On my wedding day — way back in 2008 — I had a vision for my life. It included a house, two kids, a dog, and a beautiful happily ever after that involved never going on a first date again. Chances are, most people who get married share a similar vision … at least the happily ever after part and never dating again, I’d guess.
Unfortunately, the universe had a different plan. A few months before my husband and I could celebrate our 10th anniversary, he died. And a few years after that, I found myself going on a first date again. And again. And again. (Dating in your thirties is not for the faint of heart!)
And then, a first date turned into a second and a third, and suddenly I had to confront a question I never expected to confront when I got married all those years ago: how and when to introduce my kids to my new boyfriend. (Full disclosure: years later, this question was followed up with discussions about breakups and dating again.)
The idea of introducing my children to my boyfriend was strange, bizarre, and terrifying. I was way out of my comfort zone. The only reference I could draw on came from ’90s movies, where usually the children hated the new person barging into their lives.
Given that the US Census Bureau reports that 1300 new stepfamilies are forming every day, I feel pretty confident assuming I’m not the only parent who confronted or is confronting this question and not sure where to start.
Luckily it’s 2023, and we have better resources than ’90s movies. SheKnows spoke with Jennifer Kelman, JustAnswer Therapist & Relationships Expert, to help parents (whether widowed or divorced) navigate the tough questions that arise when introducing kids of any age to a parent’s new partner.
Introducing Preschool And Elementary School Kids
Kelman urges parents to take it slow when introducing a new boyfriend or girlfriend to children, especially when it comes to younger kids, who may find the idea of a parent dating someone new confusing.
While she doesn’t believe in timelines — “there’s no one-size fits-all-approach to any of this,” says Kelman — she does believe that parents should hold off introducing a new partner until exclusivity and talk of merging lives begins to happen. “Introductions don’t need to happen before then because the ups and downs can be stressful and put undue burden on the kids.”
Once the relationship has reached that more serious stage, and parents decide it’s time to introduce the new person, Kelman encourages parents to keep the process loose. Tell your child that you have a new friend who you’ve been spending time with and doing fun things with, and you hope that all of you can do fun things together some time, too.
After that, Kelman urges parents to take a breath — which can be harder than it sounds when we want the important people in our lives to get along. But rigid expectations and forcing situations very rarely works out. “Don’t have expectations set in stone,” says Kelman, and “don’t push the issue.”
Instead, take your time and make sure to give your child — and yourself — lots of space and grace.
Introducing Tweens and Teens
When it comes to tweens and teens who are more aware, the key is — again — to take it slow. As with younger children, wait until you and your new partner have discussed exclusivity and have talked about taking the relationship to that more serious level. Then, let your older child know that you’ve started seeing someone new, and you’d love for them to meet, but that you don’t want to rush any meeting and will understand if they aren’t ready.
Parents should avoid “steamrolling their own needs,” says Kelman, who notes that with older children it’s important to “allow for [teens] to have their space about it, but at the same time not allow them to use it as a weapon against that parent, and not being reticent for the sake of being reticent and holding the parent hostage.”
If your teen pushes back — or never wants to meet your new person — Kelman suggests simply asking them what’s up. “Process as to why,” she says. “Is the hate because they’re feeling loyalty or like they’re betraying the other parent, was he or she mean, or are [they] just hating because it’s easy to hate?”
Understanding the push back can potentially help lighten some of it, or at least will make the teen feel seen and heard without giving them ultimate control over the situation. The goal is to “respect the boundary, but teens can’t rule the narrative,” says Kelman.
Every Situation Is Different
When it comes to dating — whether after divorce or after loss — there’s a lot of grief, excitement, and fear to navigate, among many other things. All of that is multiplied an infinite amount of times when kids are involved — because when kids are part of the picture, it’s no longer just your heart at risk. It’s your kids’ hearts, too. (And I think we can all agree we want to protect our kids’ hearts as much as we can, for as long as we can.)
Which is why it’s important to keep in mind that every situation is different. Every kid is different. While the fact that there’s no easy playbook to follow to ensure a successful meeting between kids and new partners may be discouraging for parents who were hoping for concrete steps, it also means there’s no wrong answer.
It means that as long as we (as parents) are approaching these introductions with intention and attention, we’re doing it right. Because the truth is, there are no guarantees in dating … or in life, for that matter. All that we can do as parents is our best to build a life we love for ourselves and our children.
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