With the prevalence of divorce and separation, as well as re-marriage, it’s possible that a child will experience more than one set of parent figures. There’s their biological parents, their mom’s new spouse, their dad’s new spouse, and if their biological parents have re-married more than once, there’s also their parent’s ex-spouses. It is also possible that the child has been in the care of other parent-figures and care-givers as well (especially during times of marital instability and transition) such as grandparents, aunts and uncles and others. Sometimes the child is looked after by a variety of people all at once. What should be done to help minimize confusion for the child?
Consider the following:
Decide Who is Going to Take the Primary Parenting Role
A parent or a couple must take a bigger parenting role compared to others. Think of a family as an organization: how do you think it will fare if it’s an absolute democracy? Who will coordinate everyone’s efforts? How will tasks get delegated? Similarly, in a family, there needs to be a “headquarters” where decisions are made. The decision-making process between divorced parents is a matter that is decided in court. Once the legalities are settled, the process for making major decisions regarding the children should be straightforward. However, when a child lives in two or more households, there are daily smaller decisions that will be made by individual caretakers. For instance, in one household bedtime might be anytime while in the other household bedtime might be 9 p.m. sharp. When the child stays at Grandma’s for the weekend, bedtime may be 10 p.m. give or take twenty minutes. How does a child negotiate all these various rules and routines?
Communicate that Different Households May have Different Rules
When dealing with many parents — and many households — it’s helpful if an attitude of “let’s agree to differ” is in place. What is most harmful for the child is conflict between caregivers – not different routines. Therefore, each household will live according to its own values and priorities without attempting to impose their standards in the other homes. Moreover, the child should be told that each parent has his and her way of doing things and the child needs to comply with the rules of each household, just as a child in high school must comply with the various rules of each of 10 teachers that he might have.
Encourage Time with Everyone
Having many caring parents can be a blessing to a child. Helping the child access support and love from each caregiver is a gift. Therefore, unless there is some strong reason for the child to NOT have generous access to all parents, the ideal is to foster freeflowing communication. For instance, a child at house A should ideally be allowed to phone a parent in house B if he or she wants to. The child should never be made to feel that there is something wrong with a caregiver. If the law has established that visitation and communication is safe with an individual parent, then such visitation and communication should be encouraged and supported. Making a child feel that a caregiver is dangerous can cause mental disturbance to the child who must be in that person’s care. Putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.
Children’s mental health is at greatest risk after divorce when their parents are in conflict. Hopefully legal processes establish reasonable and safe procedures for the financial support of a child. However, some people behave badly after divorce and do not fulfill their legal responsibilities. In such cases, parents may fight their battles in court. Parents may also have to make alternate arrangements for financial support. Whatever has to happen is, in all cases, an adult matter. Children cannot solve these difficulties and therefore they shouldn’t be dragged into them. The adults will have to work these things out between themselves. The more children can be sheltered from the bad behavior of their parents, the better. A child is a product of both his mother and father. When he learns that one parent is irresponsible or disgusting, his own self-concept is harmed, The general rule is, “the less said, the better.” Going on and on about how there isn’t any money because a parent is too selfish to give it has the potential to seriously harm the emotional well-being of a child. Even though everything is true, and even though a parent is being badly hurt, there can be no justification for hurting the child. Again, putting the child’s emotional needs above all other considerations can guide a parent’s behavior in the right direction.