Stepfamily role-play: Leader's Guide, continued from p. 1

    Part 5) Large-group Debrief, and Closing
    (~45” to 60”)

      This last part of the exercise helps participants clarify, validate. and expand their learnings by sharing their experiences and observations. Optimize everyone's learning by:

  • debriefing all four parts of the role play equally - avoid over-focusing on any one part, question, or response;

  • asking brief open-ended questions

  • staying aware of yourself and the group's dynamics

  • avoiding lectures and lengthy explanations, and...

  • using empathic listening to clarify and verify questions and responses

     This debriefing can be long and complex, so use your best judgment on (a) which questions to ask, (b) how long to process the answers, and (c) whether to include a break. Option: invite participants to take notes as the debriefing unfolds. Every participant is a teacher and a student!

Get initial feedback: Ask “What are you aware of (or feeling) now?” or go around the room and ask each person to comment or say “I pass.” Collect key adjectives on a chalkboard or flipchart and note any pattern that emerges. Common response themes are overwhelmed, boggled, numb, surprised, confused, and enlightened.

Offer perspective: “The purpose of this long exercise is to raise your awareness of what it feels like for biofamily adults and kids to transition through divorce into a new stepfamily. Toward that goal, our role-play took us through building a biofamily, then divorce and separation decisions and losses, and then forming a new stepfamily and planning your first step -Thanksgiving."

This sequence truncates years of actual life experiences, so you’ve gotten a fast-forward glimpse of the real process. What you’ve experienced here is a sample of what average co-parents, kids, and relatives encounter.

Each person in this role-play experienced something different. Something that was unremarkable to one of you may have been very powerful for another. Those of you who played kids had a different set of needs than the adults. Stepparents had a different experience than bioparents.

"Let’s get a sampling of what you all got from this role-play. What you observed and felt can broaden other’s learnings. If you jotted any notes during the parts of the role-play, refer to them now. We’ll look at each part of the role-play together, and then at the whole experience.

      Note the tendency for people to focus on stressful, confusing, or troublesome reactions to this role-play. Encourage participants to also comment on what felt positive to them about their pretend families and the role-play process.  

    Debrief Part 1) - Form a Biofamily

      The rest of this page gives suggestions on what and how to debrief your group. Edit them to suit your own style and goals.

          “Let’s focus first on what it was like for you to form a biofamily

Q1 - Would one of your members introduce your original biofamily to us? What are your names, ages, and occupations, where did you live, and what are some highlights about the family you “became”? Use worksheet 1 to introduce your family. Include any observers or relatives.

      If no one volunteers to introduce their biofamily, ask one of the “parents” to read from their worksheet. Notice the mood and energy level in the room as each family introduces themselves.

      Are the people light-hearted and spontaneous? Somber and reticent? Imaginative and creative, or intellectual and conservative? Note that each family has a unique style, which reflects the personalities, values, and backgrounds of the people doing the designing.

          Options: after each biofamily introduction, ask if...

  • any other member of that  family wants to add anything - specially any kids; and/or ask if...

  • ask if anyone outside that family wants to ask a question of their members - in general, or of a specific adult or child.  

      “Now that we know what you all came up with, let’s learn about the process you went through to get there.” Options: (a) copy and pass out these questions; and/or (b) summarize responses (key words or phrases) on a flipchart page or chalkboard. Questions are numbered here for leader reference.

Q2 – “How many of you chose a role that was different from your real-life roles, e.g. men choosing a female role, or an adult choosing to be a child? What was that like?

Q3 – “What did any of you notice about the process you evolved as you designed your small group into a biofamily? Recall: there are no rights or wrongs here…

      If there was an observer in any family, ask her or him for comments on what they saw. How were their members reacting to this part of the role-play: Cautiously? Creatively? Combatively? Who took charge?

Q4 – “Was there anything that made you uncomfortable about forming a biofamily in this role-play? What thoughts and memories did it bring up?

Q5 – “Did any of the design questions cause your small group notable confusion or conflict?

Q6 – “What was it like to design your traditional Thanksgiving in this new biofamily?

Q7 – “Those of you who were kids: did you feel included and valued as this first-marriage family took shape? Were you active or passive in the process? Did your adults consult you? Did this recall anything about your real-life experience as a child?” Note: this is not meant to shame those who played the parents; it’s meant to focus everyone on the role-play dynamics that emerged.  

Q8 – “Would you say the biofamily you designed together was bonded and close-knit, distant and detached, or in between?” Option: ask for a show of hands. Note that any answer is “normal” for the group.  

