Complicated family relationships

Questions about family can be a challenge to answer; they can also be an emotional minefield for you

“Are Joan and Frank our grandparents?” This question from my daughter, about her dad’s partner’s parents, led to a lengthy discussion about who’s who in her family tree. They certainly feel like grandparents — kind people she sees on holidays and at the cottage — but they’re not, strictly speaking, relatives. And for me, I have to admit that it’s hard to put Joan and Frank, whom I’ve barely met, on the same tier of family relations as my own or my ex’s folks.

It’s not uncommon for children this age to have a family tree project assigned at school, so you may find yourself trying to explain that your sister Susan and Ted have children together, but Ted’s son Mackenzie’s real mom is Jane. Or your child may be curious as to why Uncle Bob and Aunt Tina aren’t coming to Thanks-giving dinner together.

Breakups and new relationships

Few families are unaffected by breakups and new relationships. The Canadian divorce rate is about one in four marriages, and statistics show that two to three years after a separation, one or both parents of almost half the children of separated couples have entered a new union. Not only that, the social landscape is shifting too. Common-law and gay relationships are more widely acknowledged and accepted.

Kids need to know that families can look very different from their own, that there’s lots of variation, says Waterloo, Ont., social worker and family counsellor Linda Toner. “Be frank and open from the beginning, and provide your kids with age-appropriate explanations.” If a cousin has a same-sex partner, you might say, “People of the same gender sometimes fall in love with each other just like people of the opposite sex do.”

Often these questions arise because there’s been a change — a divorce, separation or remarriage — that reconfigures the family tree. “Kids are very visual, so drawing a picture often helps,” says Toner, who uses a W-shape, with the names of the separated couple in each V to denote a relationship that has ended. Young children also need to know what the breakup means — that Uncle Bob and Aunt Tina have stopped feeling the same way about each other, but they haven’t stopped loving their children, and perhaps there will be opportunities to spend time with each of them and with those cousins.

“Kids want to know how they fit in the new picture,” says Toner. “What will stay the same and what will change? Say your mom has a new partner she’d like to introduce to her granddaughter. Talking to your daughter in advance is important: ‘Grandma has a new friend and he’s going to come to the zoo with us.’” A chat with your mom before the outing will ensure that you’re providing consistent answers to your daughter’s questions: “Grandma and Harold aren’t planning to get married right now. They enjoy spending time together.” “Your grandpa will always be your grandpa even if he and your grandmother aren’t together anymore.”

Another tip from Toner: When it comes to naming a new relationship, take your cue from the person who created it. “Your child will feel more comfortable if he knows that he can think of Harold as Grandma’s friend and it’s OK to call him Harold.”

In Toner’s experience, “Kids do tend to accept changing family situations and go with the flow.”

Explaining a tangle of relationships may be harder for you — if there’s been an affair, for instance, you may feel hurt or angry about what’s happened. Toner empathizes, but says, “It’s best to reserve conversations about those feelings for adults only and remain as calm and neutral as possible when talking to your children.”