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Section 11
Child Relationships in Stepfamilies

CEU Question 11 | CEU Test | Table of Contents | Grief
Psychologist CEs, Counselor CEUs, Social Worker CEUs, MFT CEUs

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On the last track we discussed suicide and murder.  We explored how to explain suicide, how suicide confuses children, and how to explain murder. 

On this track we will discuss the role of the step-parenting and grieving children.  Aspects of step-parenting that I will discuss are the three stages of stepfamily development through grief, key challenges for step families, and coping strategies for the step-parents of grieving children.  As you listen to the case study included on this track, evaluate Mark and Amber to see how they helped Mark’s grieving children through the stages of stepfamily development.

3 Aspects of Step-Parenting

#1 Stages of Step Family Development Through Grief
Patricia Papernow, author of several books which focus on step family formation, identifies three stages of step family development through grief.  Papernow has theorized that the progression of step families is predictable through these stages of step family development.  The three stages are the early stage of fantasy and immersion, the middle stage of mobilization and action, and the final stage of contact and resolution.  As you may have found, like I, these stage of step family development can directly affect how the family copes with grief. 

-- Stage One: Early Stage of Fantasy and Immersion
Mark’s ex wife died from a heart attack.  Mark was a single father for some time until he met and married Amber.  Mark and Amber began their marriage like other step families.  Mark described the early stage of fantasy and immersion when he stated, "It seemed like a miracle, I never imagined I could love this strongly again.  I thought we were going to make a great family together." 

-- Stage Two: Middle Stage of Mobilization and Action
As Mark’s children treated her like an outsider, Amber became aware of the reality most step families experience.  Amber stated, "I began to understand that this was not going to be a real family any time soon."  In the middle stage of mobilization and action, Amber experienced conflict with Mark’s children due to their grief over their mother’s death. 

Mark stated, "Everyone’s differences were suddenly out in the open.  Amber said she felt like an outsider.  My oldest son, Kyle, screamed at her, ‘You are an outsider, bitch!’  Kids, huh?  Anyway, it came down to the fact that my kids felt like Amber was trying to replace their mom." 

Mark and Amber took action when they talked to the children.  Mark stated, "When your mom died, we were all very sad.  But we’ve got to move on.  Amber is not here to replace your mom."  Amber supported Mark when she stated, "From everything I know about your mom, she was a wonderful woman.  I don’t think anyone could replace her." 

-- Stage Three: Late Stage of Contact and Resolution
At this point, Mark and Amber’s step family moved into the late stage of contact and resolution.  The counselor found that enough common ground existed for real relationships to form.  Authentic intimacy was gradually beginning to develop.  Could the family you are counseling benefit from hearing about Mark and Amber’s family’s evolution through the three stages of step family development?

#2 Key Challenges for Step Families
Mark and Amber’s grieving step family experienced four key challenges.

-- First Challenge - Mark’s children mistook the role of their biological mother for who she really was. The counselor stated to Mark, "Parents sometimes think that finding someone to fill that role will ease the heartache.  In truth, you can replace the role, but you can never replace the person." 

-- Second Challenge - Amber felt that Mark’s children were sometimes unreasonably loyal to their mother.  Amber openly acknowledged this unreasonable loyalty by referring to Mark’s first wife as "Saint Ellen." 

-- Third Challenge - In addition to the grieving children mistaking mom’s role for who she was and being unreasonably loyal, the third key challenge for Mark’s grieving step family was that the children’s resurfacing grief caused the step family development to follow a more chaotic course. 

Mark stated, "After we talked to the kids and thought things were going to be OK, my youngest daughter got to the age where she started trying to identify with Ellen through some old pictures and stories my son told her.  She was frustrated because she didn’t really know her mom.  And when she dumped all that on Amber, Amber started feeling like an outsider all over again." 

