It takes a lot of clarity to make blended families work, says Karen Kiernan, chief executive of One Family, which works not only with people who are moving out of a two-parent relationship but also those moving into one, and with "the children who are in the middle".
You really have to be careful with children around this, she warns. “You can’t gloss over things; you can’t pretend things aren’t happening and that someone else doesn’t exist because you have a new shiny person in your life.”
Scenarios for blended families vary, but "this is complicated stuff", she warns.
With up to four adults involved, it can help to work with a skilled mediator to devise child-centred arrangements and also to consult children.
“An adult could be in the flush of passion - their life has come back to them and they’re jumping into another serious relationship. And their children,” adds Kiernan, “could be going ‘are you kidding me? We’ve just gone through a separation. I had a happy family and you broke it up and now you’re trying to create a second happy family’.”
Meanwhile, Treoir, an information service for unmarried parents and their children, has made the development of shared-parenting services one of the five priorities in its 2019-2023 strategic plan. It can be contacted through its helpline 01 6700120.
Here are some tips on blending families from One Family, which starts new parenting courses via Zoom this week and can be contacted through the helpline (01-662 9212) or onefamily.ie:
- Never presume just because you as adults are in a good relationship that your children will be overjoyed to meet your new partner's children;
- Ensure your couple relationship is strong and stable before subjecting children to a blended family. You will need to agree how you both play a role in parenting each other's children, especially if they are young and you are left in charge at times;
- It must be made very clear to children that new partners are not replacing mum/dad. They should always call the new partner by their first name;
- Children usually choose who they become friends with, so being landed with someone else's children all of a sudden is not easy and they may not get along. Yet they need to feel at home in each parent's home;
- Children want to spend time with parents and not always with new blended families, unless you are very lucky. Sharing you may be a challenge;
- If you have no children but are moving in with your new partner and their children, you need to do it in stages. It is a bit like being an uncle/aunt. You need to support the children to have a good relationship with both biological parents and extended family – this comes before your family;
- Couple time is crucial. If you get caught up in childcare and parenting with no time as a couple, you will fall down. You must have a strong relationship, take time to talk and compromise, so you can parent children in the one home and meet their needs;
- Include children in the planning to become a blended family. Include the other parent(s) in this plan too;
- Explain family forms to children – do not presume they get it. Be factual and help them understand about whose mum/dad is whose biologically and otherwise, about step siblings and grandparents etc Help them explain their family form to others and to feel proud of the family form they belong to.
Read: Blended families can benefit adults and children