Top Stepmother Concerns: How to Get Thee to a Counselor Who Gets It by Kela Price

He or she doesn't have to be Freud to help. I just liked this photo.

He or she doesn't have to be Freud to help. I just liked this photo.

As we’re addressing the concerns of you, women with stepchildren, a reality is taking shape. Namely, many of you could benefit from counseling. Either couples work or individual work, but something. But as stepfamily researcher, social psychologist and stepmother Elizabeth Church, Ph.D. notes in her book Understanding Stepmothers, it’s possible that a therapist treating a couple in a repartnership with kids will do more harm than good. Church details that many of her patients came to her after being treated by therapists with no training, familiarity, or real experience helping remarried couples with kids. The results were unfortunate: therapists telling women to “treat stepkids just like they’re you’re own” and otherwise importing a first-family model to address stepfamily or stepcouple reality. Since stepfamilies are different, that doesn’t work. These couples understandably became frustrated, discouraged, even hopeless before finding real help.

I asked Kela Price, a certified stepfamily coach and co-founder of, to weigh in. Here are her thoughts on how to find a coach, therapist, or psychologist who can help you:

Guest Post by Kela Price, Certified Stepfamily Coach

Choosing a therapist takes some serious consideration. Choosing a stepfamily therapist takes even more. Navigating through stepfamily life is a challenge and choosing the right counselor to help you do so is imperative. Many think that choosing a therapist with a slew of academic credentials and qualifications means that he or she is the best fit for their stepfamily, but this is rarely the case. There are far more important factors to consider when choosing someone who can truly understand and help this family system.

While it’s important to have some academic training or education, it’s more important to have the right academic training and/or education. Many stepcouples make the mistake of just choosing someone based on whether or not they have a degree and what particular school they graduated from; however, even if that individual graduated at the top of their class, with a psychology degree from Yale, Harvard or Columbia University, it doesn’t mean that they are qualified to guide your stepfamily through your challenges. What matters is that you interview the candidate to see what experience they’ve had specifically with the stepfamily.

I’ve known and counseled stepcouples who have been discouraged because they express that counseling didn’t work and are therefore hesitant to try it again. This is because many traditional therapists will try to apply a first family model to a stepfamily, and it does not work. Additionally, there are therapists who have only read about stepfamilies in a book and then attempt to counsel a stepfamily. Again, it doesn’t work. The most qualified therapist for the stepfamily is one who has the academic training or education specifically in the area of divorce, remarriage or repartnership with children and the stepfamily dynamic, and also one who has lived or is living the stepfamily life. Academic knowledge alone doesn’t work because in order to apply that academic information to your treatment of stepfamilies, you have to first know if it is correct, and in order to know if it is correct, you have to know how a stepfamily operates. In order to truly understand and know the inner workings of a stepfamily, you have to have lived it! The right combination of both professional and personal experience is important to consider when deciding on a stepfamily therapist.

I encourage anyone who’s about to enter into a stepfamily (the best time to get counseling is BEFORE you enter the stepfamily, not when you’re in crisis mode) or is in a stepfamily situation and feeling in need of help (it’s never too late to find the help you need!) to ask their potential therapist, counselor or coach the following questions to determine whether or not he or she is qualified to help in this area. Don’t be afraid to interview them prior to choosing, as choosing the right therapist can prove to be a great benefit for your family.

Interview Questions for Your Stepfamily Counselor Candidate
1. Specifically, what kind of stepfamily training have you had?
2. Do you treat stepfamilies different from first families? If the candidate says, “No, the stepfamily operates much like a first family and so the treatment is the same,” keep looking!
3. Have you ever been divorced and/or remarried and experienced stepfamily life yourself?
4. What are some of the unique challenges that stepfamily co-parents face, and (specifically) how do you handle those?
5. Why do you feel that so many remarriages fail as opposed to first marriages, and what specifically do you do to help strengthen the remarriage?
6. How many stepfamilies or stepcouples have you worked with?

Phone Coaching

Phone coaching is an increasingly common option for individuals and couples for a few reasons. For many stepcouples, finding qualified counselors in their area is extremely difficult as there aren’t that many of us out here. As such, when distance is a major factor, phone counseling may be their best option. Additionally, some find a coach or counselor’s office sterile, intimidating and uninviting, and are less likely to truly open up. For some men, the thought of counseling makes them want to run, let alone if they have to actually sit in front of someone and discuss their feelings. For them, phone counseling isn’t as intimidating and is the only way their spouse can get them to attend.

Overall, phone counseling/coaching can be just as effective as sitting face to face with your counselor or coach. It’s not for everyone and it’s most important for you to choose the option that works for you.

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16 Responses to “Top Stepmother Concerns: How to Get Thee to a Counselor Who Gets It by Kela Price”

  1. Beth Says:

    Thank you for this. I know we need something. Yes, we are in crisis mode but I’m happy to hear it’s not too late. My girlfriend, fortunately, is also a stepmom and has a therapist she’s very happy with who treats remarried couples exclusively. I feel lucky. Not just have to get my husband to go! LOL!

  2. taryn Says:

    our couple therapist saved our marriage and my sanity. he didn’t always say what I wanted to hear but neither did we have to listen to crap like “taryn you need to love them more.” i would have high-tailed it! i highly recommend finding a counsellor to help and we did actually approach it like we were interviewing them and several did not pass the interview, so glad we did it that way. thanks for the post.

  3. Da Wiznitch Says:

    We had high hopes when we went to a counselor who had actually written a book about stepfamilies. Unfortunately, it was about stepfathers rather than stepmothers. He was worse than useless. He told me I should “just get over” my fear of violence, that it was a “burden,” and that anybody could be assaulted at any time–even him!–yet he didn’t worry about it, so neither should I.

    My partner and I eventually agreed that all this “therapy” was actually making things worse, not better.

    I will say this for therapy: it’s a kind of court, or forum, for airing grievances in a safe way. It did my partner some good to hear me say, in counseling, how unhappy I was.

    On the other hand, most therapist just seem to be about finding ways to get people to adjust to the way things are. They don’t seem to think about justice, or right or wrong. They will never tell a person that his actions are morally wrong. Most don’t see stepfamily issues as feminist issues, or as issues that involve oppression and injustice. I see this as a serious limitation.

  4. Blending Family Says:

    My sister’s blending family coach is Emily Bouchard. Although they haven’t met in person, I was told she is awesome. They do the counseling by phone.

  5. Kathy Says:

    Well, I have to say that this is good timing because I’m only now seeing the limitations on the counselor we’ve been seeing. He’s a good man and a good counselor, but he does sees our situation in terms of first family dynamics and that’s made any progress come at a glacial pace. He does not advise us on stepfamily dynamics and he certainly doesn’t see what I’m dealing with. All of the progress we’ve made is because of decisions I made myself, actions I took myself, outside of the context of counseling.

    Sister stepmoms, I need your help and advice and support; we’ve only recently become aware of how toxic our situation is and we’re feeling rather desperate. Long story short: we have shared custody of a 13 year old who splits each week between her mom’s house and ours. We’ve bitten our lips a lot over the permissive parenting we see at her mom’s house–the child has no limits, no boundaries, no expectations, is spoiled and terribly indulged. By contrast, she views our modest expectations (be in bed by 9:30, empty the dishwasher) with snotty disrespect, so that our time with her is becoming increasingly unpleasant. We brace for it. Other bad behaviors have been appearing lately as well–a lot of lying, for one–and recently she’s been teaching our 6 year old son some very rude attitudes behind our backs (well, we caught her in the act last week).

    We had a long talk about this last week and her father asked her to think about it all during the week (he did most of the talking; I did not play the parent to her in this conversation but I did speak as my son’s mother and told her how angry I was about the role model she was presenting to him). It’s not clear what she told her mother about this talk, but she admitted that they talked about it a lot (“Well, why shouldn’t I talk to my mom? We’re really close. She’s like my best friend!” –verbatim–) and her mother was very upset on her behalf, that the poor child has to suffer such unfair treatment as she gets at our house. That was the message that she took away.

    Help. I should say that I’m doing everything Wednesday says, I’ve been going out with friends, I’ve been staying out of much of the parenting, I’ve been taking care of myself. But oh my god, you cannot imagine the enormous financial, emotional and personal sacrifices we have made over the years on this child’s behalf. We’ve had shared custody for 10 years. For nearly 7 years we overpaid child support in order to have access to her because her mother threatened to withhold visitation unless she got more money. All that money, all that effort to have her in our lives and now her mother is telling her that she’s not wanted here. Help help help. I can’t even concentrate on my own work I am so angry and disgusted.

    One other point: my husband lives with a chronic disease that is exacerbated by stress and in the past year it’s gotten worse, so bad that he’s graduated to a new, very intense medication. How much worse do things have to get? He’s going to talk to a lawyer tomorrow, and we have date night set for Saturday, and I’ve already made inquiries for a stepfamily counselor, and I’m getting exercise and all that stuff to take care of myself and us but all of that notwithstanding I feel utterly desperate. Any thoughts?

  6. Da Wiznitch Says:

    To Kathy:

    Hang in there about the dishwasher, etc. I had the same troubles with all six of my skids. None would do any household stuff willingly. After years of resisting, complaining, etc, however, two of the boys finally “got it,” and just started doing their chores without grumbling. One of them called from college recently and thanked his dad (and implicitly me) for teaching him these important skills.

    The oldest girl, however, moved out because she didn’t want to wash a dish ever in her life. Or clean a bathroom. Or take out the trash. Ever. (Presumably she does those things now, as she has been in the Navy and is fixing to get married.)

    About bed times: when my son turned about 14, I let him set his own bed time. If he was tired at school, he figured it out and went to bed earlier. It’s ok to let kids discipline themselves a bit at that age, as long as they’re not hurting others.

    Ignore the mom’s objections to your reasonable rules. Don’t get drawn into arguments with your SD over why the rules are different at your house. They just are.

    Try to make fewer sacrifices for this daughter so you won’t be so resentful. Separate your finances if you can, and let your husband pay for her “toys” so you won’t have to fight with him over that. (My partner and I split household expenses 50/50; that may not be possible for all couples, especially if there are little kids and SAHMs, but it sure does cut down on arguments: he pays for his kids, I pay for mine.)

    I would just accept the fact that big kids sometimes “teach” little kids “bad” stuff: bad words, etc. As long as her “teaching” is not abusive or inappropriately sexual, i wouldn’t worry too much about it. Big kids have been a bad influence on little kids forever. You just tell the little kid that he can’t do those things that she tells him to do, or else. It’s that simple.

    My partner got sick too because of stepkid stress. He also has trouble concentrating on his work when these problems get intense. I can work ok, but I know my mental health has suffered. I don’t know what to tell you about this, because it seems as if you are taking all the “antidotes.” Except one: telling this girl to get lost for a while. Maybe your husband could see her on weekends away from your house, if all this is just too stressful for you.

    Many girls are pretty bad in their teens. In some ways they are worse than boys. For more on this, see a great book called Get out of my Life! But First Could You Drive Cheryl and Me to the Mall.

    Really, it’s nothing personal: she’s a teenager girl in America.

  7. admin Says:

    My now- husband and I sought couples therapy as soon as we realized we wanted to get married. I just didn’t believe it was going to be easy–in spite of his reassurances that it was “all going to be just fine.” Hah! While our couples therapist–actually a psychiatrist, one of the rare ones who knows how to do talk therapy and couples work–did not have experience with couples in a remarriage with children, and didn’t really school us about typical stepfamily dynamics, he did do something so important: he taught my husband to put his marriage first, be a partner to me, think of us as a team. And crucially, he taught us how to fight fair, something so important since there is a LOT for couples in a remarriage with children to fight about! Finally, he did that hard-to-quantify thing that the best marital or couples therapists do–convinced us that he was on our side and wanted our partnership to work and wasn’t going to give up or let us give up. I don’t think I would be married today if not for the compassionate couples therapist who worked with us before we got married and in the early part of our marriage. My personal view is that searching for a couples therapist, and finding the right one, is well worth the trouble. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it…xx wednesday

  8. admin Says:

    I am hoping you will get some good suggestions here when traffic picks up early in the week. It might not be such a bad thing to LET your stepdaughter simply stay away. It sounds like it could be good for your emotional health, your husband’s physical health, your marriage, and your son to take a hiatus from a teen who doesn’t want to be with you anyway for the moment. You might all just enjoy it while it lasts ; )
    Something to think about. Take care, xx wednesday

  9. Lisa Says:

    I have a 14 y/o daughter who has chosen to live with her dad during the week.
    I have her on weekends. For a time between 11 and 13, she was a little creep.
    Yep, I admit it (which is half the battle). She was extremely disrespectful to me and my new husband. She refused to do chores on the weekends she was with us. “I don’t live her, I’m a guest. I don’t have to help.” After trying to deal nicely with her attitude – to no avail, I bit the bullet and laid it out for her. This was out of necessity, as I was a basket case, and my relationship with my wonderful husband and stepkids was in jeapordy. I told her she was not a guest. That she was a family memeber. Being part of a family means everyone helps each other and that there are rules to make life functional and as fair as possible for everyone. That although I love her and want her around, I am not the weekend entertainment director. I told her if she didn’t want to be part of the family and participate as a family member then she didn’t have to come visit us. I told her that her attitude and her were not welcome in our home until she wanted to participate fully as a family member. (We do fun things on weekends also….dirt-biking, eatting out, family movie night, etc.) It felt like a really big risk, but my health and sanity were on the line. Well, she skipped about a month with us (the break was actually a relief), but eventually showed back up. She will now even empty the dishwasher without being told, and realizes that chores are not optional, just a party of everyones life.
    There is light at the end of the tunnel.
    Good luck,

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  14. junerain Says:

    I don’t know what to do anymore. My step kids have stolen our wedding dvd and tape erased my and my husband’s passed away fathers pictures form our memory stick. Stolen his birth certificate. etc. their mother has showed up at our hotel on vacation. causing trouble. The following year she signed my husband up for some girl texting like he was having an affair site and Hse has beat the kids and showed up at our house after she didn;t meet for pickup and broken into the house pushed me down with my six month old baby in my arms. She has been arrested twice once for beating an old lady up at acme and a tow truck driver. She beat on my husband at a rest stop and ths state police let her go. She left scratches through his t shirt. she called his old job and made up lies that she tried to affect his current job. So many more horrible things. I had to put my foot down to say they cannot come cause they mostly steal, hide, destroy my stuff. Thinking they can break us up. They teach my husband and my three year old curses. The girl has even tried to hurt him. she tried it in the car in the back seat. Telling the mother is no help and she just is a horrible mother. She teaches them awful stuff and encourages them to do it. We tried getting custody but we ran out of money and not one hearing all were continued. In the very begining it wasn’t like this. It was after their mom lost her boyfriend. She lied to him telling him a child was his while all the time knowing he was another man’s. When they broke up she spitefully hurt him with it. I want this woman out of our life. If the kids cannot come and act respectful By that I mean no stealing cursing destroying items. Then they are not welcome here. I can deal with them not talking to me and rude I have been dealing with that for a couple years. I no longer even try. They are not welcome at the house. help I don;t think it fair to my husband But I can no longer deal with this awful stuff. I have children from a first marriage and they don’t do this when they tried to do it to their stepmom I talked with my ex and we put our foot down. I didn’t encourage it. I would not allow it. It was so much better for my kids. This si only a few of the nasty things she has oulled six years of this hell she has put us through. At this point my husband doesn’t care if he can work it out with his kids. He knows the person rasing them is a horrible person and she has alienated him and he thinks there is no hope. yet I see him hurting and the kids. They text him blame it on me and call me names. He tries to tell them I am not involved but their mother encourages it. She wanted a divorce from him and cheated on him. I met him two years later. Funny thing is his daughter told me once I like you but my mom said I need to hate you. I told her that she can decided for herself. Her mom will not let her do that. So sad thsi woman is so bent on winning some battle for her kids and She is destrying them. She feels like its a contest. She called my husband once and told him tone down the fun. She would call everytime we took them to the shore a water park, disney say they needed to come back early or show up. Is their any realtionship they can have without them coming to the house. they live four hours away. I am really tired of the blame by them on me. I offered to let them live here with my husband when she was beating them. I have done so much for them. I even buy their presents before my own kids. So I had read to stop and I did but nothing changes they just got worse. ruining my stuff. They even broke into our locked bedroom and took stuff. We found out later. They are very sneaky and I see my husband hurting. I dont want our child we have together near them anymore. They are rude to him hurt him etc. So sad he loves them. He doesn’t understand and I don’t tell him. I dont want to teach him to hate them. Help I am a good person and want to teach all of the kids to be. I can’t take this anymore neither can my husband. He has decided to walk away from his kids. He said he can’t fix them and They will not ruin our life or our son’s or my two kids. This nasty woman is ruining alot of people’s lives.

  15. junerain Says:

    Advice or where to start please. Counsleing they said they would not go unless they can bring their mom. She cannot stay in the same room with my husband she is so nasty to him.

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