At least three times a week, stepmothers email me requesting a recommendation for good therapist where they live. Usually, I don't know anyone in their area but I give them a list of questions to ask therapists before they finally select one with whom to work. Finding a good therapist requires some detective work. You need to find out some basic information to make sure you and a therapist share similar philosophies and goals. This will ensure that your experience in therapy helps rather than harms you.
Particularly with regard to stepmothers, many mental health professionals hold outdated ideas about step-families, the most prevalent one being that "blending" is the ideal goal. If a stepmother complains that she feel like an outsider in her family despite numerous attempts to bond with her stepchildren, too many therapists will suggest that she keep trying to establish a relationship with them. This can be an exercise in frustration and futility as "blending" does not occur for most step-families, and is not a necessary requirement for their overall happiness.
Other therapists unconsciously accept as true the cultural stereotype that stepmothers are to blame for all the family's problems. They lack an understanding of the real challenges faced by stepmothers, and their ignorance and insensitivity may influence how they work with you. More than likely, you will waste your time and money. A bad experience in therapy may taint you from trying another therapist, and prevent you from getting the help you need and deserve.
I have been appalled by some of the bad experiences some stepmothers have had with therapists. In one of the monthly support groups I run, one* of the stepmothers shared that she, her husband and 21 year old stepdaughter went to a family therapist for help. They were struggling to get along in her small one bedroom apartment. The stepdaughter was thrown out of her dorm for physically assaulting her roommate and needed to move in with them while attending college, and was sleeping on the living room couch. She was asked to not play the TV or radio after 1 a.m. to prevent awakening her father and stepmother. She refused to, or was unable to abide by this request and repeatedly disturbed her father and stepmother in the middle of the night. When they would politely ask her to turn off the TV or radio, she would have a tantrum (that would last for hours). When the family discussed this in therapy, the therapist felt that the stepmother was being unreasonable by asking for some peace and quiet, and should be more understanding of her stepdaughter who was still affected by her parent's divorce, more than 15 years ago. This trauma, the therapist explained, prevented her from channeling her emotions maturely.
The belief that children are victims of divorce is both common and completely accurate. It is true that many children are traumatized by divorce, but this is an explanation rather than an excuse for their misbehavior. It is unacceptable for a 21-year-old to have a temper tantrum when she doesn't get her way. Adult temper tantrums are indicative of a bigger problem, one that was being ignored by both the therapist and her father. As long as his daughter was doing well in school and abstained from alcohol and drugs, he was satisfied with her behavior. He wasn't concerned by the fact his daughter could not keep friends, got into physical altercations with them, and was fired from all of her jobs. His passivity regarding his daughter's problems prevented him from acknowledging his wife's frustrations and taking them seriously.
Not only was the stepmother disturbed by her husband's stance, she was astonished that the therapist did not support her need to get a good night's sleep since she was the only one in the family with a job. If she lost it, all of them would be homeless. The therapist did share with the family that she was a stepchild and never had a good relationship with her own stepmother. This factor probably contributed to her over identifying with the stepdaughter to the detriment of the stepmother. At her wit's end, the stepmother was considering divorce; the only viable option in an otherwise untenable situation. This situation did not have to escalate to this crisis level if the family therapist was more sensitive to the stepmother's needs.
To get the most out of therapy, you can screen for a stepmother savvy therapist by asking a few key questions, such as:
• What kind of, and how much experience have you had working with step-families?
• What training have you had that is specifically related to step-family issues?
• Are you a stepmother? If the therapist feels this question is too personal, explain that you are experiencing challenges as a stepmother and prefer to work with someone who truly understands the dynamic.
• Have you been a stepchild? Do you have a stepmother? If so, what kind of relationship do you have with her? If the therapist shares that she has had a negative one, ask the therapist if she can separate her own experiences when working with you.
• Do you believe that it's necessary and desirable for step-families to "blend" over time? If a therapist upholds that "blending" is customary in step-families and is the ideal objective, ask what he or she recommends if it doesn't happen. If they recommend that you continue to try to achieve this goal, call someone else.
• Don't forget to ask the basic questions: are you licensed, what is your fee, and if the therapist is covered by insurance.
Unfortunately, you are not guaranteed to find the right therapist by just asking these questions. Only a consultation will give you the information you need to determine if you feel comfortable collaborating with the therapist to help you achieve greater happiness and contentment.
There are many terrific therapists; it just takes a little work to find the right one for you.
*Some information has been altered to protect the confidentiality of this stepmother.