Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Blended, Not Broken Families

I am product of a blended family. Only until very recently did I not feel a huge stigma around this piece of my personal life. My parents, though not perfect, have been largely able to co-parent without significant conflict, I have several friends whose parent's divorced and remarried, so it was surprising for me that I didn't really worry about 'being a child of divorce' until my adult life when I became a therapist serving as a support person for families and children who already are members of blended families or whose parents are in the process of divorce and separation.Then I heard the stories of 'how damaging the divorce is for children'. I thought, is that me? When my client's ponder the changes occurring in their own sense of self and wonder, 'Am I damaged goods?' what do I tell them?

Even under the best circumstances, there is no question that divorce is a loss. However, viewing one's family as blended, not broken is crucial for the the rebuilding and transformation that occurs as part of the healing process after divorce. As I learned more about the phenomenon of divorce I was relieved to learn that the so called 'adverse effects of divorce on children' are virtually nonexistent when the divorce itself is a factor. Children possess incredible resilience. What actually has a negative effect on children of divorce is the presence of conflict within the co-parenting relationship.

Wow! I thought as I breathed a huge sigh of relief .THIS IS IMPORTANT!

Divorced spouses who must transition from a marital romantic relationship to a co-parenting business-like relationship know this, but admittedly, the that transition is not without it's challenges. Some fundamentals to a navigating a successful co-parenting relationship with your spouse and honoring your blended family include:

1. Don’t speak negatively about your ex-spouse in front of or to your child. Your ex-spouse is your child’s parent and your child will absorb some of those negative perceptions into his/her own self-concept.

2. Do not use your child as a messenger to deliver information to the other parent. If you are not speaking to the other parent, communicate with the child's therapist, and give them permission to communicate co-parenting concerns between yourself and the other parent.

3. Child support, insurance benefits, and visitation are benefits belonging to your child, not your ex-spouse. Don’t use your child to get revenge on the other parent by denying these things.

4. Parents naturally want to know what their child is doing when they are with the other parent. However, a barrage of questions when the child is transitioning from one household to another can feel uncomfortable to your child. Don't use your child as a spy.

5. Your child wants to please you. Don’t make them chose sides in a dispute with the other parent.

6. When your child discusses their relationship with the other parent be neutral and supportive. Try to say nice things about the other parent such in connection to the positive aspects of your child's behavior, such as "Wow, those are great cookies you made! Your mother is a great cook too, I bet you got that from her. "

Your child will wonder about his/her sense of place or identify during these shifting family dynamics. Creating a family tree like this one pictured from Chathamhillgames.com is a fun and engaging activity to complete with your child to affirm their sense of self.

If one parent lives out of state, and your child is not a 'big phone talker' try to use alternative means of helping your child stay connected to their parent. Myfamily.com and FamilyCrossings.com are two free and or low cost websites that are private and provide an additional way for blended families to stay connected.

Lastly, get support. Working with a qualified mental health professional will give your child a neutral and supportive environment where he/she will be able to openly express his or her feelings. Having your own therapist, will offer you a private space from which to reflect and vent, while maintaining appropriate boundaries between yourself and your children.

Any additional helpful points to consider? Please share them below!


Phoenix Peacock said...

I'm curious about your suggestions for working with families that are preparing for a divorce. What are age appropriate ways to discuss it? I ask because I recently saw a kiddo who I felt like the mom was almost pathologizing him out of the fear that divorce would screw up her kid. He was age 7 and she was doing so many discussion to prepare him, that it seemed that was what was freaking him out...


Erin Brumleve MA, LPC, ATR said...

Thanks Phoenix for your comment. I wonder if Mom is feeling anxious herself about the unknown changes divorce brings, and perhaps is displacing such onto the child? I do think it's appropriate to have a discussion about changes in the family with young children. A book I love for 7 year old's is called "Dinosaur's Divorce". It is geared towards 5-8yr old's and has a dictionary in the beginning to explain words like 'judge' or 'custody' that may be a part of the child's experience. After the initial discussion, my recommendation is that parent's reassure children that they are loved and that the parent is available if the child has any questions or concerns. I agree with you that over-processing the experience can send the wrong message to the child.