Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Stepfamily Lenses

There are two types of lenses that impact our thinking about stepfamilies: popular lenses and clinical lenses. It seems impossible to separate ourselves from what we have learned or experienced personally and what we understand from our professional education about stepfamilies. Therefore, both of these inform our clinical work. Our work with stepfamilies is informed by the following lenses: sociological, psychological, family systems, life cycle development, or public policy.

The sociological lens assists us in understanding stepfamilies within the context of their environment. "The sociological perspective may examine general social patterns in the behavior of particular individuals and then reflecting on these behaviors as they extend beyond individual quirks and personalities." A strong focus is on the relationship between experience and the wider society.

The psychological lens may view the family through a strong psychopathology focus. This lens attempts to understand human behavior in the context of the social world. It considers physiological and neurological processes in understanding the behavior.

Family Systems theory, first introduced by Dr. Murray Bowen, proposes that individuals must be understood as a part of their family because the family is an emotional unit. Families are systems of interconnected and interdependent individuals, none of whom can be completely understood apart from the system.

When considering life cycle development, Erik Erikson's 8 stage theory of human development has a tremendous impact. A clinician must consider the issues presented within the context of each member within the life cycle. A person's accomplishment of each developmental stage impacts the ability to experience challenges in one's life and progress to subsequent stages of development.

Social policies developed with our society impact how a family is able to manage daily life. Policies informing child custody is an example that is unique to stepfamilies. These policies result in financial and legal differences from nuclear families and impact social perceptions of stepfamilies. Additionally, a child identified as severely emotionally disturbed (SED) remains the primary focus of treatment eligible for financial reimbursement for mental health services. Clinical judgment that suggests broadening the scope of treatment to include the rest of the family is often influenced by the policy that defines the child as the identified patient.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies