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By Dr Cate Bearsley-Smith MAPS, School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, Monash University

Despite the significant prevalence of step-families, societal perception of family and models of family therapy remain largely defined by the ideology of the traditional nuclear family. This is problematic for step-families, which are particularly complex systems requiring unique understanding. Research indicates that therapists’ lack of understanding of these issues hinders step-family satisfaction with family therapy (Pasley, Rhoden, Visher & Visher, 1996). This article presents a summary of key issues clinicians need to understand and address when working with step-families.

Unique challenges for step-families

Clinicians need to be aware of the unique challenges faced by step-families in their formation. These challenges, well presented in texts by Wald (1981) and Conolly (1982), remain central to step-family formation today (Child Support Agency, 2006). Key challenges can be summarised to include:

  • Existing alliances at commencement of family unit formation
  • Limited (or lack of) shared family culture
  • Unresolved individual issues such as grief
  • Competing individual and family developmental needs
  • Uncertainties and/or conflict regarding new family norms, boundaries, patterns and structure (e.g., the nature of steprelationships; the role of the ex-partner/s and co-parenting arrangements)
  • Unique environmental pressures (e.g., legal, financial, social, logistical).

Step-family therapy goals

Equipped with an understanding of the challenges that step-families face, clinicians can more effectively target their interventions. There are several commonly helpful goals in conducting family therapy with step-families (see Wald, 1981; Conolly, 1982; Pasley et al., 1996).

First, the clinician usually needs to provide a framework of psycho-education and normalisation for the family to understand the challenges they face and the specific needs of step-families. The many myths of stepfamilies – such as instant integration and the step-parent-as-parent expectations – need to be debunked.

The focus of the family therapy can then shift to working towards functional family structure and dynamics. This is assisted by helping the family members to clearly map the family structure, and to define rules, roles and functional boundaries. Fragile subsystems, such as the new couple, need to be strengthened while other coalitions and triangulations may need to be altered. It is helpful to encourage the building of shared experiences, while respecting competing developmental needs. The clinician also needs to acknowledge and address the external pressures on the step-family, such as legal, financial and/or extended family stresses.

The third major goal of family therapy with step-families is to attend to the personal issues amongst family members that may be associated with the formation of the new family unit, such as grief, depression or anxiety.

Clinician skills

In addition to understanding step-families and their broader socio-cultural context, the clinician needs to be skilled, active, and flexible in multiple areas of therapy. The clinician typically needs knowledge and experience in family, couple, and individual therapy; parent training and step-parenting guidance; and crisis work. The clinician ideally works as needed with different family subsystems to help the family achieve practical gains.

It is important that the clinician identifies the unique needs of each member and each system within the step-family. The clinician needs to help family members understand and develop empathy for others’ needs, feelings and experiences. The therapist ideally provides a safe place for this understanding to develop so that each family member’s feelings are appreciated, their experience is understood, and their needs are addressed (Pasley et al., 1996).

The author can be contacted on Cate.Bearsley-Smith@med.monash.edu.au


Child Support Agency (2006). Me and my changing family. Moving forward: tips on building healthy relationships after separation. Sydney, NSW: Child Support Agency, 2006, 55p, Online (PDF 277K) http://www.csa.gov.au/publications/pdf/1264.pdf

Conolly, J. (1982) Step-families: towards a clearer understanding. NSW: Corgi Books.

Pasley, K., Rhoden, L., Visher, E.B., Visher, J.S. (1996). Successful stepfamily therapy: client’s perspectives. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 22(3), 343-357.

Wald, E. (1981). The remarried family: challenge and promise. New York: Family Service Association of America.