Sunday 25 March 2018

Our blended family isn't blending! What can I do?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from our parenting expert on how to deal with the complexities of a blended family and how to cope a clingy toddler.

Question: I have recently remarried. My new husband has a daughter from his first marriage. She is eight and visits us regularly. I too have a daughter, aged seven, who lives with us and our daughters have not bonded as we had hoped. The girls go to different schools and have different interests. Their animosity is upsetting my husband, who complains that I am not welcoming his daughter when she visits. But I have to be careful not to over-compensate because it makes my daughter jealous if I seem too nice to his daughter. What can I do?

David replies: Lots of families have to work out how to accommodate new members and try to live in harmony. I can imagine that many of those families will admit that the process of accommodation (socially and emotionally, as well as physically), can be tricky at times. I think it might really help you and your husband to go and meet with a professional to get some advice and guidance about how to help blend your two families.

I don't think it is fair for your husband to blame you for the two girls not getting on. He doesn't seem to take account of just how complex an issue this might be for his own daughter, and for your daughter.

I think you need to encourage your husband to look at the situation from both of the girls' individual perspectives.

Taking his daughter first, it is easy to see how she may feel that she is being replaced, in her dad's affections, by your daughter. Moreover, your daughter now gets to live full-time with her dad, something that his daughter may be very jealous of.

His daughter may be upset, too, that you have "stolen" her dad from her. Your marriage underlines his love for you, and that may threaten his daughter's perception of his continuing love for her.

She may also really struggle to share her access time with her dad with you and your daughter. Before you lived with her dad, I assume that she got to have uninterrupted time with him when she visited. Now, he may be keen for you all to do "family" things, and this may not suit his daughter.

If any or all of these are issues for her, it would be easy for her to focus any frustration or upset that they might engender on your daughter, making your daughter the recipient of her bad feelings.

In much the same way, your own daughter may find the visits of her stepsister to be tense and stressful. She, too, is used to uninterrupted time with you and your husband, and so, it may always seem like an imposition when his daughter comes.

She may feel that she is expected to share her things, her room, as well as her mother when her stepsister comes to visit.

Do you and your husband live in the house that either of you owned previously, or is it a new home for you all? That sense of ownership (if present) may also be a factor for either girl, depending on who had owned the house.

Then there is the fact that the girls seem to have little in common in terms of schools, other friends, or general interests.

There are potentially several hurdles to overcome, for the girls, before they can even get to know each other properly, never mind become friendly. I think it is natural for you and your husband to hope that the girls might be friends, since they are close enough in age, but you certainly can't make assumptions that they will like each other.

I do think, though, that if you and your husband can create opportunities where each of the girls can talk separately and together about some of the challenges that I have outlined above, then they may find it easier to get on.

A great quote that I came across, in relation to sibling rivalry, is "it isn't until the bad feelings come out, that the good feelings can get in". This is a reference to the need for children to be able to voice the stuff they don't like about each other, or the situation, to allow greater space to then consider the positives.

If you feel the you and your husband may struggle to create such opportunities by yourselves, then getting the help of a good therapist, experienced with children and families, may be just the job.

My toddler won't let me out of his sight.  How can I stop him being so clingy?

Question: I have a 19-month-old son, who is incredibly attached to me. When I am in the room, he only wants to sit on my knee, come to me, follow me around. It is quite draining.

When he was an infant, I tailored my life to fit around him. Now I'm back to work and he is minded by me one day a week, my husband two days and a crèche two days.

I am terribly afraid that there is something wrong with him and he's unhappy. I'd love to rectify this, but also do something so that he knows I cannot be at his beck and call.

David replies: I think your son sounds like a very normal toddler! It is great that you were able to be home with him when he was an infant. It is also great that you were able to "fit around him" meeting his needs.

What this will naturally do is create an attachment for your son to you. This a good and healthy thing to do. Having secure attachments allow children to trust in the world. It gives them a sense that they can explore freely, knowing that if they need to, they can return to the secure base that their caregiver provides.

While you were home with your son, you probably provided him with that security. Because you were able to fit yourself around him, he could probably rely on you to be ever-present. It makes sense, if that was the case, that he would be dependent on you.

That kind of dependency is natural and normal for infants and toddlers to experience. Indeed, when they are that small, we actually want them to be happily dependent on us, and also to be confident that we can shoulder that dependency.

Then, as they get a little older their own boundaries expand as they go to childminders, crèches, family, preschool and so on. That transition is a big deal for children. They leave the security of their home and their primary caregiver and they have to become accustomed to new people and new experiences.

Some toddlers revel in this and are energised and excited to be exploring. They love the interaction with new people and the whole thing can seem very easy for them (and consequently for their parents too).

Other young children find the process more difficult. They are unsure about the new people or about the places where they now find themselves. The uncertainty that it creates can be very upsetting, even anxiety-provoking, for children.

Being unsettled, as things change in their environment or their routines, is very common for toddlers. They can often display their upset by being more clingy, working harder to hold onto the person, or the place, where they feel most secure.

So it can be very natural for toddlers, faced with changes like parent(s) returning to work, or new childminders, to want to have more time with their mum or dad.

If, like as in your case, the mum was the primary caregiver in their early months, then it is quite understandable that the toddler will cling to their mum, following her around and getting distressed if she leaves.

It will really help your son if you don't panic now. See his behaviour as a natural response to the recent changes of you going back to work and his care being split amongst several people.

Then, even though his language won't be very advanced, you can talk warmly and understandingly about how this can be hard for him. Try not to push him away (even if you feel like he is your constant shadow), but rather welcome him warmly.

Even though this can be draining, it will probably only be for a short time while he is adjusting to the new arrangements. Once he becomes used to the new routines and schedules, you should find that he settles more and needs you less.

Like many things, this will probably be just a phase that he is going through, and a phase that will pass.

But for now, he does need you, since you represent maximum security for him. If you can hold onto your reserves of patience and accept that he needs you, you may find that it is easier to tolerate that neediness. Knowing that it should fade in time may also help.

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