Getting children prepared for back to school can be challenging on its own and can get even more stressful in a non-traditional family.
Additional challenges such as thinking through the logistics of hauling stuff back and forth between houses, clarifying parental roles and communicating those with school teachers and trying to provide schoolwork consistency between houses can make things tricky.
In this episode we cover valuable insight into the ways co-parents can navigate this time well, do their best to make things run smoothly and importantly and ultimately set their kids up for success.
Elisabeth Shaw (00:00): Put the work, call the school or the doctor or whoever it is to really make an appointment and go together where the sort of expert in the situation takes the reins. That can be another way to stop yourselves. Getting into conflict
Laura Jenkins (00:13): In the Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it.
(00:42): Well, getting children prepared for back to school can be challenging enough on its own, but can get even more stressful in a non-traditional family, as well as having to turn your attention to supplies, clothing, and helping kids succeed academically and socially for parents in divorced and blended families, these challenges are compounded as they also have to think about things like the logistics of hauling stuff back and forth between houses, clarifying parental roles and communicating those with school teachers and also trying to provide schoolwork consistency between houses plus much, much, much more.
(01:17): My guest today is Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia, New South Wales. She’s a clinical and counseling psychologist and a specialist in family therapy with over 25 years of experience. I’ve recently heard Elisabeth speaking on a podcast about coping with the holidays after separation and divorce and I thought to myself, this is absolutely someone we need to have on the show. In today’s episode, Elisabeth will provide some valuable insight into the ways co-parents can navigate this time well, do their best to make things run as smoothly as possible as we enter the school year and importantly, set their kids up for success.
(01:58): Well, good morning, Elisabeth. Thank you so much for joining me today on In The Blend.
Elisabeth Shaw (02:02): Hi Laura. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Laura Jenkins (02:04):
Fantastic. Well Elisabeth, I was just saying I recently heard you talk about some of the challenges that the holiday period can present on another podcast. You were talking about the challenges from both the children and the adult perspective in blended families and how the challenges can differ depending on their individual situation. So as we’re now transitioning from what may have potentially been quite an emotionally fueled period into what is now this back to school season, blended families in particular are faced now with a new array of issues. So in your experience, Elisabeth, what are some of the reasons that blended families may find it more stressful than say a non-traditional family at this time?
Elisabeth Shaw (02:46): Well, realistically in many ways relationships work because of the engagement with a whole range of others in our lives. So we tend to diffuse the amount of intensity in relationships and enrich our relationships by being involved with others, whether it’s school or work or hobbies or other friends. And so there’s something about the holiday time where there is an expectation that you’re going to thoroughly enjoy time together and it’s all going to go well and it’s full of happiness and board games.
(03:24): And so I think particularly for blended families who may be still trying to find their feet with each other or where they might be making in many ways a very good go at family life, being thrown together and being expected to get on for long periods of time, week after week, can be challenging. I think too for the couple, where sometimes if you do have ex-partners involved and you do try and balance the to and fro of kids to other families so that you can have some couple time over the holidays, you can be particularly faced with any dynamics from the past that are still getting in your way, the ex that simply won’t negotiate over changed arrangements or whatever it might be. Because realistically family life works with a fair bit of spontaneity and flexibility and on any one day you have to wing it.
(04:21): And I think if you’re trying to navigate exes and their routines and their relationships, it can be very difficult. So as the family holiday period kind of grinds on, it can still go quite well, but it can also be far more challenging because of all of those different relationships and dynamics to navigate.
Laura Jenkins (04:45): And so coming off the back of that then into this next phase now, which is back to school, where families are getting back into routine, how can blended families go about making that transition a little bit smoother?
Elisabeth Shaw (05:02): Well, look, I think in some ways it’s common for every family that the holiday time, part of the pleasure of it is no making of lunches, no rigid bedtime routine. There’s a lot of things about that, that are great. But it also can get quite unhinged where all bets are off and there is no particular routine and sometimes kids are completely out of their schedule. And that isn’t always good for people in a whole range of ways. It can mean that there’s this big contrast between holiday and school and so therefore, school becomes resented because it’s not only about the strictness of a routine but it’s about I lost my late times with my parents, I lost the late movies, staying up, the extra treats. And so school becomes loaded with all of these different losses, the loss of fun altogether. So in these next few weeks, it’s really worth starting to gently prune that if that’s what’s been happening.
