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If there’s one thing I’ve been fighting for quite some time now, it has definitely been adulting, and this is not because my 20’s are depleting nor is it because I fear I haven’t accomplished enough – it’s ONE thing… moving out of home to go start off my life completely independently. Through my twenty-something years of living at home, I’ve observed quite a lot, specifically when it comes to the dynamics of co-parenting in the context of extended family members.

I’ll never forget that day my sister brought home her tiny human for the first time. The entire household automatically took over the motherly role, different opinions ensued – from my mother retrieving her stored manual archived in twenty-three years of her experience raising three daughters – to the books my sister and I had studied together on ‘how to handle the first 100 days after baby is born’. At some point, expert opinion vs experience clashed. Fast forward to nine years later, the same opposing parenting styles still ensue.

The truth is, the usual set up of both biological parents raising their children is not a reality for many households. According to Parenting Coach, Ayanda Tetyana, in the South African context, we have to consider that extended family members do play a more significant role than in most countries, mostly because of the socio-economical issues that exist.

Co-parenting does not only apply to parents that have separated but it can also include co-parenting with your parents, grandparents, or other members of the family. So what’s the best way to encourage a cooperative relationship that provides a nurturing, healthy environment for children?

Here are five steps to consider for a healthy co-parenting relationship with extended members of your family.

  1. Prioritise your personal healing from highly conflicted endings

According to Buyisile N Mncina, Practising Counselling Psychologist and Sessional Lecturer of Psychology at Wits, as a parent, you may have to heal from toxic, or highly conflicted endings before transitioning into co-parenting so as to ensure that there is no under-handedness in the transparency and honesty that this process rightfully deserves. 

Ultimately, the focus has to be on the children in order to create an effective healthy system. You need to help your children as much as you can by ensuring you yourself, work on your mental wellbeing. 

2. Diffuse the power struggles

Mncina says that children are often preoccupied with the desire to be liked or loved so as to form a sense of belonging and a strong sense of social positioning within the family. When parenting styles clash, the child may very early on develop the sense of needing to curate the way they exist around the parent to meet their expectations.

“I moved away from Johannesburg to North West this year, my son has to do the remaining year at his schooling with my mom. My mom is very archaic in the way she parents, on the other hand, my son is open-minded and expressive. She doesn’t always appreciate that – but as a parent, I have to respect where she is coming from.

Mncina further indicates that children may also start to pit parents against each other by actively comparing the manner of parenting, making one parent defensive and another potentially reactive which can strain the relationship further. When parents resolve within themselves the conscious or unconscious likelihood to compete for a child’s praise and loyalty, the power dynamic tends to diffuse, allowing for a civil relationship that seeks to really set aside any personal ego fracture. 

3. Create an honest and safe space for your child’s curiosity

According to Mncina, children can realise that their parents collaborate well – they can reveal some of their vulnerabilities or curious questions that they may have about the relationship. Positive co-parenting also means that children do not have to be burdened with being the currency in which parents may choose to punish or sabotage each other and the value of their parenting styles. Positive co-parenting also makes children establish a truth about how their family dynamic may be foreign to the norm, but certainly remains intimate and closely aligned to the privilege of having both parents in close proximity and with this realisation, it does not leave them susceptible to bullying or being cast with the projection of insecurity by others. 

4. Establish fair boundaries

It’s important that the biological parent and the co-parents have conversations outlining and respecting each person’s role. “Choose your battles. I am very strict about what my children eat in terms of fast foods, fizzy drinks, etc – but my son’s dad will let them have McDonald’s, even though I express my displeasure but the moment my son is no longer under my roof, I have to accept I don’t have the autonomy to control what happens. As parents we have to be a lot more open-minded to ease the tension”, Tetyana. 

Tetyana further emphasizes that biological parents need to consider allowing the primary care giver independence in terms of the decision making to certain extent, for example, if the grandparent is the primary care giver, they may have rules in their house on how chores are done or when TV is watched in the house. 

It’s always better to work together as a team and respectfully discuss any possibly misunderstandings.

5. Choose to see the positive 

Mncina highlights that another way of thinking through blended families is seeing it as a colourful way in which a family system exists as opposed to the simplistic black and white. It is important to explore the dynamics of these families because there are intricacies there that need further explorations such as attachment, object permanence, attention and attention-seeking, community, and social positioning within those family dynamics.  

As a parting shot, Tetyana says “let’s have the child’s wellness in mind. If you need help as a parent, there are coaches and experts who can help you navigate your parenting goals and ensure your child’s mental health is intact as well”

Leonardo da Vinci once said, learning never exhausts the mind. Taking a gulp of my remaining tea after this conversation with Buyisile N Mncina and Ayanda Tetyana, it would only be responsible of me to share these learnings with my family… before I officially move out…