Assessing the situation is the hardest part. Once you've made the decision to get some help for your family, you'll find that there are lots of resources available. Therapy is a tool; it's a way to learn, take care of yourselves, and heal old wounds. Therapy is positive. Just because you're seeking therapy doesn't mean that you're nuts, that your family is a failure, or that you've done something wrong and need punishment.
When you've decided to get help, you may have to push the issue with the rest of the family. Just because they are initially resistant doesn't mean you should give up the idea without trying. Go by yourself for the first couple of times, if necessary.
Finding the Right Person
There are many different types of therapies and many types of therapists. You'll need to think (at least briefly) about the therapist's type of training and personal style. Hang on, it isn't as bad as all that! Besides, I'll help you figure it all out right now!
Where Will You Find One?
When you are looking for a therapist or other mental health professional to help you and your family, you can begin by following these tips:
- Asking friends and family members. Got a sister who's been in therapy for years? Ask her to ask her therapist for a referral to somebody who specializes in stepfamilies.
- Checking with social service agencies, family service agencies, and the National Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis (212-741-0515). All these can give you referrals to therapists in your area. In some parts of the country, mental health professionals advertise in local weeklies or monthlies.
- The Stepfamily Association of America trains and certifies therapists in the work of stepfamilies, and maintains a list of organization-approved therapists who have been trained by the SAA or another reputable source. You can get a referral from them by calling 800-735-0329.
When you first call a mental health professional, you'll probably spend a few minutes on the phone briefly describing your family's problems and getting a sense if this is the right therapist for you. Don't feel shy about asking questions. In the normal course of therapy, you won't be asking questions about the therapist, so get your initial questions out of the way now. Remember that you are hiring the therapist, not vice versa.
Here are some suggestions for questions to ask:
- What's your training and experience? (See the following section for a brief description of what all that alphabet soup after their names means.)
- What is your experience working with stepfamilies? (You want somebody who specializes or who has had experience in stepfamily relationships. It's not taught in grad school. There are particular dynamics to stepfamilies, and you cannot use the same therapeutic approaches, methods, or information that you would for a nuclear family.)
- Are you affiliated with any national or local stepfamily support system?
- What are your rates? Do you have a sliding scale? How often do you generally meet with your clients? Will you meet with us individually, or primarily as a group?
- How will you evaluate my family's problems?
- How do you approach the problem I'm seeking help for?
- Have you had success with short-term as well as long-term therapy?
Listen to how the therapist answers the questions, as well as what she answers. Does she really seem to hear your family's situation, or does she jump to conclusions? You may need to talk to several people before you find one that feels right. Just having the right letters after a name doesn't mean someone scores well on the empathy, wisdom, and insight scale.
If all feels right on the phone, schedule an initial session. Keep an open mind. You may trust the therapist, but your partner and/or stepkids may not. Each person attending the therapy has to approve of the person. (In the case of a reluctant stepkid, you and your partner may need to put your feet down and insist that she attend. She does get approval of who, though. Therapy builds a very tight relationship between client and therapist.)