    Q9 – “Did you enjoy this (Part-1) experience? Why or why not?”  

      Add your own questions and/or invite overall comments about this biofamily-formation part of the role-play. Option - add your own observations about the process you observed in Part 1, without singling put any one person or family.

    Debrief Part 2) – Planning to Divorce

      Option: ask for a show of hands of people who have gone through a real divorce as a child or an adult. Invite those veterans to comment briefly on their real-life experiences as you ask these questions

Q10 – Do you remember what you thought and felt (in your role) when you first learned your biofamily was going to divorce? Is there a ‘best way’ to learn your family’s divorcing?

Q11 – “What was it like trying to decide why your family was divorcing? Did anyone want to blame? Did you have a scapegoat? Options:

Ask several volunteers to say why their role-play family divorced, and how they explained that to their kids;

Ask any real-life divorced parents how they explained divorce to their kids;

Ask the group “Is it better to be honest with the kids, or not?”

Q11 – _ “How did you handle the question of child custody? _ How did you kids feel about _ what the adults decided and _ the way they decided?”

Q12 – “What did you notice about the process of deciding the amount of child support?”

Q13 – “What was this divorce process like for you ‘kids’?” Note any age-related or gender-related themes in the responses. Option: hand out, discuss, and validate this summary of typical kids’ adjustment tasks. Alert: this can easily take 30” or more…

    Q14 – “What other questions do divorcing biofamilies encounter? e.g. – 

Will Mom leave or should Dad?

Do men handle divorce differently than women?

Did the mates do everything they could to avoid divorce?

Do relatives and friends withdraw or take sides? 

Where do divorcing adults go to get support?

How can parents support their kids as they divorce? 

What happens when lawyers enter the picture? And so on…

Q15 “Did any of you kids leave with Dad?” If so, ask how that felt to members of their biofamily. Option: ask people for their real life experiences (briefly).

Q16 – “What kind of worries were you aware of, as you started planning for your family to split into two homes? e.g. did you kids worry if your siblings or parent/s were going to be OK? Did anyone worry about having enough money?”

Q17 – “What kinds of things were you each losing as your family began the separation and legal divorce process?” (Examples: losses of security, identity, familiar routines and traditions, dreams, self-esteem, trust…)

Q18“Did any of you adults or kids experience guilts about some aspect of the divorce?” Option: discuss healthy ways of reducing such guilts, over time

Q19 “As you planned to separate, were any of you thinking ahead about forming a stepfamily?” (Show of hands)

Q20“If there’s such a thing as a “good divorce,” what are key factors that promote that?”

Q21If there were observers or ‘relatives’ in any biofamily, ask them what they _ observed and _ felt as their biofamily planned divorce.

    Add your own questions, and ask for any final over-all comments about this second part of the role-play. Note that the decision to divorce can come suddenly or build up over many months or years. 

      Usually the greater part of divorce loss and trauma comes over these months, and at family separation, rather than because of the legal process or event of divorce. Exploring the causes and personal and social impacts of emotional and legal divorce justifies its own seminar.

    Debrief Part 3a) - Form a new stepfamily  

Q22 - Option: ask people with real-life stepfamily experience to comment on them, as you discuss these questions:  Acknowledge the role-play distortion of having both parents re/marry simultaneously. In real life, one partner re/marries before the other one, and some partners never re/ marry.  

Q23 - Ask a spokesperson to introduce each stepfamily, as you did with the biofamilies. Option: ask the members of each stepfamily to stand up as they are introduced.

      Notice and acknowledge any confusion that question produces. This symbolizes a common early stepfamily stressor – agreeing on membership, and resolving inner and interpersonal disputes over stepfamily identity,  inclusion, and exclusion.

Q24 – “What was it like for you adults and kids to learn that Dad was marrying another woman? What kinds of feelings, thoughts, and questions were you aware of?”

Q25 Moms and kids: “What was it like when the new man (and any kids) ‘moved in with you’ (joined your small group)?”

Q26 Kids: “When you learned your parents were remarrying someone with kids...

  • did you think of the new adult as your stepparent?

  • did you think of the new kids as stepbrothers and sisters?

  • did you think of yourself as a stepsister or brother? If not, why? If so, what was that like?”

    Q27 Stepdads:

  • “What was it like for you to move in to your new partner’s home?

  • “What did you feel and think when you realized another man was moving into your kids’ home, and would be co-raising your child/ren?

  • “Did you think of the other man as your kids’ stepfather? Why (not)?

  • “Did you think of yourself as a stepdad? If so, how was that for you?

