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This is what you need to know when blending a family

A new family dynamic can stir up different emotions as it signals the end of a familiar structure and the beginning of a new one. Parents might also worry about how their children will adapt.

Change can be difficult, so being equipped with the vocabulary to communicate what a new family structure means for your kids is important.

Child Psychiatrist practising at Netcare Akeso Kenilworth Dr Terri Henderson aknowledges you may have mental and practical needs of your own to attend. “But you must also prepare your child to transition to a dual-home or blended-family scenario in an age-appropriate language,” she says.

“When having this conversation, focus on your child’s experience and stick to the essence of the situation, speaking in a clear, calm tone.” Regarding the contents of the conversation, she says “you need talk about their new home, who’ll live there, and practical aspects such as who’ll get which bedroom, when other children will be there, and if there’ll be a dual-living arrangement between families.”

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Glamour: What else should you consider?

Dr Terri Henderson: It’s helpful to plan new family rituals such as special pizza or board game nights and eating regular evening meals together. Explain that you and your partner will parent together but discuss new rules or boundaries with them in advance. It’s important to emphasise that it’ll take time for everyone to settle into the new family environment. It may not be the case that everyone will immediately get along, but everyone should try their best to be patient and respectful to all members of this new blended family.

G: What should parents keep in mind when navigating this new dynamic?

DTH: For your child, the experience of a change in family structure will revolve around a theme of loss. They’ll worry and have many questions, which they may not always express to you. The concerns they’ll have may include: What’ll happen to me? What’ll happen to my mom or dad, and when will I get to see them? How often will I see my pets? How will I get to school?

G: What’s the best approach to blending a family?

DTH: It’s important not to rush. Children should be introduced to one another on outings together over one to two years. It’s highly advisable to start with counselling around forming a blended family as a new couple before taking practical steps. This will help you and your partner plan to meet your children’s needs, establish parenting roles, manage relationships with ex- partners, and work together as a team.

G: What if there’s resistance from the children?

DTH: Children often act out or push boundaries when they feel uncertain, Showing you can work together as a couple through open communication and having reasonable boundaries can help create an environment that is acceptable to everyone. Teenagers, especially, are more likely to respect boundaries if they’re involved in setting them.

G: What if there’s resistance from the children?

DTH: Children often act out or push boundaries when they’re feeling uncertain, and there are going to be some moments of difficulty along the way – that’s to be expected. As a new couple, showing that you can work together through open communication to put reasonable boundaries in place can help create an environment that is acceptable to everyone. Teenagers are more likely to respect boundaries if they have been included in setting them.

G: How important is it to provide a space for kids to grieve?

DTH: Children and teens need time to grieve the loss of their previous family, and the amount of time they need depends on the individual. So, spend plenty of quality time with your children to stabilise their situation before introducing them to your new partner and moving towards a blended family.

G: What are signs a child isn’t coping?

DTH: Adjusting to changes in living arrangements usually results in emotional upheaval and altered behaviour. Your child may be less interested in their usual activities; somewhat disengaged from playing, friendships, school, sports and hobbies. Some children may have physical complaints such as a tummy ache or headache. Teens may seem more withdrawn and want to spend more time outside the family home connecting with friends. This is normal during the adjustment, but should any of these behaviours continue, it may be advisable to seek professional help.

G: How can parents best support their children?

DTH: Spending regular quality time connecting with your children outside the blended family unit sets the foundation for a solid connection and parental presence. Schedule a weekly date together. If you live apart from your child, make sure you connect with them and remain part of their daily life so that they know you’re available to them.

G: How can the parents reframe the language around the experience?

DTH: Work within a basic, non-biased explanation about the loss of your marriage, addressing their questions, sense of loss, insecurities and worries. With young children, explain the changes in short, simple sentences with a practical focus on the changes they’ll encounter. Talking to a seven to 12-year-old will require you to address the changes in your family and focus on access or arrangements for contact with their other parent, arrangements to see other family members and helping them maintain connections with school and friends. Teens may seem less interested in these changes, but they still need to have conversations around change and reassurance that they matter. Don’t rush into blending a family, and be patient.

Explain the new home’s rules and involve everyone in discussing its boundaries. Ensure the same rules apply to both sets of children equally. Prioritise a commitment to supporting each child and their interests and needs. Emphasise that adjusting will take time for everyone; it’s a work in progress and patience and tolerance of one another is crucial.Sticking to a daily routine is essential for helping children feel secure, right down to the time they wake up and go to bed.

Consistency and predictability help your child to know you care about them and will make time for them regardless of what else may be happening. Let’s say your child doesn’t live with you primarily. If you say you’re going to call them at 6pm every night, stick to that. Never be late or miss a call, as that’ll send the message your child isn’t worthy of your effort. If your child is living between two homes it goes a long way if both parents can agree to do what’s best for them.

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