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Finding Your Step In Your Stepfamily Life

Stepfamily Life – Understanding The Dance

You might be thinking that your own blended family looks like a chaotic group of people all dancing to a different tune, stumbling over one another and out of step. It can feel like your partner keeps stepping on your toes. You glance at the kids and find that one of them is drifting away from everyone and lost to their own rhythm, another one is a wallflower who refuses to dance, and yet another child resembles a whirling dervish.

Sometimes it feels like the faster we dance, the more the tempo increases until we are moving at a breakneck blur. It becomes a challenge to just stay on our feet.

I am familiar with all of the missed cues and often clumsy results of this particular dance because I have been part of a blended family.

There is nothing like lived experience to get a crash course on mixing the past with the present. Although each blended family is comprised of unique individuals, circumstances, and challenges, all of them are learning new steps in changing choreography. I remember each stubbed toe, sprained ankle, and bruised shin from trying to get it right. How in the world is it possible for everyone to dance to the new beat?

Psychological flexibility is a hallmark of mental health and it is particularly essential in a blended family. It sure would be great if there was a template to obtain that state of mind. A set of instructions would come in handy when everyone is trying to learn how to dance in a new way.

At one point I would have been thrilled to find a package of dance by number footsteps to stick on the floor. Anything that would provide clues about how to manage the process of where to move without stepping on someone’s toes.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (or ACT like a word) is an approach that offers a way to support a healthy and functional blended family.

ACT falls under the cognitive-behavioral umbrella and is a mindfulness-based way of managing life. ACT has decades of research that support it as scientifically valid and effective with a wide range of challenges. At the center of the ACT model is psychological flexibility which is defined as the ability to be present, open up, and do what matters. If your family is determined to learn how to tango, waltz through your time together, or even if your clan seems more suited to a good old-fashioned square dance there is a way to learn the steps.

There are six core processes that support psychological flexibility in ACT. An acronym that reflects how these processes work in our relationships is LOVE

L – Letting go (of resentment, blaming, criticizing, demanding)

O – Opening up (allowing difficult thoughts and feelings)

V – Valuing (i.e. taking action guided by your values such as caring, contribution and connection)

E – Engaging (being psychologically present and available)

Like any new skill set, it takes practice to learn and put these skills into everyday practice. Life in a blended family is filled with changes. With psychological flexibility no matter how many times the music changes everyone is able to keep in step. Using ACT techniques blended families are able to create some exciting new dances to enjoy together. There are resources for ACT online and in print materials. Here are a few I recommend for adults. In addition, there are ACT books and materials tailored for children and adolescents. A mental health professional can also be a great resource to help blended families learn new “choreography.”

Cynthia Avers part of the professional team of counselors at the Fox Valley Institute in the Chicago land area where their mission is to help families grow in health and wellness. Fox Valley Institute is comprised of sixteen professional and dedicated individuals offering individual, children, adolescent, marriage, family and group counseling services. They pride themselves on getting to know each one of their clients personally so that they may help them reach their goals to live a happier and healthier life.

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