Working Clinically with Stepfamilies Aims of the presentation New Zealand Psychological Society Conference Provide an overview of the issues confronting stepfamilies Queenstown, August, 2011 and the clinician/s Examine stepfamily “architecture” or functioning Implications for practice A case discussion Claire Cartwright PhD, DipClinPsych University of Auckland firstname.lastname@example.org CASE DISCUSSION Current Issues Ann works from home so is responsible for children after school TONY ANN Tries to get all the children to do homework, complains that SCh fight, don’t cooperate, and go back to playing when she leaves room Ann also says she doesn’t get any time much with Tony Tony arrives home at around 6.30. Ann does the dinner.Bob Jack Jo Jill13 6 7 15 Tony thinks they work things out well. Ann thinks that the rules for the children are unclear.
Complex Stepfamilies The first two years Children experience difficulty with the family changes Two adults in a relationship and both have children from previous unions living in the Often a lack of preparation/ household repartnering can occur quickly (Cartwright, 2010) Parents want the change – children often don’t Children’s perspective Stepfamily “architecture” and the first year or twoChildren often do not want a stepparent or another change in the family situation: Parent-child relationship is well-established New partner enters as an “outsider” to the systemSON: Well, I didn’t really feel bad but I didn’t feel really happy or anything. I didn’t feel sad but I didn’t feel happy.(When asked what he would have liked?)SON: I wanted Mum and Dad back together.
Children and loyalty issues Stepfamily “architecture” and the first year or two Children often feel jealous or threatened by the time and attention going to the new Couple’s relationship lacks “middle ground” partner Because your parent and stepparent are still getting to Children can feel like “outsiders” to the new know each other you don’t become nearly as, well in your own eyes, as important. I definitely felt a bit couple’s relationship (Cartwright) isolated especially going from a household with one parent to two. There’s a lot less attention from anyone really. (Female, Young adult study) And you know how dare he come and steal our, what we had, because we became really close, us three girls and Simon and Mum, became really close and you know how dare Mum think that she needs someone else. (Young woman from Life Stories Study) (Cartwright & Seymour, 2003) The stepparent role and SP-Ch relationship Stepfamily “architecture” Stepparent role: Stepparent-child relationships also lack “middle ground” Viewed as “ambiguous” Lack of consensus amongst SFs And between adolescents and adults Loyalty issues are prevalent Stepfamily boundary challenges Relationships between stepparents and children are often troubled in the early stages Building a relationship - “a crawling occupation” (Pryor, 2005)
Lack of stepfamily norms Challenges of “Stepfamily architecture” Stepfamily couples attempt to form a “nuclear family” Stepfamily “architecture” creates problems for adults and children and use these norms to guide them Single parents - can be more permissive (guilt/concern for As do therapists not experienced with children) stepfamilies/unaware of the research/knowledge Stepparents – can tend towards authoritarianism (partly in response to “bad” behaviour of stepchildren) So parents and stepparents can polarize each other Problems with an active stepparent role Discipline - a key issue It is generally accepted by researchers and stepfamily therapists that adoption of a parenting role by I think one of the things that my Dad did wrong was, stepparents is often problematic I think he sat back quite a lot with Ann (stepmother) coming in and doing the disciplining of us and my Many stepparents, sometimes with partner’s little brother. He’d just sort of sit there, and not encouragement, assume an active parenting (esp. want to look at what she was doing, and say: No, discipline/control) role too early that’s wrong! You’re not supposed to do that to a kid. And he’d just sit there cause he didn’t want Stepchildren most often respond to this negatively more conflict because it would just go on and on. (Male) Even sensitive or authoritative parenting by the stepparent is often unwanted by children in early stages
Rescue Fantasies The stepparent role (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002) The rescue fantasy Researchers and clinicians conclude: The stepparent thinks they will “shape the kids up” and rescue children from inadequate discipline Best if the parent continues to have main Or rescue the parent from his/her badly behaved or responsibility for children - discipline/care over-demanding children SP attempts to build a relationship - a friendship, to Another rescue fantasy in stepmother families: earn trust The father thinks that the stepmother will take over primary responsibility for the care and nurturing of the stepchild/ren Supports the discipline of the parent Our stepfamily’s architecture Our stepfamily’s architecture The children have lived in single parent households and The step/mother has taken responsibility (or expected to) for become used to having parent to themselves care of the stepchildren after school- and for homework. She is also doing most of the cooking. Oldest boy especially loses his position in the family/and Hence, the stepmother has taken on a parenting role. with siblings The children are all living away from their biological other She is experiencing a lack of cooperation from the parents stepchildren including fighting amongst themselves/she appears frustrated and stressed Each parent now has a new partner and increased competition for time – less time with parents The father’s children are being cared for less by their own parent than the stepparent The couple are developing their relationship with 4 children in the house SM is an outsider but is playing a central parenting role
Therapeutic Interventions Common practices to avoid with stepfamilies (Browning, 2011) Psychoeducation and normalization Asking the entire stepfamily to come in (Instead, usually sees the stepcouples first and concentrates on sub- It takes time for stepfamilies to adjust (two to four years) systems in early to middle stages) Stepfamilies work differently in some ways - important to work out what works. Establishing heirarchical boundaries (One of the couple is not a parent - so development of a parenting Interventions aimed at developing an adaptive stepparent alliance will most likely include a lesser role for the stepparent) role - Also some psychoeducation/normalization around this Establishing family rules too early/too easily Stepmum has taken on responsibility for the children and their homework/ she’s having some difficulties with this /and it might be a good idea to give her a break from that / children might like Dad’s assistance, and do better at the homework Therapeutic Interventions Recommended Stepfamily Authors Involving adults in finding alternatives to try/experiments Patricia Papernow How can we try out Tony (Dad) doing some of the homework with children? Perhaps the youngest two? Maybe oldest by self and show Scott Browning Dad? Jan Rodwell (NZ) Interventions aimed at strengthening relationships: Parent-child Couple’s Stepparent-child The importance of being empathic/building empathy within the relationship