Relationships are hard, rewarding work. Factor in a transition and loss such as separation, divorce or death of a spouse; and the subsequent rebuilding of a new family unit will mean new challenges to work through. Eager anticipation and trepidation may precede the uniting under one roof but with early preparation, consistent communication and support, these can be navigated more smoothly. We chat with experts and experienced blended families who share some tips and insights.
By Lauren Manuel
LOVE ISN’T ENOUGH, PUT IN THE WORK.
“My rule of thumb when you’re dating is no contact with your partner’s children for at least the first year,”
suggests Mental Health Therapist and Social Worker, Kim Abrahams. “You don’t get to your partner through the kids; you get to the partner on the baseline first and the kids are the bonus. As beautiful as the love is between two people, that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen instantly for the children and people forget that. When you’re in love…you’re on the roller-coaster. But at some point, the roller coaster stops.”
A misalignment of parenting styles is also a common challenge Kim encounters as often the spouse joining an existing unit (i.e. a person marrying a partner with children) is not encouraged to use his/her voice or advocate for his/her role in the family or to discipline the children. If the groundwork is not solid, it’s a mess.
PREPARATION SHOULD BEGIN BEFORE MOVING IN TOGETHER
Don’t wait until the poo hits the fan. When first contemplating a long-term relationship, moving in together and/or marriage, this is the best time to start family therapy and not during the move-in. Start the awkward conversations. Kim finds that most families seek help when they’re already in crisis but pre-work should begin prior to moving in together and therapy should be continuous.
HOLD SPACE FOR THE CHILDREN TO COMMUNICATE
“When it comes to the children, I see a lot of anger and anxiety”, says Kim. “On the flip side, there’s submissive behaviour which escalates thereafter. Just because you’re moving into the children’s house it doesn’t mean they are not grieving the life they thought they would’ve had. Kids are in pain and they don’t know how to express it. Behind anger is always pain; they are being rude, disrespectful, manipulative, vindictive, but it comes from a place of not being able to communicate their needs.”
Parents should prioritise regular times individually or together with their children to ask how they are feeling.
Transparent, vulnerable conversations where adults and children share should be encouraged. Stepchildren should be consulted about what name they feel comfortable using for the stepparent. A nurturing community should be sought.
A neutral party such as a play therapist is always a good idea as children may only be able to express themselves through play and not words.
ADD ONE INGREDIENT AT A TIME
change to: One family shared their idea that a blended family is a slow cooker i.e. you’ve got to add one ingredient at a time, watch it, let it simmer and know that it’s a meal you will only get to enjoy years later.
Families should equip themselves with knowledge, mentors and socialise with other blended families. Each family walks its own path and comes with its own unique set of circumstances therefore it should lean into its own support system and leave what does not work for it. The family should then be re-imagined and co-created by the willing partners in their own way.
Conflict will arise but there are learned tools which can over time assist with conflict.
LEAVE WIGGLE ROOM FOR INDIVIDUAL MEMBER GROWTH
This journey is new for everyone and family members need to understand and honour each other’s differences allowing for room for growth and for rules to be adjusted accordingly (as children grow older).
SET UP A SACRED WEEKLY FAMILY TIME
Set aside a weekly family time which encourages participation for all ages. It could be a pizza or movie night every Friday where different family members get to be in charge of food/genre selection. Seasonally this could expand to family road trips, camping or holidays.
CREATE FAMILY RULES TOGETHER WITH YOUR CHILDREN
Create family rules together that are visible in the home. Start with a few core family rules where each person gets to add one rule. A helpful script is “In this family we never… i.e. talk to each other with respect, are careful with the words we use, try to keep our voices down. Exclude the word ‘don’t’ from any of the rules.” Kim says “You’ll be surprised. Sometimes even the 3-year-old will add a rule like, “Can we have ice cream?” You can negotiate this – perhaps ice cream on movie night. Family rules can be a fun thing; involving eating and scribing and it becomes a unified tool.”
DON’T ALLOW HUMOUR TO ESCAPE YOUR HOME
Make humour a priority in your home. Some things aren’t going to be funny, but ensure you’re able to laugh at yourself, and your mistakes and tell yourself and your children it’s ok to mess up. Sometimes bursting into laughter can de-escalate a situation and result in a shocked child giving the parent time to ask ‘What was that
A big thank you to Kim Abrahams for her insight into this article as well as the blended families who shared their wisdom. Kim has been a qualified Social Worker and Mental Health Therapist for the past 15 years. Her private practice services are based in Cape Town and London. Her areas of specialisation include working with trauma, grief, family separation, anxiety, and depression. Kimabrahams.com