A different kind of family – so what?

A different kind of family – so what?
Children living with two dads or two homes, who are adopted or who come from another country are not so rare anymore. How do they fare? Well, in general, according to experts.

Children living with two dads or two homes, who are adopted or who come from another country are not so rare anymore. How do they fare? Well, in general, according to experts.

The face of the Quebec family has changed a great deal in recent years. “In the last 20 years, the changes have come about quickly,” says Hélène Belleau, who heads the Observatoire des réalités familiales du Québec [monitoring centre on Quebec families]. She believes there are several reasons explaining why there are more and more non-traditional family structures such as blended, homoparental or single parent families. “In particular, women are now more financially independent,” she says. “There’s also more rejection of religion and marriage and greater openness to same-sex couples.”

Does the type of family impact a child’s development? Not really, say specialists. Parents are there to meet their children’s needs, which include loving them, feeding them, sheltering them, protecting them and guiding them. As long as parents fulfill their role, children generally develop well. For example, a recently published report on research conducted among homoparental families found no significant difference between the development of children with same-sex parents and that of children in other families. “Families change, but children’s needs stay the same. Despite their diversity, families still play the same roles,” says Marie-Christine Saint-Jacques, researcher and professor with Université Laval’s School of Social Work.

Talking about the differences

The important thing is to avoid taboos and to speak openly with children about their different family type. For example, you can tell your child why he has two moms, why he lives with only one parent or why his father is older than the other dads. Ideally, questions regarding these differences should be tackled before the child starts school. “Toddlers don’t really distinguish race or gender,” says psychologist Annie Goulet. “Once at school, however, children may be on the receiving end of comments from others. It will be less disruptive for the child whose friend remarks on the difference if his parents took the time to speak to him about it beforehand.” By explaining the situation to the child when he is young, it becomes normal for him and he won’t be bothered by the fact that he lives in a family that is a little different from the others.

If the child is adopted or conceived from a sperm or egg bank, it is also important to speak to him about his origins. “Some studies show that keeping a child’s origins a secret can have a negative impact on the child,” notes Laurence Charton, researcher with the INRS’ Urbanization Culture Society Centre.

To reassure a child, “the parent can explain to him that his type of family is not unique and that there are other children living in the same situation,” says Annie Goulet. Reading books together on the subject can also help bring up the topic. Obviously, the explanations must take into account the child’s age so that they can be understood properly.

Does separation have an impact?

While the type of family doesn’t hinder a child’s development, changes within a family may have some repercussions. This is the case when parents separate, for example. A separation is a shock for children. An adaptation period is necessary and, based on the context and the child’s personality, may take several months. After a separation, it’s normal for a child to be more anxious, want more attention, isolate himself more or experience anger. In some cases, there may even be regression such as a child who starts to wet his bed again. But this is usually transitory. “The way in which parents cooperate, adjust to the situation and work together for the child’s well-being will contribute to whether the child adapts well or not,” says psychologist Nicolas Chevrier. For the child to develop as well as possible given the context, the ex-spouses should ideally continue to be a team and work together. Parents should also reassure the child by telling him that they love him and that they will always be there for him even if they no longer live in the same house.

Separation can also have a financial impact on the parents. Families who are going through a separation are at risk for living in poverty, since the parents’ financial situation may be weakened. This could negatively affect children if the parents are having a hard time meeting their basic needs.

A separation will also be harder for a child to deal with if one of the parents moves farther away. Luckily, times and mentalities have changed. For example, joint custody is on the rise across Canada, and even more so in Quebec. Whereas 30 years ago a father would typically no longer have ties with his children after a separation, today this is less and less the case. Several studies in fact confirm the extent to which a father’s commitment and continued ties with both parents are good for a child’s development.

What about blended families?

After a separation, more and more parents start over with a new partner or even start a new family. Living in a blended family is another event that can be stressful for toddlers, especially when it happens often. “In that case, children are constantly having to try to adapt,” says Marie-Christine Saint-Jacques. However, when everything goes smoothly, living in a blended family can be positive. “Children from blended families say that there are more people who love them and that it gives them more people to love. Children love family life.”

And immigration?

Immigrating is also a situation that requires an adaptation period. Immigrant parents face several difficulties, such as learning a new language, integrating a culture, finding a job, getting their degree recognized, and so on. They experience a lot of stress and they may find themselves less available to help their children adjust. Some parents may also feel devalued because of the loss of revenue and the change in lifestyle. They may then tend to isolate themselves, which could affect the family dynamic. “For toddlers, the adaptation is generally easier since their new culture becomes the norm for them,” says Annie Goulet. “It’s during adolescence that it’s harder.”

For newcomers, parent-child communication is particularly important, insists Nicolas Chevrier. “Parents can tell their children that the situation won’t change even if they might wish otherwise, and reassure them by telling them that they love them and that they are confident things will turn out well.”

Family changes are reflected across society. The topic interests researchers and forces governments and policies to adapt.
In 2002, for example, gay couples were granted the right to adopt children. The creation of the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan in 2006 also encouraged father involvement by entitling fathers to five weeks’ leave.
The increasing number of blended families also raises questions about the rights of step-parents. “First, we said that they may have rights if they participate in the education of their partner’s children,” says Céline Le Bourdais, Sociology professor at McGill University. “But what if there’s a separation, what then? If we give them rights, do we hold them to obligations they never agreed to? The topic is still on the table.” There is also discussion about the protection of common-law spouses in cases of separation and the right of children to know their origins.
“These new family forms are still evolving,” says Hélène Belleau, who heads the Observatoire des réalités familiales du Québec. “For example, we are now seeing multi-parent families, that’s to say a couple of men and a couple of women who plan to have a baby together who will then have four parents!” To be continued.

Naître et grandir

Source: Naître et grandir magazine, January-February 2016
Research and copywriting: Nathalie Côté
Fact checking: Claudine Parent, author and professor at Université Laval’s School of Social Work

Photos: iStock