-- Fourth Challenge - The fourth key challenge for Mark’s grieving step family was jealousy and resentment.  Amber stated, "I almost say some really bad things sometimes.  The other day the house was trashed and I was so mad that all I could think was ‘If I had raised these little brats, they wouldn’t be such pigs.’  But then I realize that they have been through hell by losing their mom.  I can’t blame the kids and I don’t really have a right to be angry.  After all, I’m not the one suffering the loss." 

The therapist who counseled... Amber’s new family understood that step families that form after divorce feel justified in expressing anger and resentment.  This therapist found that in step families that form after death, these feelings are repressed.  Think of your Mark and Amber.  Is repressed anger manifesting itself by impairing the family’s ability to cope with grief? 

#3 Coping Strategies
Could the following five coping strategies benefit the grieving step family you are treating?

--Coping Strategy #1: First, Mark and Amber learned all that they could about grief.  Mark’s family grief counselor stated, "Mark and Amber were unaware of how grief affects children.  I helped them get educated regarding grief and the reasons for grieving children’s behavior." 

--Coping Strategy #2: Second, Amber focused on her connections with the children.  Amber stated, "I understand that these kids aren’t just going to love me because I married their dad.  Instead I have to work on connecting with these kids."  Mark helped Amber connect with his children when he included her in some of the grief processing work his counselor had assigned the family. 

--Coping Strategy #3: In addition to working on connections and learning about grief, the third coping strategy is honest communication.  Mark stated, "Once the kids started talking to Amber about how they really felt about their mom’s death, the whole family grew closer.  Amber listened and helped the kids through some of the pain they were still feeling." 

--Coping Strategy #4: The fourth coping strategy that Mark’s grief counselor gave him regarded Mark’s own relationships with his children.  Mark stated, "Spending time separately with each of my kids led to them trusting in the fact that they really are my top priority.  It also gave me time to share my grief with them." 

--Coping Strategy #5: In addition to working on connections, learning about grief, honest communication, and spending time separately, the fifth coping strategy is sharing struggles with others.  Mark stated, "Our counselor had us go to this group session where a bunch of other families who were having similar problems all sat around and talked.  It seemed weird at first, but finding out that my family wasn’t crazy and hearing how other guys got through this mess really helped." 

Could the step family you are counseling benefit from group sessions?

On this track we discussed the role of step-parents of grieving children.  Aspects of step-parenting that I discussed were the three stages of stepfamily development through grief, key challenges of grieving step families, and coping strategies for the step-parents of grieving children. 

On the next track we will discuss the terminally ill.  Five points we will consider are whether or not the grieving child wants to visit the terminally ill, preparing the child for the visit, taking a gift, limiting time, and the benefits of involving a child in terminal illness. 

Peer-Reviewed Journal Article References:
Jones, C., Foley, S., & Golombok, S. (2021). Parenting and child adjustment in families with primary caregiver fathers. Journal of Family Psychology.

Nobes, G., Panagiotaki, G., & Russell Jonsson, K. (2019). Child homicides by stepfathers: A replication and reassessment of the British evidence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 148(6), 1091–1102.

Olson-Garriott, A. N., Gamino, L. A., Davies, E. B., & Gudmundsdottir, M. (2015). Having or adopting another child: Perspectives from bereaved fathers. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 46(5), 317–324. 

Petren, R. E., Lardier, D. T., Jr., Bible, J., Bermea, A., & van Eeden-Moorefield, B. (2019). Parental relationship stability and parent–adult child relationships in stepfamilies: A test of alternative models. Journal of Family Psychology, 33(2), 143–153. 

Sandler, I. N., Ma, Y., Tein, J.-Y., Ayers, T. S., Wolchik, S., Kennedy, C., & Millsap, R. (2010). Long-term effects of the family bereavement program on multiple indicators of grief in parentally bereaved children and adolescents. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78(2), 131–143.

Online Continuing Education QUESTION 11
What are some coping strategies that can be used by stepfamilies with grieving children? To select and enter your answer go to CEU Test.

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