(06:14): You don’t have to make any big announcements, but just starting to move to a little bit more of a conservative bedtime where maybe a staying up late is more a weekend thing, just starting to move towards that direction rather than wait till the final week I think is really important. I think starting to talk about how well you’ve done as a family, what you’ve enjoyed about the time together, what goes well, what doesn’t, appreciate what you’ve managed to hang together. And particularly in a blended family, to be able to say, “Look, there’s a lot of about what we do that’s got an extra level of stuff to work out and on balance, these are the things we do well.” I think appreciating each child for how they manage that or what they bring to it, you’re always the one who tells a good joke or you’re the one who’s always easygoing, talks everyone around you, the mediator.
(07:10): I think being able to appreciate that, but also I think to tune into your individual kids because in a blended family you can be so busy trying to make the group work and to make your own relationship work that you can lose sight of your own children sometimes needing that special time with you. And in the holidays, that sort of all in can mean that your kids are getting a bit scratchy or a bit resentful because they need a bit of private time or separate time. So I think to remember that having time together and separately is also a benefit and if you haven’t done that yet and your child seems to be needing that, to try and build that in the holidays.
(07:57): And that said, I think having special time with the children that are not your biological children might be important too. Depends on the hobbies and interests and the way you get on. So it’s not about a divide up, my children and me are going to do this, but it’s more than if your children are still getting used to being in a blended family or just still need the reassurance that they can claim separate time with you. Just remember in these last couple of weeks there’s still a bit of time to achieve that.
Laura Jenkins (08:26): Something else that I wanted to touch on was communication because I know as we get out of the holiday period, we’re coming back into the school time again. That increased planning and communication among the adults is going to be really important. And I know that’s certainly been the case in our personal situation. So what are some of the ways that co-parents can do this well in advance of the start of school coming up at the end of the month?
Elisabeth Shaw (08:55): Well look, I guess there can be a difference between whether you’ve just moved in together and starting the school year is the first time you’re going to start it together or if it’s a repetition. So maybe just to start with the repetition. I think being able to have a bit of time well before the night before where you start to say, “Look, what do we do well as a couple? How have we managed it in previous years, or even just last year? Where did our routine really work for us and where did it not?” To be able to talk about it before you’re right in the hotspot of it. When you’re in the night before or at the end of the first week, where you’re going into, you always do this, that tends to never go very well. It immediately incites defensiveness. Whereas if you do it now, you’re still sort of anticipating, you’re not right in the middle of the fight.
(09:48): So it could be, “Look, I’m thinking back and we organize things this way and I think that worked okay but maybe this year we could try something else.” But to start from a position of appreciation, what do you think, as a couple, we actually do quite well? Where are we missing the mark? It would be understandable that it’s a work in progress, let’s just say that’s okay. Rather than fall into a list of failures or accusations I think is really important to be able to say, “Look, this is hard to get right.” And in fact what getting it right means is up for grabs. So let’s be kind to each other and grateful that we’re on the journey and we have a lot of other stresses and pressures and have a conversation based on that.
(10:36): I think the other thing is you’ve got to be able to read the room. You’ve got to be able to read also what your kids need but not fall into their demands. Because if kids like whether you’re biological parents or in a blended family, if they see cracks in the system, they will take advantage, not in a malicious or nasty way, but kids’ job is to get their own needs met. So if they can see that with a bit of trouble, they can get more of you to themselves, then those things happen. They’re not plotting, they’re not sort of planning for this but it happens. So I think making sure you’re a fairly tight ship.
(11:17): But you also do read the needs of individual kids. You’re not at their mercy. You need to be able to just see though that if your children aren’t needing things to be different, what are we hearing from our kids that could be better. But it’s actually okay as the adults to take a stand and to say, “We’ve decided that the best way for this to work is this way.” That’s okay too. It’s just when you’re going to make a unilateral call, you’ve just got to be on good ground. And I think getting some advice, if you did get stuck last year in a number of predictable familiar places and you just couldn’t get yourself unlocked from it, getting some professional advice to navigate maybe some other creative ways to approach things could also be handy.
Laura Jenkins (12:05): Definitely. I think that’s a great suggestion. And practically speaking, would you suggest that couples, or co-parents rather, get together over a phone call or a face-to-face meeting to talk through some of these issues and do, like you say a review of what was working, what wasn’t and what are we going to do differently in the year forward?
