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Toledo, Ohio & Lake Erie

The Press Newspaper

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When it comes to relationships, every family has its ups and downs – good times and not-quite-so-good times, however step or “blended” families face their own unique challenges.

It often takes extra effort from all family members to be successful.

Serenity Farm, Inc., in Luckey, offers an equine-assisted counseling program to help stepfamilies that want to be successful with their choice to unite. The counseling sessions can help stepfamilies examine and break through barriers, with a goal of “blending for success,” according to Debra DeHoff, advance equine specialist, who developed the program with Kelly Garza, a licensed social worker.

The pair recently received accolades when they presented their findings on counseling stepfamilies at the National Conference for Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association in Ogden, Utah. From their work with couples who had just become engaged, through various stages of the family blending and even with grandparents and step-grandchildren, they developed and published a manual for a nine-week program that is available for use by other professionals.

“We both are in step families,” DeHoff said. “Probably eight out of 10 families coming to the farm for other types of therapy programs are step families.

“Children in today’s society are growing up in two sometimes three family units,” said. “The personality of each household and the daily structure can be very confusing to children and teens forced to live in these environments.

“There’s often negative talk about step families coming together with so much baggage,” DeHoff said. “Our goal with the program is to help find the tools that are going to work to make the family relationship move forward.

“Everything we do here involves working with animals,” she said. “It is not sitting in an office as with talk therapy.”

On the first or “intake” visit to the farm, families, which may be referred by a family or other type of therapist, are introduced to the horses within the first five minutes.

“All of our appointments are in the barn, in the arena in the pasture field,” DeHoff said. “There are no four-walled offices. On that initial visit, all appropriate paperwork is completed while we are engaging with the horses, so right away, family members see this will be a little bit different from other counseling they may have had.”

The co-facilitating team watches how family members interact with each other and with the horses. They watch how personalities, roles and interactions emerge as family members work together to solve various tasks.

“And the horses provide honest feedback about communication patterns,” DeHoff said.

“For the families, working with the horses is fun,” DeHoff said. “It can help break down barriers and defensiveness that can sometimes come up in traditional talk therapy sessions.”

Throughout the sessions, which generally extend from four to 12 weeks, the co-facilitators try to find out about the goals and expectations of the family members.

“We try to assess if the family dynamics are working, and if not, why not,” DeHoff said. 

“There are many factors to family dynamics,” DeHoff said. “Are the parents in charge or are the kids running the show? Are the expectations and family rules clearly defined?”

Child development can also be a factor in family relationships, she said. “If biological mom has an 8-year-old and stepdad has an 8-year-old, those kids may not be on the same developmental page - they may be worlds apart in their maturity and how they’re growing and how they learning.

“It’s important they are being accepted as they are – by all the parents,” she said.

Other influences, including addictions, past abuses, job stresses may affect how family members relate and interact, DeHoff said. “It’s kind of a ripple effect.”

Each session provides an opportunity for self-evaluation, DeHoff said.” When the family members begin identifying their actual communication patterns, see their actual roles in the family and experience what’s working, what’s not, the change in direction begin.

“It’s kind of like unlocking pieces of the puzzle,” she said. “Once everyone is on the same page, they can go back to talk therapy, if they choose, and process through any issues that may need to be worked out.”

Any kind of therapy will only be as successful as families want it to be, DeHoff said. “We don’t have that power to wave a magic wand and everything will be perfect in the family.

“The more solutions for problem solving you can come up with, the more success you will have,” she said.

The counseling program for stepfamilies may be covered by some insurance plans. When grant funding is in place, the funding is passed on to clients who come for counseling, DeHoff said.

Weekly appointments to offer counseling help in blending families for success are available by calling 419-833-1308.or visit www.serenityfarm.org. The farm also offers equine-assisted therapy combined with counseling practices to those coping with addictions, sexual/physical abuse, behavior modification issues, teen development, childhood obesity other issues.

With stepfamilies, often one or more members may feel “outside” of the regular family.  The  horses “mirror” this dynamic in the counseling sessions with members of blended family members.  Looking at this picture, can you tell who is new to the family?

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