Now your children are used to the fact that you go out on dates, and maybe they are aware that you have been seeing one particular person for awhile now. What about the next step in the parenting/dating interface? When—and how— do the kids meet this person?
Here are some tips.
- Introduce them later rather than sooner. You’ve heard the saying, “Better late than never?” Well in this case, better late than early. This is one thing you do not want to jump the gun on. First of all, you will most likely date a variety of people before meeting someone in whom you are interested for a long term relationship. Since dating is a process with a
- a beginning (Stage 1: meeting a lot of people),
- a middle (Stage 2: getting to know and experience someone),
- and an ending (Stage 3: being in a committed relationship),
you do not want your children to meet every person you go out with. During stage 1, meeting the people you go out with would be confusing for them. During stage 2, when you are getting to know someone particular, your children could easily become emotionally attached only to be disappointed if things don’t work out between the two of you. Introduce your children to the new person only if you feel that the relationship is serious—stage 3 is about right.
- Give your children time to process the changes in their lives. How long has it been since your relationship ended, or you lost your significant other? Whatever the circumstances of that relationship’s end, coming to terms with it will be different for everyone, but children especially need time to process their emotions and the change in their lives. They may demonstrate anger, loss and fear of abandonment. Introducing a new person may only heighten their emotions. They may fear losing you, or even blame the new person for your breakup, even if a year has intervened between the two events (logic is not a big player in these emotional situations). Make sure enough time has passed and your children are ready for someone new in their life. Also, pay close attention to the big five emotions: glad, sad, mad, hurt and afraid. When you speak to your children, acknowledge these emotions if and as they emerge, and assure them that they are normal. Most importantly: re-affirm your own personal commitment to your children. Even though it seems obvious to you, they need to hear it, repeatedly. You are not going anywhere. They are your priority. You love them.
- Before the introduction, have two conversations, one with your children, and one with the person you are seeing.
- Children. When the time is right to introduce your date to your children, the children will be better prepared and more accepting of the situation if they know it’s coming and what to expect. Remember, you are not asking for the children to approve of your decision to date, nor are you giving them an ultimatum that they must “accept” your new relationship. You are simply initiating a conversation about how important your children are to you and what you each want for your future. It is also important to consider ages of your children. It can be difficult for children of any age to witness their parents dating. Studies have shown children ages 5 to 10 are more possessive of their mothers than older children and feel threatened or resentful at having to share them. Teens find displays of affection troubling and confusing. Children often become as or even more upset when fathers date, possibly because they see their fathers less often, causing them to feel additionally threatened by new relationships. Even if your kids are in college – do not assume that they will “be fine.” A conversation needs to happen.
- Your date. You don’t want your date to walk into a mine field. There is no reason that meeting your kids needs to be a mine field, if you have a clarifying conversation first. Acknowledge that you understand how potentially difficult and stressful this can be for your date. Then let him or her know the ground rules – i.e. how much affection you are comfortable expressing in front of the children? Set clear boundaries so your date does not have to guess. Give him or her the background info that will help make a smooth transition: names, hobbies, interests, friends etc. Having something to talk about will prevent your date from feeling left out in the cold.
These pre-meeting conversations may seem unspontaneous and to take the “fun” out of it, but remember bringing these two together–child and date–is not the same as running into your friends at a restaurant when you are out together. Your relationship with your children is a primary relationship and you are responsible for their wellbeing. Your new romantic interest is also, potentially, a primary relationship. For the sake of the security of your children, the comfort of your date, and the longevity of your relationship, take the first meeting seriously.
- Plan something fun for everyone. When it comes to making the actual introductions, plan an activity where you can all be yourselves, relax, and have a good time. A short activity such as going out for pizza and a movie, or to play miniature golf or laser tag, gives everyone a chance to meet, but doesn’t a require lengthy, serious conversation. The upside to such a time frame for nervous kids or an anxious date is that there is an end in sight. Doing an activity that everyone enjoys means memories of this first meeting will likely be positive and upbeat.
- Be who you are. Don’t pretend, don’t try to control the situation or people’s responses, don’t answer for your kids or your date – let them be themselves too. Be the person you are, the one everyone will recognize as you—a comfort to both children and date! Let things unfold naturally. If things get tense, there are awkward silences, or one of your children says something not-so-nice—realize this is a tough situation and all of the above is normal. Any date worth his or her salt will understand this. You don’t need to “fix” anything.
- Debriefing. After the introduction, ask the children what they think – how did it go? It is important that they feel their opinion matters to you – which it should. On the other hand, if your children, on principle, “hate” your date because of their own fears and anxieties, it does not mean you need to stop seeing each other. However, the preliminary responses of your children will give you vital information moving forward, about how to proceed, what kinds of conversations to have, and what kind of reassurance and affirmation they need.
Accepting your new relationship may be a slow process for your children. Be patient. Your top priority is reassuring your children that you love them unconditionally and that you intend to always be with them.