Blended Families and Co-parents: Communication
Written by:- Monique Engelbrecht
Kids Life Coach
Play Well Live Well Kids Life Studio®
As a Kids Life Coach, I have a special interest in family dynamics which include blended households, divorce, single-parents, and co-parents. I was raised as an only child by a single-parent mother who provided me with a loving and supportive environment. She was my best friend when I needed it and my mother when my behaviour called for it. Nonetheless, I still endured some stressful, confusing, and heartsore times as a result of the family dynamic I grew up in which involved step-parents, weekend visits, step-siblings, etc. Having personally experienced the effects of blended households, I walked around with scars and baggage that I now know could have been healed earlier in life. Had I had the confidence to stand up for myself, I probably wouldn’t have always been scared and nervous to go visit my stepbrothers and stepmother. I think certain situations could have turned out differently. I was lucky to have an immediate close bond with my stepdad, I called him ‘Dad’ even before their wedding, but he will also say that we had our fair share of tough times too. I’m sure many things would have turned out a bit differently in certain circumstances in the blended family, at least for myself. This is what fuelled my motivation to empower children to excel in life, regardless of circumstances and experiences.
I recently conducted a short survey to find out some of the most common challenges faced by other blended families and co-parenting environments. Most participants answered as the biological parent and were either single, part of a blended family, or practiced co-parenting with their single ex-partner. Regardless of the different environments and circumstances, these families all had similar experiences and challenges. Below is a graphical representation of the results:
It can be very challenging for children to adjust to their new family environment, as seen with the 80% of families who experienced this difficulty. This difficulty in adjusting may be due to various reasons such as different parenting styles, new siblings, divided attention, relocating, etc. My parents divorced before I turned two and although I didn’t grow up having a problem with this, I only started visiting my father every second weekend from age eight. So this was the adjustment and new routine I had to get used to. Not just visiting my dad more often, but visiting with his stepsons and his wife. Regardless of when any types of changes take place, it is important to discuss the new family arrangement with your child before the changes take place so that they are prepared and have an idea of what to expect. Give your child the opportunity to ask any questions and patiently put any of their concerns at ease. By doing this you are giving your child a sense of control in their changing environment, which in turn can reduce their own anxiety towards the situation. This will also help your children see that they are in a safe environment where their feelings and concerns can be acknowledged. I remember moaning every Friday saying that I don’t want to go to my father because I had to face my stepmom. My mom would almost every time say to me that I always just feel this way before going, but when I come back on a Sunday I say that it was not too bad. These circumstances were few and it was because of small negative incidents that made me feel extreme anxiety and stress, because I knew that I would not know what to do if something ugly had to happen again. My mom was not there to help in those exact moments during my visits and so my thoughts were fixed on feeling negative, expecting the negative, and literally feeling stress and often anger. I coach children to become part of their own solution, and with practical tools they can dismiss their perceived fears and replace it with positive and creative opportunities. Children learn that their outside world (other people’s choices, their environment, and everything around them) is not in their control. However, they have control over how they think about situations and by applying practical tools to help change the way they perceive these situations, they can regulate their emotions and come up with positive solutions.
Furthermore, it is also important to allow your child to communicate with you so that they don’t bottle up any emotions and negative thoughts. Always be honest when speaking to your kids. This is not to say that you can vent any negative feelings towards your ex to your child and burden them with bigger challenges, but if your child has a question, they are asking that question for a reason. For example, if your child wants to know why you and your ex are separating, you can answer that without your own personal feelings toward it. Be age-appropriate in your answers and let them understand the reality of situations. I was quite the introvert growing up and I wouldn’t really ask questions. I would just go with the flow and do what I had to do. When I did ask questions, my mom answered honestly and on a level that I could understand, but she would not delve into the topic. I had an answer and I could decide how to feel and think about that. My mother always said that one day I would get older and ask straight up questions to both her and my father and that is what happened. So trust the timing, explain at an age-appropriate level, and perhaps already start preparing for questions that may come at any age so that you are prepared and your emotions won’t get involved. Communication is a key focus area when it comes to coaching kids, as they learn practical ways to communicate in a positive and effective manner. They understand that they may be in a situation where different perceptions may cause conflict, and by empathising and understanding each other’s reality they are able to come out stronger in any negative situation.
Most blended families and co-parents struggle to communicate effectively. As mentioned in my previous blog https://www.pwlw.co.za/post/keeping-your-child-s-routine-in-a-co-parenting-environment, it will be beneficial to communicate with your ex-partner in a business manner. This is especially helpful if there is still a lot of hurt and anger between parents as this will help keep the focus on your child. As advised by 100% of participants in the survey, it is important to always put your child first. Many participants elaborated on this stating that any personal issues should be put aside. If you are struggling to trust your ex, see whether this distrust is coming from your own personal history or not. More often it is not that parents don’t trust their ex with their child specifically, because at the end of the day all parents want what is best for their child. So if your distrust gets in the way of your child’s adjustment, see whether it is personal and dismiss this when your child is involved. Nevertheless, it was refreshing to see that most participants were able to spend time together for special occasions, such as holidays and birthdays, as a blended family or co-parents. Many participants expressed the difficulty and time it took to get there but because they had their child’s interest as top priority, it got easier over time. I would be lying if I wrote about how my parents used to communicate. I cannot remember ever hearing them having a conversation over the phone. Apparently, there were “rip-roaring fights” and toxic communication but I was sheltered from this. I was just told “your father is coming this time and will drop you off that time.” I grew up knowing that I am the child, mom calls the shots, and that’s the way it is. We also never spent special occasions together. For me it was one side of the blended family and the other side of the blended family. The one was not involved with the other. Fortunately, over the years wounds were healed and forgiveness and apologies were handed out. Given the history I felt free once this happened. At my wedding, I was proudly given away by both dads and my mom. There will be another blog to explain this event 😊. Perhaps it took so long for a reason. However, what if that reason was just because I wouldn’t know how, and didn’t have the skills, to handle the conflict and try to work things out. What if I knew how to communicate effectively, understand perspectives, know how to handle conflict, appreciate differences, etc.? How different would things be? I can guarantee there would be less wounds to heal later in life.
If you are co-parenting and are part of a blended family, I salute you. There is no perfect recipe to the perfect family and now you are part of a family that adds so many more different ingredients to the mix. Rest assured- that is okay. Each family is different, special, and unique. Celebrate this and keep moving forward. At the end of the day, all your child needs is your unconditional love and support and this is the foundation to a solid new beginning.
If you would like to know more about how Kids Life Coaching can assist your children with practical skills and tools to become part of their own solution, get in touch and take the first step in getting your special family to thrive.
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