How Can I Explain Our Blended Family to My Son?
Although the discussion about your blended family with a young child may bring up uncomfortable questions and explanations, Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., explains how to turn this into an opportunity to celebrate family as having many different forms.
The concept of a "normal" family structure has come a long way from the 50s Leave it to Beaver model. Recent statistics from the Pew Research Center show that less than half of children in the United States live with two married parents in their first marriage. The good news is that the definition of "family" has become so much more inclusive, and family is celebrated in many diverse forms.
Although there is increased acceptance and commonality of blended and diverse family structures, answering your own child's questions about it is different from responding to society norms! It sounds like your son is asking normal developmental questions, but because of their importance, you want to be assured you are responding well.
Create a Family Tree
Children this age are visual learners, so creating a family tree with your son to show the different connections and branches could be a great starting point for the discussion. Include which relationships branched into which children, and how the people from those relationships came together. This allows for an opportunity to highlight some advantages of a blended family, like more grandparents and cousins!
This activity also lays the foundation for the more serious discussion about how grown-ups can love each other enough to get married and/or have children, and then the grown-ups' feelings can change. You don't have to get into the gritty details, but in keeping with your son's developmental level, explain that being an adult is complicated and adults need to make difficult decisions about love and relationships. Let your son take the lead with whatever questions he has about the details, and keep your answers as simple and honest as possible.
Confront Divorce Anxiety
One question to anticipate is your son wondering if you and his mother will stay together, or get divorced. When children have been closer to separation and divorce, they can experience a sense of their parents' relationship as fragile and unstable. Children prone to anxiety may worry about this with little basis—like fretting that a normal marital argument means divorce is certain! This fear can underlie anxiety in kids because the family structure serves as the foundation of safety and security, and any threat to it increases fear and worry.
In this context, it is critical to blend reassurance with honesty. Reassure your son that you and his mother love each other very much, and got married because you want to spend your whole lives together, but nobody can ever make promises about the future because we do not really know. This can be hard for parents because we so badly want to create and maintain security for our children, but we also want them to trust us. And most of us have lived lives that prove us to NOT be psychic!
You really don't know what the future holds, and it's okay to help your child manage uncertainty. However, you can also assure him with whatever is true right now, like maybe how you and his mother have learned from your first marriages, and know even better now what makes each of you happy, which is each other!
Explain He is Not Alone
Ask him about his friends or classmates who may have mentioned their parents divorcing or separating. Based on the numbers, odds are your son has heard these stories from friends, which may also help normalize the reality of a blended family structure. At age 8, depending on his maturity level, he can start to comprehend more abstract concepts like how others' experiences might feel different from his own. This can serve as an opportunity to build empathy through perspective-taking.
Monitor Your Family Dynamic
If I counted right, your son has four older siblings with different biological parent sets. One risk in blended families is some children feeling less important than others because of who is married/partnered with whom. Your son has his two biological parents united in the same household, so it's possible there could be jealousy from his half- and step-siblings who do not have their original family structure. This can lead to sibling rivalry, both obvious and subtle. Watch for how this might play out, and it doesn't hurt to just ask your son how he feels he is treated by his older siblings. As the youngest, he is probably the most vulnerable, but also has the "baby" effect, which may endear him to all!
The Bottom Line
Although this discussion about having a blended family includes awkward explanations and may bring up questions you wish you could delay forever, you can put a positive spin on it. Blended families celebrate different types of love, and can teach children how familial relationships do not need to share DNA! A better definition of family is how we treat each other: with love, support, honesty, and respect, which you can model in this very conversation with your inquiring son.
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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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