"Now I can finally unpack!"
The night before my nephew, Nathan, left for college, he spoke excitedly about how he finally would be getting a place of his own, even if only a dorm room. Nathan had been living out of a suitcase since his parents divorced when he was 11. Because his parents had shared custody of him, they divided his time between the two homes — a few days at Mom's place, a few days at Dad's, week after week, year after year.
"Whenever Mom, Dad or the steps told me to unpack, I'd go upstairs and dump my bag out on the floor," Nathan says. "I thought, Why bother? I knew I'd be leaving again in a couple of days."
Like many children from blended families, Nathan lived a life of constant transition. Life meant two sets of parents, two groups of siblings and two different beds. It meant switching between different rules and routines and having two homes, yet often feeling as if he were not a part of either. Parents are often unaware of the stress a child endures when he's shuffled between two homes.
Children crave stability. In its absence, they may become territorial about their belongings and their space. Their "things" become their security.
I remember a young boy, Josh, whom I was working with in a day-camp program. His father had brought him to camp an hour before his mother dropped off his stepbrother. When the stepbrother walked into the room, Josh's eyes filled with tears.
"That's my new shirt he's wearing," he sobbed. "Dad gave it to me for my birthday. How could Mom let him wear it?"
To Josh, who shared his entire life with a new stepbrother, the loss of a simple shirt made him feel as if he'd been betrayed.
As a parent, you can help each child feel like a valuable, respected member of the family and take measures to minimize the stress of switching homes by doing the following:
- Establish an arriving ritual. Rituals provide an emotional connection so children can integrate themselves into a different environment. It could be something as simple as a special handshake, a high five or a hug.
- Value and protect each child's space and belongings. Assign individual storage places, and instruct siblings not to touch other kids' belongings.
- Give kids choices. Choices empower children and allow them to feel as though they have some control over their lives.
- Assign chores and responsibilities. Children feel welcome and valuable when they contribute to a functioning household.
- Keep a calendar on the refrigerator so there is no confusion on who is coming and going.
- Aim for a time when all the kids are together when planning big family activities.
- Allow children to spend quality alone time with their birth parent.
- Realize that some extended family will be partial to their biological grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Explain what is happening to the children who may feel left out, and let them know that they are special to you.
- Most important, pray every day that you'll not overlook the needs of any child. Ask God to give you a deeper insight into each child's personality, talents and skills, as well as his likes and dislikes. By knowing as much as you can about each child, you'll be able to truly value him for who he is.