Elisabeth Shaw (12:28): Look, I think because family life being what it is, it can be very hard to create these spaces for conversation at home when the family’s there. So it may well be after the kids are in bed or sometimes couples leave it to date night. If it can be quite a productive conversation and can be quite sort of productive, date night’s okay, because it is reflecting on your relationship and about how you’re going to do things. If so these are topics that get you into trouble or that you can end up getting a bit scratchy with each other, then you might need date night to be about having some fun to bolster your relationship. And therefore, having a more formal meeting at home can be better. So I think you’ve got to judge this. So I see a lot of couples that end up avoiding date night because they end up going down these path and then they resent it.
(13:27): So I think making a definite time, why don’t we on Sunday nights just start to think about the week ahead or think about the weeks ahead, just for half an hour. Why don’t we just have half an hour? Then I think you’re not setting up a big stressful, I’m meeting you on the couch and there’s going to be trouble. But more, why don’t we just sit every week, get into a bit of a review and start with what we’re doing well. Then I think it doesn’t have to be a big threat sitting down for the big talk. So that can be quite helpful and also a routine.
(14:06): But I think making sure that you’re both ready for it is really important rather than launching into it. You’re on the dishes and you say, “I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” is less helpful than, “Look I want to talk about the year ahead. When would be a good time? How about we sit out the back with a drink after work and just chat?” That might be quite easy. But I think getting your partner ready for that kind of conversation, not as a threat but more like I want to invite you to the conversation, that can be a softer startup to it.
Laura Jenkins (14:43): And what about from an ex-partner perspective? So communicating effectively with your ex-partner about the year forward. And it might be that children are going back and forth between two houses, there’s things to navigate as parents of that child across two different homes. Would you suggest a separate discussion or similar style discussion where there’s an opportunity to reflect on the year that was and how are we going to do things differently this year?
Elisabeth Shaw (15:13): Look, ideally, you would do the same with an ex, but it really depends entirely on where you’re up to in the separation and whether people can have that conversation. And whether your partner sees you as being, your ex-partner, sees you as somehow still holding respect and appreciation for their efforts too. If not, then it can be harder. But I think again, inviting them to a conversation, why don’t we once a quarter just meet up for coffee and have a bit of a talk? Then that could be a good thing. I think if your ex is very unresolved about the separation, still wants you back, still is holding umbrage about what happened then, it may be that you set up a meeting even with a mediator who you’ve got in your corner or a family counsellor to just create a formal space so it doesn’t become unhinged.
(16:11): But if you do have a lot of negative history, in fact inviting them to say, “Look, why don’t we do a bit more work on the negative history and try to get to a better place.” I’ve certainly seen quite a number of couples that are working through why did the relationship fall apart and what can we do going forward when we need an ongoing relationship but our own intimate relationship unraveled. How do you do that? It feels like a mixed thing, doesn’t it? Like we couldn’t get it together when we were together. How do we get it together when we’re apart? And so sometimes working it through a bit more could be a good thing.
(16:49): The other thing you can also do is show leadership, if you feel ready to do it, is to say to them, “Look, I know our separation hasn’t been easy and I know I’ve played my part in it being messy. I’ve been resentful or angry or disappointed and I’ve shown that in ways that aren’t always productive. I’d really like to find a way to do it differently because I do respect you as a parent. I think you have been a good person. We used to love each other.” I think if you feel like you’ve got it in you to say something like that and to say, “We’ve got a lot of years ahead, can we do something?” But expect if there’s been long history, for your partner to maybe have some pushback. Well, it’s all right for you or yeah, all very well for you to say that now, just take it on the chin and say, “Yep, it probably does seem like that but I’d like to offer it.”
(17:44): I think if you can show leadership, there’s also sometimes a chance that your ex will say, all right. But I think you’ve got to have tight parameters for that conversation and maybe start with, “Look, I think we both want the best for the kids. We both want a life of our own. We’re both disappointed our marriage didn’t work out.” I think the more you can have we, we both, we want, it also lessens, it puts you back on the same page. It attributes good intentions to you both. And I think in a spirit of appreciation and respect.
(18:26): And also the other thing, the final thing I’d say is aim low. I think at the first discussion where you’re trying to turn negativity around, don’t lay out your full agenda, “I want every second weekend, I want this.” It’s more about saying, I want better for us. I’d like to talk together in a way that’s less scratchy, less in front of the kids, that kind of thing. Leave it a bit global and then say, “Look, if it’s gone okay, maybe we can get together next time and just review how we’re going with our actual routine.” I think that could also be helpful. Because otherwise you could undo all the good leadership by them saying, “Aha, your agenda in this was really to try and manipulate me into changing my nights or something.”
