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Ron L. Deal, LMFT, LPC

Bestselling author of The Smart Stepfamily and founder of Smart Stepfamilies, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Licensed Professional Counselor

Finding a competent stepfamily therapist can be quite a challenge. Indeed, not all therapists are created equal (i.e., most don't have any specific training in stepfamily dynamics or therapy). Our first suggestion is that you consider one of the therapists trained by Ron and who is familiar with the Smart Stepfamily Series of books and resources (which you may have been studying). Review the list of Recognized Smart Stepfamily Therapy Providers found here.  

Before discussing other ways to find a therapist, keep in mind that finding a local church ministry can also be helpful. A small group study or Bible class that offers support, guidance, and fellowship with other stepcouples is an important addition to counseling. It won't replace counseling, but it sure can complement what you are receiving there. Use the Ministry Finder Map provided by sister ministry FamilyLife Blended to find a ministry in your area: click here. By the way, if there isn't a ministry in your area, consider starting a group yourself. Yes, I'm serious. Go here for directions on how to do so.

To find a therapist your area, begin by visiting the National Stepfamily Resource Center's web site for a list of proven professionals by state/city: (please note that these may or may not be Christian counselors). You can also locate a Christian counselor through the American Association of Christian Counselors (or call 1-800-526-8673).

If there isn't a therapist in your area, ask your physician, minister, or child's teacher, "To what therapist would you send a friend to see?" Even then, however, the person they suggest might work well with a number of presenting problems, but not with stepfamily issues.

The truth about most counselors is this: they aren't any more informed about stepfamily life than the clients they serve. Many counselors and therapists assume that stepfamily relationships should function just as biological family relationships. Without specific training, counselors can actually be harmful to your marital or stepfamily health. I had one man drive six hours for an appointment with me because the first five therapists he and his stepfamily members saw only worsened his situation. This isn't meant to be a slam against therapists; I happen to be one of them. It's just a reminder that all therapists have a scope of competency. You need to find one whose scope includes stepfamilies.

Questions to Ask:

The best way to find a therapist is to interview them by asking a few questions. Use the questions below as a guideline for checking out a potential therapist. A short summary of the kind of answer you want to hear follows each question. Begin the phone call by saying, "Hello. My name is Ron and I'm considering making an appointment. I was wondering if I could ask a few questions about your clinical practice." With their permission, proceed by asking:

  1. "Are you a Christian?" "How does your faith make a difference in how you conduct therapy?"

    Obviously you want a therapist who shares your Christian value system. But it is my experience that many "Christian counselors" operate from a humanistic worldview and conduct therapy no differently than would a secular therapist. If they are not able to articulate their faith and how it is integrated into therapy, thank them for their time and move on.

  2. "What kind of therapy training did you receive in graduate school?"

    There are many different schools of psychotherapy. Counseling and clinical psychology, community counseling, rehabilitation counseling, clinical social worker, and marriage and family therapy are just a few. You want to find someone whose graduate training was primarily in family systems theory. This model of treatment is most effective in working with the relational issues that stepfamilies face.

    Marriage and family therapists are the most adequately trained persons with this modality and are equipped to work with individuals, couples, and family units. Some psychology and social work programs are "systems based" as well. If you are unclear about their clinical orientation, ask them what modalities of treatment they subscribe to. Hopefully you will hear "family systems theory" among a handful of others (such as "cognitive-behavioral" or "brief therapy").

  3. "What specific training have you had in stepfamily therapy?

    Again, believe it or not, most therapists have had little or no training in stepfamily dynamics and therapy. The therapist may respond by saying, "I attended a two-hour workshop last year on stepfamilies, but believe I could serve your needs well." Attending a continuing education workshop is better than nothing, but you are hoping to hear them say something like, "I had a required course in my graduate training on stepfamily therapy and have had a great deal of experience in working with stepfamilies throughout my practice" or "I studied stepfamily therapy in a post-graduate course."

  4. A good follow up question is, "How might you treat a stepfamily differently than a biological family?"

    You aren't looking for any specific answer here; you simply want to know if they can tell you the difference. They should be able to give you two or three examples of how stepfamilies differ from biological families or how they might see different groups of people depending on the problems at hand (e.g., children only, biological parents and their children, stepparents individually, just the couple). Listen to their response. Do they stammer through an answer or can they articulate a good answer?

  5. "What books on stepfamily life would you recommend?"

    This will let you know how much they have read on the subject and whether they have a standard book or two they recommend. A good stepfamily therapist with experience can recommend a few books off the top of their head.

  6. "Will you see our children as well?"

    Because children and teens have their own individual issues to work through, finding a therapist who will see children and teens (or at least knows how to incorporate their concerns into family sessions) is important.

When you find someone you feel comfortable with on the phone, attend the first session and then decide if they can help you long term. Above all, bath this decision in prayer as you seek someone who can provide wise counsel.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.