Breaking up or blending – help your kids cope with change in your family structure

Mental help and practical advice at hand for those navigating new living situations

Tuesday, 26 July 2022 As every parent knows, raising a family is challenging even at the best of times. Those experiencing a change in their living situation due to a split between parents or the forming of a new, blended family are faced with an entirely more difficult reality.

Dr Terri Henderson, a child psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth, says that for children to experience well rounded development, they need to be in a family structure with strong role models. “Childhood development happens in stages and major traumas, such as divorce, can interfere with that development. This however does not have to be the case if handled correctly from the outset,” she says.


Deal with loss first

Dr Henderson notes that from a child’s perspective, the central theme during any change in family structure is loss, with worries around questions they may not openly express, such as ‘What is going to happen to me?’ What will happen to my mom or dad? When will I get to see them? When will I get to see my pets? How will I get to school?’, for example.

“Adjusting to new living arrangements can have some behavioural and emotional consequences. Children and teens may seem less interested or enthusiastic about their normal, familiar activities. This may look like withdrawal from play activities, friendships, school, sport and hobbies. Children may show their distress through physical complaints such as tummy aches or repeatedly saying they feel sick. If any of these behaviours persist this may be cause for concern and professional help should be sought.

“Furthermore, if your child sees that you are also accessing professional help this can go a long way to alleviating some of their concerns, as they will worry less about you, provided that you discuss this at their level and explain that it is ok to ask for help,” she says.


Communication is key

“Communication upfront is of the utmost importance in preparing your child for the change that is about to take place. This can be difficult when you are dealing with your own concerns but it is a crucial stage in the process of mentally preparing your child for living between two homes or blending with another family.

“What you say and how you say it must be pitched at the age appropriate level. Explain the essence of the situation calmly and clearly, with the focus being on your child’s experience. The most important and protective message to keep getting across is this: Our family structure is going to be different but we are thinking about you constantly in our planning, and we will try our best as parents to work together to make sure you have what you need.


Don’t rush

“When forming a blended family it is highly advisable to make time for counselling regarding the new relationship to assist you in navigating important areas, such as the needs of your new partner’s children, how to manage things with your partner’s ex, what the parenting rules and roles are going to be, and so on. It is essential to do this foundational work so that you can embark on the new journey as a unified front in a relationship that will stand the test of time.

“Prioritising the relationship over what the children need is a mistake – the new relationship is more likely to survive if the kids feel cared for and are adjusting well to a new family life,” Dr Henderson cautions.

Mark de la Rey, a clinical psychologist practising at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth, points out that new partners in a blended family should be mindful that children may behave in a hostile or offish manner because of the hurt and insecurities they may have carried over from the breakup of their original family.

“This in turn may spill out into the new relationship. For this reason, family counselling that also includes the children, in addition to counselling for the new couple, can be highly beneficial,” he says.


Practical pointers

De la Rey advises that in cases where a child is living between two homes and potentially sharing a space with a stepsibling, they should bring some personal items to leave there in a secure place. “It would help to buy them their own individual duvet cover, pillow slip, and other soft furnishings that give them a sense of place and ownership. It is also important to think about matters such as where they can change in privacy.”

 Dr Henderson adds that providing children with their own space and belongings in a second home makes them feel like somebody has thought about them. “It is important to show your children that you have them in mind – something as simple as always keeping their favourite cereal in the house can be reassuring.

“It can also be useful to make the household routine and rules visible by putting everyone’s schedule up in the kitchen as well as a roster for household chores – this adds a more tangible element to life in their new environment and helps to put them at ease,” she says.


Hold onto your lifejackets

“In a change of family structure, routine is your number one lifejacket. Providing a framework through routine, especially across two different homes but also within a single home, helps to make children feel secure. It is the details that matter here – the time you wake them, leave to go to school, serve dinner, put them to bed as well as keeping to the weekly schedule of extramural activities, visits with grandparents and so on.

“Your other two lifejackets are consistency and predictability. If you consistently phone them at say 6pm every evening that will do wonders. If you see them every second Saturday, for example, without fail, that will go a long way. This says: I am going to make time for you no matter what, because you matter to me,” says Dr Henderson.

“If you are inconsistent on the other hand, what you are telling your child is that they are not worthy enough for you to make the effort to be there for them. You can still parent effectively over separate spaces by agreeing to do what’s best for the children and following through.”


Take a collaborative approach

De la Rey notes that including children in planning their visits or contributing to certain aspects of the new home can make them feel seen. “If you are discussing an upcoming visit or special family time together, ask them what they would like to do. As far as possible, involve them in even some of the more mundane aspects of being part of the family, as this will give them a sense of belonging,” he says.

Laying down certain boundaries before moving forward together as a blended family is essential, according to Dr Henderson, as this helps to set expectations and manage inevitable moments of conflict in which children may try to play one partner off against the other.

“When children are feeling uncertain, they will push a boundary. If the boundaries are reasonable, and you are all on the same page, you should be able to work together as a family successfully,” she advises. “Boundaries for teenagers are more likely to work if you set them together – this helps to create an environment that is acceptable to everyone. However, you as the parent will still have to make some tough decisions.


Commit to quality time

“Making quality time to connect with your children outside of the blended family is the cornerstone of maintaining a good relationship. Here, they are able to access you in their own way and in their own time. Make a standing weekly date with them and stick to it, so they don’t get lost in the blended environment.

If your child does not live in your blended family on a permanent basis, you have to make time to be available to them, not only when they visit you but also while they are living away from you, in order to stay connected, otherwise the other children will get all of your parenting presence. Ultimately, quality time with your child lets them know that you are there for them, it lets you know where they are mentally, and it keeps you connected,” concludes Dr Henderson.

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