(19:14): So I think you’ve got to have a bit of a plan and again, working it through with a professional could be really helpful. And some people seeing a mediator to do the actual arrangements is good thing/ for people who are still just trying to work out and work their way through the negative history, sometimes a family counsellor or a clever relationship counsellor who’s very clear you’re not trying to get back together but you’re just trying to address history can be money well spent.
Laura Jenkins (19:47): We often say it is a long road ahead, especially if you’ve got young children, to your point earlier. And it really is important that you do make an effort to try and decrease any conflict that might be present. And some of the practical things that we’ve had to think about are things like who’s going to respond to that email the teacher sent or how will we agree on who the teacher needs to contact if there’s an issue at school or those sorts of things. So also making sure that you’re quite specific about roles and responsibilities and who’s doing what as part of those discussions as well. So there’s no confusion and it’s easier for everyone including the children and the teachers and both parents.
Elisabeth Shaw (20:41): Look, I think that’s right. Again, if you’re in a good routine where you are focused on the best interest of the children and what’s going on with the school, for some couples, it can be whoever gets in first. I mean the same with if you are the original biological parents. The one person could just get to their emails first and respond. It’s really about always copying the other person in and when you’re separated saying things like, “Look, I’d be very happy to meet. I’ve copied,” the child’s father in or the mother, “And I’ll see if we can arrange something together.” And then you’re not dissing anybody, you’re just setting up, well, we’ll have to work something out. So I think if it’s a benign email rather than a very strong opinionated email, if you need to discuss it would be more just getting in first perhaps and replying that we’ll discuss it and get back to you.
(21:38): I think then you’re just setting up a polite sort of practical way of communicating. And I think making sure that you do put the work on the school or the doctor or whoever it is to really make an appointment and go together where the sort of expert in the situation takes the reins. That can be another way to stop yourselves getting into conflict where the two of you start to debate what you think the teacher’s going to say rather than just, okay, let’s make a time to talk to you about it and then you are the audience. It can also stop the conflict to get the information that you need before moving to conclusions.
Laura Jenkins (22:24): Definitely. And even going to things together like parent teacher interviews or school assemblies and performances and letting go of any animosity that comes with having to regularly see your ex-partner, but really focusing on the children and what’s in their best interests.
Elisabeth Shaw (22:45): Look, absolutely. It’s understandable that it can be very difficult. If one person is still struggling with the separation and the other person’s partnered and even had another child, you can imagine that the school concert is a visible display of all of that disappointment. So I think for people in pain, you’ve also got to be a respectful about being at different stages of the journey. We can have expectations about what is in the kids’ best interest? Is it in the kids’ best interest that everyone sits together in a row of seats or not? Do they not have to care about that? And I think it really depends if the kids are free to move between all the people present or if it’s like, “Oh gosh, if I run over to dad then mom will never speak to me for the rest of the week.”
(23:34): I think if it’s fluid, the more you can make it for the kids to rush up to both of you, the better. But I think that can often mean leaving new partners at home as well. Now, some people do that and it doesn’t matter at all. Others feel very indignant about that and think, well, they’ve just got to get used to the fact that I’ve repartnered. And yes, maybe they do in time. But if it’s year one, maybe they don’t have to in year one and maybe your new partner doesn’t have to be at the school concert. I think it’s how you talk to the kids. It’s just saying to the kids, “Look, we’re all still getting used to this, so we’re going to do it in bits and pieces and we’re going to do it in stages and we’re going to film the concert to include whoever.”
(24:26): I think don’t make it a big deal in front of the kids. Don’t make it a big announcement, but just to say we’re working to make everybody as comfortable as possible and then sort of proceed with it. I think when you start to throw down the gauntlet that I’ve decided it has to be this way, I’m taking who I want to and no one’s going to stop me, or I insist it has to be like this or that, that generally is about yourself and not about the kids at all. And it’s not even kind to your ex. If your ex is struggling, you don’t want to be at their mercy for the rest of your life. Of course, you don’t. But again, if it is year one, then maybe you can cut them a little bit of slack just for that time.
Laura Jenkins (25:09): So I’m interested to know about the role that Relationships Australia New South Wales plays in supporting blended families. I know a couple of times you’ve touched on the people reaching out to get some external support to help them navigate some of these really complex issues. So I’d love to know how Relationships Australia can help.
