Book Reviews

Stepfamily Therapy: A 10-Step Clinical Approach

by Scott Browning and Elise Artelt
Interview at 2011 APA Convention, Washington, DC.

Click here for APA video

Interviewer [Female Voice]: It's been said that there's no such thing as a normal family. If that's the case, why is there a need for stepfamily therapy and not just family therapy?

Scott Browning: What happened was that in the field, the sense of the normal family came around because of the idea of systems thinking, and that we thought we could treat all families the same if we really understood systems. What became clear was that as we started to look at divorce, and families with adoption, and gay lesbian families, and stepfamilies, that they are unique families, they have unique needs, and the therapist needs to be aware of those needs in order to treat them properly.

Interviewer: There are some accepted practices in family therapy, such as including the whole family in sessions. In your new book, Stepfamily Therapy, you caution against some of these practices — why?

Scott Browning: There's been subsystem work has been done for years. That's not new. But oftentimes with stepfamilies, if you're to invite everyone in at once, the level of tension is very common and you're going to have a blowup, you're going to have a situation where the stepfamily doesn't feel secure, they don't feel safe. And if they don't feel safe, they're not going to be able to really do their work. They are aware of the fact that divorce is eminently possible and they don't want to be in a therapy where they feel that you might be setting them back into a situation where the conflicts get too great and they give up. So treating the stepfamily, in a way, by understanding the subsystems, allows you to help keep them safe, understand their needs, and move in a direction of literally strengthening each subsystem so that you're strengthening the whole.

Interviewer: What take-home message would you give a therapist trying to help a stepfamily in crisis?

Scott Browning: Well, the first take-home message is, "You're in control." You're the therapist for a reason. You need to be the person that's helping to control the situation. If that means having to see subsystems, if that means having to be very clear that certain topics have to be tapped down for a while. It's your job as a therapist to help that stepfamily proceed forward, talk about what they need to talk about, but not be in a situation where they are suddenly feeling incredibly threatened. So when you're seeing that crisis, you're knowing that it's your job to help them feel safe, and to feel in control of the session.

Interviewer: What are the strengths of stepfamilies that can be built upon?

Scott Browning: Stepfamilies are often very strong families, we don't have to think of them as a lesser family type, and once they've gotten the chance to develop into a family — it may take five, it may take nine years sometimes to really develop — there's no reason to think they don't serve the same purposes as families. You often have children very much connected to each other like siblings and you have the fact the couple is in love and therefore there is often a desire to make this new stepfamily a very happy and satisfied unit.

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