Living between two homes is a growing reality for many children as more couples split up and co-parent.
And while the new arrangements may work to certain extents, it is also a fact that children spend more time with one parent than the other, typically visiting the second parent every second weekend. This translates into four visiting days a month.
So how do parents in this situation handle the logistics in terms of bedroom accommodation for visiting children? While many homes may have the space for each child to still have their own bedroom at ‘mom or dad’s house’, what happens when they do not? And even more importantly, what happens if their parent has remarried and their step-siblings who live in the home permanently have their own bedrooms?
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This can be a controversial issue to navigate as many blended families genuinely do not live in properties that can accommodate all the children, including those who are only there for two weekends a month. However, one does need to understand the impact not having their own space can have on a child when visiting their parents on these four days.
Mark de la Rey, a clinical psychologist practising at Akeso Kenilworth, says children can be affected differently by such situations, depending on a number of factors. Younger children, for example, may not mind not having their own bedroom as they tend not to recognise the need for their own space for shorter periods of time.
“It could be framed as being an adventure to go over to mom or dad for a sleep over, and sleeping on a mattress on the living room floor or in the bedroom.”
For older children, aged from about 10, this may start to be “more problematic” as they are “more sophisticated in their concept of privacy, and thus would want their own space or room”.
The impact of being without their own space, however, would be difficult to measure in real-time, de la Rey says, as a child’s response to being with that parent may also be dependent on their relationship.
“If it is a healthy, secure relationship, it would have less impact. If not, this could become problematic and they may refuse to go there after some time. Short term, it may be manageable, but as time passes and as they get older, the more relevant it may become to their experience.”
The situation could become more difficult when step-parents and step-siblings are involved though. After all, not only does the child have to deal with their mother or father spending more time with ‘their new children’ than themselves, but those children have their own bedrooms and the biological child does not.
This, he says, would be a much more complicated scenario and will “almost inevitably” lead to problems.
“The child is always going to feel that they are entering that home at a disadvantage if they do not have a space there. Even when kids have their own dedicated space there is often a natural tendency for them to compare what they have in relation to the other kids in the house. This even occurs among biological siblings, so it would almost inevitably lead to complications in the relationship between parent and step-parent and siblings.”
De le Rey goes as far as to say that the biological child in such a situation is “always going to feel like they are not a part of this new family unit”.
“They may even feel like they are simply a ‘visitor’.”
Step-parents can sometimes make the situation worse
In many cases, while parents want their biological children to feel completely at home with them and their new family, and may feel that their children deserve their own bedrooms, the new partner, or step-parent, does not feel it is necessary that these children have their own rooms as they are only in the home for four days a month.
Unfortunately, de le Rey says, new partners can often feel threatened by that child’s presence.
“This is often only a perceived threat, but in some cases, the child may behave in a hostile or offish manner to the new partner or spouse because of the hurt and insecurities they feel following their family break-up. This, in turn, may play out in the child’s relationship with their parent and spill out into that parent’s relationship with their new partner.”
The best advice he can give parents and step-parents is to create a room for the child, if they have the space to do so.
“If not, have a discussion with them about it and explain that this would be your preferred outcome, but it is just not possible under the current circumstances.”
Sharing bedrooms with step-siblings
If the child were to share a room with a step-sibling of appropriate age, then de le Rey says it would be beneficial to encourage them to bring some small personal items that they could leave there.
“It would also help to buy them their own individual duvet cover, pillow slip, and small items that give them some sense of place and ownership. If it is a space where there is only a bed, do the same, and provide them with clear directions about matters such as where they can change in secure privacy and so on.”
To split bedrooms and create an extra space, interior designer Will Engelbrecht of Will Design says families can make a stackable divider with twin beds so that when two children occupy the bedroom, the stack can be closed. Another option is for younger children to share bedrooms, or older children, when visiting, to have their own space in another sibling’s bedroom by using a curtain as a divider.
Sharing a home with step-family
Stepping into a ‘new’ home with a ‘new’ family can be daunting and intimidating for children, so it is important for parents and step-parents to make that home a space where all children feel safe, secure, and comfortable.
One of the most important tools we have, de le Rey says, is communication.
“Sometimes communication with a child is simply a matter of showing interest, listening, and making them feel that they are special in that way, giving them some of your time. And when planning for those visits, ask them what they would like to do. As far as possible, involve them in even some of the mundane aspects of being part of the family,” he advises.