Elisabeth Shaw (25:30): Look, I think organizations like ours are specifically funded and accredited to provide relationship and family support. So I think the thing is that everybody here is trained to work in couples who are working to enrich their relationship, who are struggling with their relationship, who are separating and recovering. Certainly a lot of work, whether domestic violence. So that’s really our thing. If you’ve worked through a separation with a good couple counselor, that person may be able to be a resource because they know you maybe three months down the track where you’re trying to navigate a separation or six months down the track. It also can be good to draw a curtain around that to say, “Actually, that was when we were together. We need someone different,” so that you don’t fall into the past conversation. So I think you’ve got to choose who the right person is for you.
(26:36): We do also offer mediation so that when you finish the emotional processing or the reflections and discussion and the max maximizing the learning of the breakup, then moving to formal mediation can be quite useful because in that process, it’s very practical. It’s not about the past, it’s not about your emotions, it’s actually about what are the needs, what are your decisions to be made? And that can be quite good when you’re still feeling quite rocky to have someone keep you in a fairly supportive but tight process around getting decisions, that can be really helpful. And to also refer you back to counseling as needed. The other thing that we offer is we have quite an extensive group work program for education and support. So one of our most popular programs, for example, it’s called After Separation. And it really is a group for people who are all going through the same thing, which is how the hell do I do this?
(27:38): And it’s amazing how many people don’t know anybody else who’s separated. You’d think in our day and age with the high divorce, that would be common. But many people actually don’t know anybody in that situation or or want their privacy to talk issues through. So that can be helpful. We also have a digital downloadable resource which people can do in their own time called Kids in Focus, which is about helping parents tune into the needs of kids, particularly around separation. How do we think about their needs? How do we take them into account? So yeah, an organization like ours is a bit of a one-stop shop for all of these different sorts of experiences, which can make you feel like you’ve got the right resources at your disposal and you can dip in and out of them as things change over time. We also do property settlement negotiations and parenting plans, so that’s helpful. We’re not legal service, it is all about the mediation of those things.
Laura Jenkins (28:48): Fantastic. I’ll certainly ensure we link to all of that in the show notes, Elisabeth. Are there any final top tips that you can provide for co-parents, either stepparents, co-parents, couples who are navigating this transition from holidays back into school time and making things run as smoothly as possible?
Elisabeth Shaw (29:09): Yeah. Look, I do think that just to really emphasise, trying to be appreciative of what you are able to achieve rather than look at it in a deficit way. Where do we keep stuffing up? Where’s the problem? Who’s the problem? To try and try and look at? We’re all the work in progress and family life is messy. And sometimes things are getting scratchy because you’re together too much and that’s not a negative. Instead of thinking, oh, well that’s a terrible indictment about us, it can be because maybe we were too ambitious about how much time we have together and getting out and about and mixing in with others can be really wise. As I said before, starting to get into the routine now so that bedtimes are a little bit more corralled. Kids are still doing some jobs around the house. That kind of thing is really helpful.
(30:06): But I think also around relationships, both current and past relationships, to keep trying to take the perspective of others, be accountable for your own part in things. We tend to be much better at naming how other people fail us than our own contribution. So when you get really upset about something to actually say, “Well, what did I bring to that? What was my own part in that?” Because the very least you can do is work on that bit. That can be really helpful and it’s tempting to keep moving to blame to others like, “Well, I did get very angry then, but it was their fault.” That’s still doing the same thing. Whereas to say, “Well, I was angry, maybe I didn’t need to be that angry,” I think is a much more accountable position. It certainly will deescalate things, but also it does show leadership for others if you can do that in front of your kids and others to say, “Look, I don’t think I handled myself well just then,” what great leadership for your kids to see too, because maybe they can say the same at different times.
Laura Jenkins (31:15): Absolutely. It’s all about the self-reflection, isn’t it?
Elisabeth Shaw (31:19): Yeah.
Laura Jenkins (31:20): Elisabeth, I’ve so enjoyed our chat today. We are at time now, so we’ll need to leave it there. But thank you very much for all of those pearls of wisdom that you’ve offered up during our chat today, and hopefully we’ll be able to have you back on the show another time.
Elisabeth Shaw (31:35): Thanks so much, Laura.
Laura Jenkins (31:37): Thanks for listening to In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at intheblend.com.au. And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.