There is no perfect family, that much is true. And every household has issues, some just hide them better than others. So it can help to have some ideas of how to navigate the often tricky world of families, and how to gain support when we need it.
The days of the nuclear family taking centre stage are long gone. It’s estimated that currently, 43% of children aged less than 13 years of age experience life in families which aren’t the conventional mum, dad and a sibling. That’s 2 in 5 kids who are living in more complex families, than what we consider to the ‘norm’. So clearly, what works for one family unit doesn’t automatically apply to another.
Adopting a child
There’s nothing like bringing a new child into a family to create a little disruption. And in spite of all the planning and anticipation in the world, the reality of incorporating a new little person into the mix can be life changing. It’s meant to be big.
It can take a long time for everyone to find their own sense of space and place when a new child is adopted into a family.
- Children with special needs often require more time and energy to support them.
- Try to be patient as everyone finds their own new normal. Some children are noisy, others quieter as they transition and change.
- Don’t force the newly adopted child onto existing children in the family. Let relationships develop in their own good time.
- Biological children can react somewhat differently than expected when a child is adopted. And parents can feel a sense of guilt, and even betrayal, that they have introduced a new child into the family.
- Check what help is available through support organisations, as you all adapt to including an adopted child.
Bringing together two existing families is rarely without some challenges. Kids can view their biological siblings as somewhat imperfect until new members are added and then, a firm alliance of ‘us and them’ can form.
Communication is the key to success with blended families, with parents being open and transparent about what their intentions are. Every family member needs to have a voice and be heard, not just the more vocal ones.
There needs to be clear boundaries and understanding around how to respect everyone in a blended family. Because far from being one cohesive group, blended families are a mix of sometimes entirely different personalities and temperaments. Don’t assume step siblings of a similar age will have the same likes and dislikes. Even siblings who share the same DNA can be very different.
Though we all love the idea of a supportive family member knocking on the door at 5 pm with a casserole, the reality is that this is far from the usual. Most families are a mix of individuals who are supportive and selfish, helpful and isolated. There is no ‘normal’ when it comes to family support.
Be specific about the help you want. People cannot know what you want from them unless you tell them. Think about what you want to say, take a deep breath and be brave. A couple of minutes of verbal discomfort can reap untold benefits.
Expect differences in how your family support you. Some family members will be better at the practical side of doing things, others may be good talkers and some, will perhaps give gifts as a way of showing they care.
Reciprocate support when you can. Even if you don’t currently have time to return favours, make a mental note of what’s made a difference to you and when possible, try to pay it back.
Families are dynamic; they rarely stay the same for long periods of time. Illness, death, divorce, relocation, all cause disruption and everyone needs to shuffle around until they find their own new space. In the process of transition, it will be easy to think that you’ve got a snapshot for how things will be forever. But remind yourself, people and circumstances change.
Expect individuals to prioritise their own needs and families first. If they don’t, this is a signal that something may be wrong. Most people have times when all they can focus on is themselves, particularly in periods of stress. Be patient and aim to be understanding.
Teach people how you need to be treated. If you respect yourself and treat yourself well, others are more likely to do the same.
Ex- partners – what’s reasonable
No matter what the status of your relationship, if you and your ex share children, you will always be connected in some way. Do what you can to keep your relationship respectful. All of you will benefit from this.
Ex partners – what’s important
- Prioritise the children first and foremost. Be adult about keeping things reasonable with your ex. Aim to have calm and civil conversations at a time when you’re both feeling OK and able to focus on the kids.
- Know when you need professional help. Bail out if you feel things are becoming unsafe or, there is a risk of violence.
- Keep your kid’s school informed and up to date with what’s happening. If there are changes to next of kin details and contacts, let your children’s school/day care know. It’s not their job to keep up to date with changes in your family’s dynamics.
- Have adult conversations with adults and don’t look to your kids to be your counsellor.
- Don’t criticise your child’s other parent. At a base level, children who hear their parents being criticised may internalise this as self criticism.
- Be respectful, and keep the other parent informed of changes in care giving and decisions which affect your children. Your responsibility is to be transparent and honest, how they interpret this is out of your control.
Military families tend to be more mobile and often, have less of a say in their relocation than civilian families. It’s part of the deal when a parent signs up to join the military that they may need to be redeployed at the discretion of the Australian Defence Force (ADF). This makes it hard to nurture and maintain ongoing relationships with friends and contacts. And not just for the parents, but their kids as well.
We live miles away from our families, where can we get support?
Check with your local child health centre to see what services they recommend. Also check the local library for playgroups, reading time and activities. Sign yourself up with the local social media group of parents to see what’s on. Put yourself out there and see what flows.
My family isn’t close and I wouldn’t want their support anyway. What’s another option?
No family is perfect, avoid comparing yourself with others, there’s little value in that. Choose the people or groups you want to spend time with. Follow your children’s lead when it comes to making new friendships and invite other kids and their parents over if you feel comfortable to do this. And be open to fostering a grandparent if you feel you’d all benefit from an older person in your lives.
Written and reviewed by Jane Barry, midwife and child health nurse on 12/02/2020.
Last Published* November, 2021
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.