Understanding and working with Stepfamilies

Module Sections:

Complexity of Defining Stepfamilies

Stepfamilies are more structurally complex than other family forms. Stepfamilies are typically multigenerational families involving a couple, at least one child from a former relationship, and at least one former partner. When considering the formation of stepfamilies, one must recognize the unique structural complexities involving member tasks and roles in comparison to nuclear families.

There are many issues that are involved with defining a family. Defining a concept that has value to many disciplines may limit the usefulness of the concept (Settles, 1999). Adding to the complexity of defining the family in general are the challenges specific to defining stepfamilies (Levin, 1999). Stepfamilies are unique in that not all members live within the same household and those who do live in the same household do not share the "same biological and legal connections to each other" (Levin, 1999, p. 93). In addition, stepfamilies usually involve at least three family trees and cultures. They also involve a history of loss and are structurally different.

Due to the complexity of defining the stepfamily, it may be beneficial to adopt techniques in order to help the process of definition. The family and therapist both bring their own ideas and perceptions to the session involving their own ideas of family and who is included in the family (Jurich & Johnson, 1999). Levin (1999) uses an individualistic approach when attempting to define the family. This approach engages each family member through participation in a three part exercise:

  1. The family list
  2. The family map
  3. The verbal interview

For the family list he asks the client to create a list of the people they consider to be in their family. For the family map the client is asked to use pieces of paper to represent each family member; triangles representing males and circles representing females. The client is asked to lay the pieces out on a larger piece of paper according to how close or distant each person is from the client. For the verbal interview the client is asked if they would like to explain the placement of each piece, and who each piece represents. This three-part process allows the client a way of talking about the person and the relationship that they have in an emotionally easier form.

Audio Companion: Understanding Stepfamilies