     Q28 Stepmoms:

  • “What thoughts and feelings were you aware of when you realized your custodial or non-custodial kids would have another woman co-parenting them?

  • “Did you think of her as your kids’ stepmother? Why (not)?

  • “As you ‘remarried,’ did you think of yourself as a stepmother?

  • “If not, why? If so, how was that for you?

     Q29 – social status. “What adjectives come to your mind about the words stepfamily? Stepparent? Stepchild?” Options:

  • Collect answers on a flipchart page or chalkboard, and ask, “What impacts on a new stepfamily relationships do you think those attitudes (adjectives) have?

  • Ask, “In your real-life experience, how common is it that adults and kids in a stepfamily identify themselves as stepkids and stepparents?”  What if they don't? (They risk unrealistic expectations)

  • “Do you think in general steppeople are proud of their family and role identities? If not, what do they feel?”

  • Comment on the option of calling all three or more related adults in a stepfamily co-parents to reduce the common social bias against “stepparents”.

    Q30 – stepfamily membership:

  • “What was it like to identify the members of your new stepfamily?” 

  • “Did you all agree on who belonged?” 

  • “Did anyone not want to be included?”

  • “If you disagreed over who belonged, how did your stepfamily react to that?” 

     Q31 names:  

  • “What was it like to have people in your stepfamily with different last names?”

  • “If any of you Moms took your new husband’s last name, how did that feel to (a) you and (b) you kids?”

  • “Did any of you discover that people in your new stepfamily had the same first names?”

Q32 – money - “What did you notice about computing your new stepfamily’s monthly income? What did the new income mean to each of you?”

    Q33 bedrooms and privacy:

  • “What happened to the sleeping arrangements in your home when the new person/s moved in?” 

  • “Did anyone lose the privacy of their own room?” 

  • “Did custodial kids lose any access to their parent?” 

  • “Did you talk about which persons used which bathrooms?”

  • “How did you adults and kids react to these?” 

    Option: briefly discuss the pros and cons of buying a new home, vs. a stepparent moving in to their mate’s existing home.

    Q34 chores:

  • “What was it like deciding who would do which household chore?”

  • “What changed, from ‘the old way’ you allocated chores?”

  • “Did any of you stepfamilies discuss how chores would be handled when stepkids came to visit? What was that like?”

    Q35 –What benefits did any of you experience to forming a new stepfamily?”

Q36 –What did you adults and kids each lose because of parental remarriage and cohabiting?”

Examples: dreams of biofamily reunion; single-parent routines and rituals, personal and family identity, social standing, some friends or relatives’ allegiances, role clarity, family rank and status, familiar surroundings…

    Q37 backgrounds: “What did any of you notice about merging biofamilies with different

  • religious beliefs and practices?”

  • ethnic identities and traditions?” 

  • education levels and lifestyles?

           Typical stepfamilies are more apt to have these differences than first-marriage families. This adds richness and causes conflicts.  

    Q38 - Ask your own questions, any observers and veteran steppeople to comment; and ask for any other reactions to this third part of the role-play.

          There are two more parts to the debriefing. Sense your group’s energy level and ability to stay focused, and take a quick break if needed. 

    Debrief Part 3b) - First Stepfamily Thanksgiving

Perspective: “In this part of the role-play, you may have experience several common stepfamily stressors:

  • Role confusion and conflicts: who should do what here?

  • Membership conflicts: who is included and excluded?

  • Clashes between, and loss of, old traditions, and starting to evolve new ones; and…

  • Concurrent values and loyalty conflicts. 

 These stressors are inevitable, simultaneous, and recur over several years, as the stepfamily members merge co-parents’ several biofamilies. 

“These same four stressors occur around everyday things like buying food, dining together, and doing household chores; as well as holidays, vacations, and special family events. Unresolved loyalty conflicts are one of the most often quoted reasons for eventual stepfamily re/divorce.

Q39 – “What did you kids and adults like about planning this family celebration?”  

Q40 – (a) “What felt confusing or different about this planning? (b) How did your stepfamily members handle these differences?” (e.g. arguing, seething, negotiating, avoiding, demanding, blaming, manipulating, asserting…)   

Q41 Who took the lead in planning this event in your kids' several homes?”  

Q42 –  “Did any of you decide to have two celebrations, because of your kids’ two homes and sets of relatives? If so, how did that feel to you  parents and  kids?”  

Q43 – “What was the process like for you divorcing parents to negotiate where your kids would be, how long, and who would transport them?”  

Q44 – “What was this Thanksgiving experience like for you kids? Did you feel your feelings and needs were heard and considered? If not, why? What did you do about that?”  

Q45 – “In negotiating this stepfamily event…

Did any of you parents or kids feel caught in the middle between pleasing or being loyal to several people you felt you should please (a loyalty conflict)?”

“If so, what thoughts and feelings did that bring up in you? Who did you side with?”

“How did you resolve this conflict?” (e.g. repress it, discuss it, demand, whine, hint, get angry, numb out, get an ally…) 

      Adults and kids in average stepfamilies get caught in the middle of these loyalty conflicts all the time. They feel different than biofamily conflicts because they involve your child or ex mate, not our child.

Option: ask any real-life steppeople in the group to comment on loyalty conflicts and their impact on their stepfamily’s relationships and bonding.

 Q46 – “How did your stepfamily resolve Thanksgiving values differences – e.g.

"We always drink Glug  (an ethnic alcoholic beverage) at our Thanksgiving meals;’”  “Well we don’t approve of alcoholic drinks with God at the table.”)?

As their biofamilies merge, steppeople encounter many such conflicts. Adults need to evolve an effective way of acknowledging and resolving them together. 

    Option: ask the group if they have experienced significant values conflicts, and how they've handled them.  

Q47 – “Was there anything special (positive or negative) that stood out for any of you about this step-Thanksgiving role-play?”  

      If there were any observers, ask them to comment on this step-Thanksgiving process, including noting things that worked well.  

    Q48 - Ask any other questions, and invite any last comments on role-playing the formation of a stepfamily. 

     Debrief 4)  - The whole role-play  

Q49 – Step back now from the three parts of our role-play, and consider the whole experience we just shared. Think back to why you came here today. Did you get some or all of what you came for?”

Q50 – “What are you aware of now that you didn’t know when you came to this meeting?”  

Q51 – “Did this experience motivate you to learn more about divorced families and/or step-families, in general, or your own?”  

Q52 – “From this experience, what do you feel _ divorcing parents, _ stepfamily co-parents, and _ family-service professionals ought to know that they probably don’t?

Q53 - Does ‘stepfamily unawareness’ seem more credible as a significant re/marital stressor now?”  

Q54 - How do you feel this bio-to-step transition would be for adults and kids who had lost a mate/parent from death, instead of divorce? What would feel the same, and what would be different? (Perspective: ~10% of U.S. stepfamilies involve a widow/er re/marrying).

Q55 - Ask any observers to add their reactions to the whole process, including this debriefing.

      Add your own observations about the role-play process: e.g. whether people seemed comfortable or not; and became genuinely involved in it, or remained intellectual and detached. Note and affirm any differences you observed in different “families.”

Q56 “Now - how many of you would want to live in a stepfamily?”  and/or "Can you think of any benefits to living in a stepfamily?"

    Closing and Evaluation  

      This role-play illustrates the first phase of a complex multi-family merger process that usually takes four or more years to stabilize. The goal of our role-play was to give you experiential understanding and more empathy for people who divorce and form a complex multi-home stepfamily. This can help reduce one reason for widespread stepfamily stress and divorce - unawareness and misperceptions.

          Summarize key learning points you want participants to leave with, like…

  • stepfamilies are normal, and can be just a functional and satisfying as intact biofamilies if their adults heal any wounds and get educated - ideally starting in courtship.

  • many steppeople and supporters underestimate how different stepfamilies are from "traditional" intact biofamilies, and are stressed by many misconceptions.

  • merging several biofamilies into a stable stepfamily over several years is complex and conflictual, so all adults need to know how to combat up to five major hazards ("Can you name them?") to minimize their stress.

  • the overarching goal for all family adults is to guard their descendents from inheriting lethal psychological wounds and unawareness. 

Option: hand out a list of stepfamily resources like these. Hilight this self-improvement Lesson on growing a successful stepfamily, these related articles, and the National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC).

Next steps: identify possible ways participants can use the learnings from this experience. Invite them to study this free online course to expand on what they learned here.

      Finally, ask participants to fill out an evaluation of you leaders and the role-play. Encourage specific constructive feedback. If you expect to offer this role-play again, ask poeple to not reveal the details of it to others who might take it. 

Option: go around the room and ask each participant to say briefly what they’re aware of, what they’re feeling now, or “I pass.”  

      Thank everyone (including yourself!), and declare the meeting over. If you’ll present this experience again, journal ideas about any changes you want to make the next time, and what you learned about the challenging transition from biofamily to new multi-home stepfamily!

If there are other people you think would benefit from this role-play and/or its related resources, refer them to If you see ways to improve this role-play or leader's guide, please let me know..

         Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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Created  April 11, 2015