How and When to Introduce Your New Honey to Your Kids
When we are suffering through a divorce, or, after a death, grieving the loss of a spouse, we can barely think about a future in which we are again in love, happy and wanting to spend a whole lot of time with a romantic partner. However, many people who divorce, or who are widowed, do find love again, and when they have children, one of the big challenges is how to introduce that person to the kids.
Here are some very basic guidelines to keep in mind when you decide to introduce that person to your kids:
- WAIT a lot longer than you think is necessary before telling the kids (even adult kids!) that you are seeing someone, before talking to the person on your phone when the kids are around, and before introducing them. For kids who seem curious, who seem to be coping very well with the changes, who are doing well in their lives, who are pretty cheerful in general, the idea of your new partner may not be as upsetting. For children who are grieving, who are struggling, who are anxious or depressed – give them many, many months of time before adding this new ingredient into their lives. Help them stabilize first – get them counseling, give them a lot of your time and attention – before bringing in your new partner. How long is long enough? Six months is not very long . . . so think in terms of many more months.
- Don’t lie to your children – not even a little bit. Don’t hang out with your “friend from work” when with your kids if you are actually romantically involved with that person. Don’t “happen to run into” a friend at the baseball game when with your kids, if that friend is actually your date. Children of all ages – even pre-schoolers! – can pick up on weird vibes from parents. They can tell something is not quite right, and it can make them very anxious and suspicious. So just don’t lie. It’s not a good model for your children.
- Give your children a heads up and prepare them for the introduction. (And tell your co-parent this is happening first, before any introduction to the kids!) Don’t surprise your children with any introduction. Explain to them way ahead of time that you would like to introduce them to the person you have been dating, and that you thought you would invite the person to some upcoming group activity or event. Gauge your children’s reactions.
- When you do introduce the person, and want to begin spending time with them when with your children, take it slowly. Very slowly. My rule of thumb is that the time should evolve “from the outside in”, and “from the public to the private.” What that means is that the initial introduction may be easiest if you are outside in a group – at a picnic with friends, at a neighborhood party, at a backyard barbeque with a few families. Again – don’t lie. Give your kids the heads up that you are inviting your girlfriend/boyfriend to the event, and you will introduce them. But tell your kids they do not have to spend much time with the person, and can go about their own business enjoying the event. They can spend as much time as they choose with you and your date at the party.
- After a couple of group activities out and about – maybe one in which it’s just the family but you are out doing something – going bowling, going to a ball game, going to the beach – you can move more towards home and privacy. Gradually create times that you can have your sweetheart with your kids during the day – for lunch, for afternoon pizza and a movie, for pancake breakfasts on the weekend.
- Eventually, when the kids and your sweetheart are somewhat (or very) comfortable with one another, you can move to the next phase – dinner with you and the kids, and an evening at home. Kids can be invited to watch a movie with you, to play a family game, or to just hang out. But avoid pressuring your children. Let them take their time. If you and your partner are downstairs laughing over a card game, your kids may peek out from their rooms and choose – on their own – to join you. Don’’t force it. Be patient.
- When it comes to sleep-overs, or traveling with your partner and children, again – take it slow. Parents often make the mistake of assuming that their children will move easily into the time when a partner sleeps over, or goes on vacation with the family, once the kids seem comfortable enough with that new person. Again, I encourage parents to take it slow. Ask children how they will feel if the person spends the night, or accompanies the family to the beach for the weekend. Be sensitive to your kids’ wishes, but be honest about your wish to have your partner around more. If you have been evolving slowly and gradually and sensitively up to now, this phase will go much more smoothly. (Also, needless to say, do not move to this level unless YOU believe this relationship is committed, ongoing, and serious.)
And only introduce a new partner if your relationship with that person has lasted a good bit of time, is serious, committed, and is likely to last a long time, or forever. Rotating partners in and out of your children’s lives will place your kids at risk.
If the child is curious, or even excited, then great! Move ahead. If your child is resistant, sullen, or even angry, you should probably take a step back and spend some more time talking with your child in the coming weeks about how they feel, what they are worried about, what is hard about this idea. Give them a bit more time, and take the next steps very slowly. Try to avoid forcing any relationship onto your children – it will likely backfire and make your future love life very difficult and unpleasant.
ON the other hand, adults cannot allow children to dictate how life plays out for too long. So if you have waited at least six months, and you have given your child an extra few months of time to adjust, and the child is still angry or resistant, you might go see a family therapist with your child for a few sessions, before proceeding. But proceed eventually – with a lot of sensitivity and care.
If one of your children seems ready to meet your partner, but the other(s) do not, proceed with care. Sometimes it works well to have one sibling meet a partner and reassure the others, but sometimes that creates a split between the kids that is not helpful. Think about this and get advice before moving forward with only some of the kids but not others.
A few other pieces of advice:
- If you are divorced, give your co-parent a heads up before big changes that will impact the children. You do not want your kids to feel they need to keep a secret, and you do not want THEM to have to break it to your Ex that your new honey has been hanging around. If you are widowed, you may want to tell your former in-laws about these changes – again, so the grandkids don’t need to worry about grandparents somehow finding out a painful piece of information about your new partner. Try to protect your children from being in the middle of a complicated and sensitive situation.
- Get some guidance – from a counselor, from books, from someone you trust as wise and mature – about how to blend your new partner into parenting time. Patricia Papernow is a wonderful writer about blending families and step-parenting. Check out her books and her website. When there is a new partner in the picture, the family relationships can be enriched, or derailed. Be careful to make good choices from the start, and the blending will go much more smoothly.
- Pay attention to the relationship developing between your new partner and each of your children. Be sure your partner is respectful, kind and protective of your children, and that he or she respects your relationship with your children. If you sense that your partner feels competitive with your kids, or jealous of the time and money you spend on your children – RED FLAGS! Problems are ahead. Instruct your new partner to ALWAYS be respectful of the children’s other parent and avoid denigrating their other parent in front of them. No matter what.
- But if all goes well, your children may benefit from a wonderful new adult in their lives. They may grow attached to your partner, and they may develop their own wonderful relationship with that person. If this happens . . . cherish your new relationship and let’s all hope it lasts!
If you ever have a moment when you feel your partner has been hurtful to your children in any way, or if your children seem fearful of your partner, STOP and find out what is going on. Keep your children away from your partner until you feel you fully understand whether there is some threat or risk to your kids. You are a parent first – always.