"Who's in my family?" Coping with blended family dynamics

Who's in my family?

This may seem like a very easy question for families where both parents are together, raising their children under the one roof. For everyone else, though - families headed by a single and/or widowed parent, separated parents, and families where each partner has children from a previous relationship - the answer can be quite complex.

For children, the answer is often not what you may expect. Even where parents separated where a child was a baby, in their mind their family may still be both parents and their siblings, regardless of who is living where, and how much or little contact they may have with one or both parents. 

Parents can really struggle with a child's definition of who is in their family, and may put pressure on children to view a new partner, and sometimes their children as well, as 'your new Dad/Mum', 'your new brothers/sisters'. Parents may believe that enforcing this idea will promote good relationships and reduce conflict.

In fact, the opposite is true. Children's sense of who they are is linked with who their parents are. They may have heard messages from when they were little such as "You're just like your Dad - when he was little he liked ......" or "You look so much like your Mum". This cannot be replaced with a relationship with a parent's new partner, no matter how hard everyone tries.

Where it is not possible for a chlld to have an ongoing relationship with a parent, it is still of the utmost importance to allow them the right to  nurture a relationship with that parent in their own way - this may be through keeping special photos and momentos, and making time to keep that parent alive in the imagination of the child through positive stories about them - not always easy to do where separation may have been acrimonous, or where violence has occurred.

Giving your child permission and space to define who is in their family, regardless of your current household configuration, is one of the best ways to minimize conflict between them and your new partner and his/her children. Everyone becomes free then to form their own relationships and define for themselves what these are.  

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