Unique Family Living Situations

Family life has its ups and downs. Parents hope that the family home brings their children comfort and safety. Yet, what if the family home changes for reasons of divorce, death, or economics? Factors, such as shifting between separate homes for divorced parents, blending families when a parent remarries after a divorce or death of a spouse, or moving in with your child’s grandparents can create unique living situations.

It also can create stress for your child. Unique living situations affect every child, whether it’s a newborn or an 18-year-old about to leave the nest. Parents can help by understanding their child’s concerns and establish ways to make it better.

Path to improved emotional well being

  • Divorce: Living in two different homes can be hard on children of divorce. Co-parent with your ex-spouse to develop consistent routines for bedtime, meals, discipline, homework, friendships, activities, and safety at both homes. Work together to provide your child with comfortable surroundings in both homes. For example, make your child’s bedroom feel like it’s their own instead of a guest bedroom. Be honest with your child about what you can afford for the room. Consider having them bring items from what was once the family home. Also consider decorating with homemade crafts that you can make together.
  • Stepparents: When a parent remarries, adding a stepparent to the family is hard for children. Children are already emotional. If you and your child move into the stepparent’s home or if the stepparent moves into your home, it’s a big change for a child of any age. If the reason is due to divorce, work together as a family (both parents and stepparent) to make a positive plan for the new living arrangement. Refuse to speak negatively about any of the adults involved. Agree to keep and start new traditions and keepsakes that are important to everyone. If a stepparent joins the family because your child lost a parent to a death, don’t remove that parent’s personal items. Your child may be ready to part with some of those items when he or she gets older. But it would be insensitive to remove them before he or she is ready.
  • Blended families: Sometimes, stepparents have children from a previous marriage. Those children (stepchildren) may live in the same home as your children for some or all of the time. It’s important to tell your child that certain house rules apply to everyone and that some are different based on the child’s parents.
  • Grandparents: Many children live with grandparents because their grandparents are their guardians. This might be because the child’s parents have passed away, their parents have to work in another state, the children have been removed from their parents’ home because of neglect, or because the parents are in prison. Others live with their grandparents (and one or both parents) if the family cannot afford to live on its own. Sometimes, one or more grandparents will move into a child’s home because of the grandparent’s poor health. Whatever the reason, it’s a difficult adjustment for parents and children. It’s especially difficult when multiple generations are involved. Different generations have experienced family life in different ways. To get along, everyone in the house should use their manners like they would for a guest. However, a child needs to feel like the home is his or her own. Talk with everyone involved to make your child or grandchild’s living arrangement as comfortable as possible. Decorate your child or grandchild’s room if you can, include family photos or personal artwork in the home, and encourage your child or grandchild to invite friends to their shared home.

Things to consider

Divorce: Living in two different homes can be hard on children of divorce. Between birth through the age of 5, the back and forth can affect a child’s sleep, eating, and disciplinary routines. This is especially true if parents don’t agree to the same rules. Once they enter school, your child’s concerns grow. Beyond sleeping, eating and disciplinary routines, school-aged children have the added weight of homework, extracurricular activities, and friends. For teens, the list grows with dating, driving, work, and post-high school plans.

Stepparents: Stepparents are often well meaning. Still, it’s tricky to combine their thoughts, feelings, and rights as an adult in the house with that of the child’s parents. Divorced couples can make home life better by agreeing on the role a stepparent will play with your child. It’s reasonable to include stepparents on issues of safety, transportation, and any costs associated with raising the child. Parents should be the primary decision-makers on issues of religion, education, and extracurricular activities. When a stepparent enters a family because of the death of another parent, a child may be extra sensitive. It’s difficult for a child to hear a stepparent’s opinions or carry out the stepparent’s family traditions if it conflicts with those of a parent who has died. Adults should be sensitive to this and encourage sharing memories and mementos of the deceased parent in the child’s everyday home life.

Blended families: Stepfamilies bring many different traditions, routines, and opinions to a household. Stepchildren may live together in the same house all of the time or some of the time. The children may or may not interact well with one another. Stepchildren may question the authority of the stepparent. Clearly define the rules of the house, of each adult in the house, and emphasize the importance of respect. Visual aids, such as chore charts, are a good way to show that certain rules apply to everyone in the house.

Grandparents: Grandparents want the best for their children and grandchildren. They are often the first to offer their home in a crisis. A crisis might be related to money (one or both parents have lost their jobs or the family home) or guardianship (in the event parents cannot take care of their children due to legal, economic, or health-related issues). Living with grandparents is unique. Grandparents have already raised a family. Therefore, grandparents have established routines for home life that may differ from another generation. Grandparents also may have health issues that affect home life. It’s important for parents and grandparents to respect one another’s authority and roles. On the flip side, when grandparents move into the family home, life can change. This unique living situation may require your child to make sacrifices to his or her space or routine. Communicate with grandparents to discuss the roles and responsibilities of living together.

In any unique living situation, children want to know where they will live, who will be in the home, who will make the rules, where they will go to school, how much time they will spend with divorced parents, how it will affect their friendships, what summers and holidays will look like, and if they can still participate in their favorite activities.

Questions for your doctor

  • My child and his or her stepparent are not getting along. Should I see a family counselor?
  • Should stepparents or grandparents be able to make medical decisions for my child?
  • My child has been sick, anxious, or depressed with our unique living situation. Does he or she need to be treated with medicine?


American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Divorce and Children