially, and logistically.

Option: check with any observers to see if they’d like to participate in this part of the role-play as a grandparent. 

Set the stage:

“About three years have passed since Dad left home. Each of you note how old you are now (in the role play). During these three years…

“Your two-home divorced family may or may not have stabilized into regular visitation, child-support, holiday, and vacation routines;

“Pre-divorce wounds, distrusts, and disrespects may have moderated or not;

“Mom and Dad each began dating a single parent; 

“For the sake of the role-play, Dad has recently remarried. He and any custodial kids have just moved into his new partner’s home; and…

“You kids and some or all of your relatives may or may not have gone to the wedding.

“Your goal in this part of the role-play is the same as the first part – except this time, you’re inventing a three-home nuclear stepfamily. 

Re-form the small groups and introduce everyone, Then... 

       Ask each "Dad" to pick one of the other “divorced Moms” in the group to “remarry” with any of his custodial children. Make sure everyone has their copy of worksheets 1 and 2. If there’s too much confusion in doing this, you leaders  assign a divorced Mom and family to each Dad. Coach them that despite the role-play reality, they’re playing people deeply in love with each other, after months of courting.

      Have the small groups re-form so that Mom and any custodial kids, and any relative or observer, are sitting with her new husband and any of his custodial kids. Ask everyone in each new-stepfamily group introduce themselves to each other. 

     Option - hand out copies of these courtship danger signs and give people 5" to scan it for perspective. Save any discussion for Part 5 (debriefing).

      Answer any large-group questions that occur in this new arrangement. Notice the energy level in people and the whole group. Ask everyone to notice (a) how they feel and (b) what they need, in their roles. 

      Ask the Dads to leave, get their other child/ren, and bring them back to introduce them to his new wife (their stepmom) and their new stepsiblings. Take a few minutes to do that, and then ask the Dads to escort their kids home, or have their Biomoms “pick them up” (walk over to the Dad and stepmom’s group, collect the child/ren, and return “home.”)

      Ask everyone to take a moment to notice or write down what they feel and think. Then tell everyone they’re now going to re-do the biofamily-building step with the new combinations of people.

Hand out worksheet #3, and walk everyone through it before asking each new family them to fill it out.


       A major early decision for each adult and child is who to include in your new stepfamily – who belongs? Adults and kids often have different opinions.

Option: if you haven’t already, hand out and explain copies of this stepfamily genogram or equivalent. There are no social rules here, so use your best judgment. If people ask you for guidance, help by not helping. Say “Each new stepfamily has to decide for themselves.”

“Consider whether the act of remarriage and cohabiting changed any of your expectations of, or tolerances about, each other, relative to your courtship relationships.”

“In determining your stepfamily home’s monthly gross income, factor in incoming and outgoing child support. Notice what it feels like to do that.”

“Note your option to move to a dwelling that’s new to all of you, or stay in the Mom’s house. Discuss this decision as a family, before filling in the 'dwelling' part of the work-sheet. Note the number of bedrooms and beds you’ll need to accommodate any visiting kids. If you choose a new dwelling, note whether it’s significantly farther away from the Dad’s first-marriage home than his prior dwelling was (to make child-visitation decisions). 

"Mull whether or not your remarriage and any related geographic move triggers any divorced bioparent to seek a change in legal or physical child custody, and/or in a child’s primary residence.

“In deciding about child-visitation arrangements, it’s OK for you divorced parents to leave your stepfamily home and go talk to your ex mate.  

“Negotiate who does what household chores, as you did before. Add a discussion of whether visiting stepkids should have chores, and if so, which ones? Who is going to monitor if they do the chores? Option: see how visiting kids feel about doing chores at their Dad’s new house.

Have a stepfamily meeting to identify some activities you’d all like to do together, including any visiting stepkids.

 Plan your first Thanksgiving

       Repeat what you did for your biofamily, with some new tasks:

  • Add child-visitation details, after negotiating with ex mates and older kids

  • Resolve or ignore conflicts of preferences, traditions, and responsibilities   

  • Grieve lost traditions, and start new ones

  • Note who makes the decisions on this process

  • Again, note any alliances: who sides with who, now?

     If you finish designing your step-Thanksgiving before other groups, use the time to define what’s different about this one (vs. prior life), and how that feels to each adult and child. Leaders: allocate a time span to do this part of the role-play (at least 15”), and tell the participants how long they have. 

      Answer any general questions about this part of the role play, and ask people to raise their hand if they need you as the experience unfolds. Encourage them to really imagine what they’d each feel, need, and experience in real life.

      Also encourage people playing kids to feel and act their role-play age realistically and assertively. Ask real-life questions, and vent honest current emotions. Help each other make this believable! 

When you all feel ready, ask the groups to start filling out worksheet 3.

      Circulate unobtrusively, listening in to see if groups are on track, and moving at an OK pace. Watch for groups (a) making snap judgments and filling out their worksheets without really discussing their true feelings, and (b) groups getting too tangled up in details or conflicts, and falling behind.

      Alert groups when they have ~10” to finish up, and ask them to raise their hand to let you know when they’ve finished the worksheet.

      When the last group raises a hand or the time limit expires, ask the groups to end what they’re doing, and shift their chairs to face you.