I recently viewed an amazing documentary about children of divorce, “Split.” The film shares the stories of children of divorce (ages 6-12) through their own words. There are no prompts, no adults, and no filters. One of the conversational bits that struck me deeply was when a young boy spoke about meeting his mom’s new boyfriend, Tom. He shared how awkward that first meeting was, and how unsure he felt about liking Tom. He knew his mom wasn’t doing anything wrong, but even so the situation felt wrong to him. It was only after his dad told him it was okay to like Tom that the boy felt comfortable with it all. Hearing this story directly from a child’s personal experience was so impactful! It reminded me how incredibly important it is that we as parents lay a strong foundation before introducing a new partner to our children, and how necessary it is to keep the channels of communication open between parent and child.
Introducing New Partner to Your Children
My son was four when his father and I separated. While I remained single, his father had a new girlfriend immediately. As an educator and co-parenting coach, I knew the “right” way to introduce a new partner. But I also knew that life happens, and that we can’t always control how events take place. Too many times in both my career and personal life have I seen families torn apart, children devastated because they are caught between their mother and father and girlfriends/boyfriends/stepparents at all times. Too many times have I seen children both young and grown having to constantly choose sides; inviting one parent/stepparent to an important event and leaving the other side of the family out entirely or forced into creating boundaries on otherwise happy occasions because the two sides can’t get along. This was the last thing I wanted for my child. And the last thing I wanted for myself!
Although I was not emotionally ready to accept his father moving on, or to entertain the idea that my son might soon have a second mom, I knew this is what was happening. I knew that I needed to prepare my child, and I needed to solidly instill the idea that I (and his father) would both always be okay with him accepting new adults in his life. I am a strong believer in using resources to help guide conversations and frame concepts that might be difficult to discuss. This one was a whopper for me! So, I looked for books that would help me introduce the idea of new girlfriends/boyfriends to my son. I was shocked that I could not find a single book! With that, I wrote it. My book A New Special Friend follows Little Fox through all of his emotions as he gets to know his dad’s new girlfriend, Donna. It addresses the dilemma of “what about mom?” and is meant to help children understand that they do not have to choose sides in their families. In writing this book, I wanted the story to incorporate helpful tools for parents to use when introducing new partners. As I said before and we all know, life happens. Sometimes it is impossible to stage everything just right. But, if you can, there are a few simple rules to follow when introducing new adults to your children. And sometimes, these rules make all the difference.
Preparing Your Children
An important rule of thumb when bringing new people around your kids after a divorce is WAIT. Do yourself a favor by dating during your kid-free time for at least six months if possible. Make sure this relationship is going somewhere before bringing your children into the mix and give your kids time to adjust to a divorce before bringing a new person into the equation. It will save everyone a lot of potential heartache in the end!
Once you are sure about this relationship, prep the stage by opening age-appropriate discussions with your kids. Gently bring up the idea that mom/dad will probably fall in love again. Share stories of other families you may know that have stepparents. Read books (like mine or others) and watch movies that include blended families or new partners. All of this will help normalize the situation before it becomes too personal for your kids. It will allow them to open up without feeling attacked or threatened because this situation isn’t happening to them, specifically.
When you feel ready to introduce your new person to your family, do it slowly. Change your discussions around new partners with your kids to make them more personal and direct. Let your kids know that you are dating someone special and that you would like to introduce them to the family. If you have a friendly relationship with your former spouse, give them a heads up that you will be bringing your new partner around the kids so that they are not blindsided by the news. Invite your children to share their thoughts, ask and answer any questions they may have (within age-appropriate reason), and let them give feedback on how/when they want to meet him or her. Participating in the setup can help your kids feel empowered and more in control of the situation, which will make for a better outcome in the end.
When it’s time, keep the first introduction short and sweet. If possible, meet outside your home for an outing somewhere that your kids enjoy, or meet at a neutral location that does not hold a lot of memories for your family. Minimize displays of physical affection between you and your new love for the first few visits. Keep in mind that your children may feel possessive of you, or angry/confused/sad by the introduction of a new person into your life together. In A New Special Friend, Little Fox’s dad helps him feel secure by holding his hand the entire time during their first visit with Donna. Giving your children extra reassurance, attention, and displays of affection during these first few visits can help calm them and let them know that they are not losing you just because you have a new romantic partner.
Be Thoughtful of Your Kids’ Needs
It is always important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to introducing a new partner, and there is no guarantee that even if you do it the “right” way your kids will fall in line. However, being thoughtful of your kids’ needs and guiding this experience with intent can make a big difference in how they perceive your love interest. As wonderful as you might think your new partner is, your children are loyal to you and to their other parent. Be prepared to go slowly and think of the long game when approaching this stage of familial change. It is okay if your kids do not warm up immediately. Do not pressure them. Getting to know and accept someone might take them a minute! Allow them the space and time to do it on their own and the end result will be a lot healthier and happier for everyone involved.
Tamar Burris is a relationship and co-parenting coach. Her emphasis is putting kids’ needs first and her motto is ‘Co-parent Without Blame, Shame, or Games.’ Find her book, A New Special Friend, here. www.tamarburris.com