Q: I am divorced. Both my boyfriend and I separated from and ultimately divorced our former spouses about a year ago — me slightly before him. We have been dating for more than six months, and it has been going extremely well. We were both in therapy before our separations and divorces and both still go to therapy, although less frequently. Both of our therapists are supportive of our relationship and believe it is healthy, loving and stable. We want to start slowly introducing our kids and would appreciate any advice. My kids are older, 8 and 10, and his are 5 and 2. My 10-year-old is in therapy to help address issues of multiple deaths in the family, the divorce, her ADHD and life in general. Her therapist has said that she can know about the relationship. The key piece of advice is to not lie to her. She is very interested in relationships of all kinds. We have a wide range of developmental ages, so it is hard to figure out the best approach for all the kids. What advice do you have as we move forward?
A: Well, you and your significant other appear to have checked the boxes for caring about this relationship. Therapy for both? Check. Therapy for the sensitive 10-year-old? Check. Not rushing introductions? Check. Honestly, I couldn’t ask for much more.
Developmentally speaking, when is the best time to introduce children to significant others? My answer will be maddening: It all depends. The younger the child, the fewer and deeper the attachments with adults, so we want to be wary of adults coming in and out of their lives.
Because of their relative immaturity, a 5-year-old and 2-year-old will assume that once a loving adult is in their lives, this adult will stay in their lives, so it’s important to take extra care of their hearts. The hard part is that very young children cannot communicate their thoughts and feelings clearly. It is easy to assume young children don’t feel the losses of adults strongly. They do. The wounds run deep and can affect the rest of their lives.
Older children are also deeply hurt when adults come and go from their lives. It is easy for them to feel spread thin; they often want to remain loyal to their biological parent and can feel as if they are betraying this parent if they love the new adult in their lives. This conflict can lead to aggression, surliness and rudeness. Add grief and a learning disability, and it is a lot of emotional baggage for a young person.
Am I suggesting you never introduce your children to new love interests? No. Life does move forward, and children can handle change. I can sense you want some reassurance that the introductions and relationships will go smoothly. That is not a given. Each human in this story is an individual with insecurities, worries, doubts and hopes. How each person reacts to those emotions is uncontrollable; the only thing you can do is be honest, sensitive and aware of how the children are feeling.
Because you are working with therapists, you will know that behaviors in children who are stressed often come out sideways: trouble in school, more argumentative about seemingly unimportant issues, aggression, sassiness, etc. The children may not say one word about the new significant other, but their behavior can exhibit the frustration or stress. If you see this, take care to understand the behavior rather than control it with harsh punishments. This doesn’t mean you don’t provide boundaries (in fact, children with multiple parental figures in their lives need the clearest boundaries), it just means you seek to understand the root of the behavior before you toss it off as the child “just being bad.”
As you introduce your new partner to your children, be sure to increase your time with your kids. Take your 10-year-old to dinner and chat; find any way to be in her space. Find ways to spend pockets of time with the 8-year-old that feel easy and fun, and make these moments precious and important.
Finally, take a long view on these introductions and how they unfold. If you and your significant other are loving and aware, you will naturally give the children space to get used to these new relationships, as well as space for concerns and questions. You must always reassure the children which relationships take priority (you and the kids), and you should stay patient as the children take their time to trust someone new.
You cannot guarantee the future, but as long as you stay thoughtful and sensitive, children can handle these transitions. When you hear about kids who have been hurt by expanding families, they complain of not knowing what was going on, not being allowed to express how they feel and not feeling important in the decisions in this new family.
Do your best, check in with your therapists, allow emotions and tears to flow, and try to live as joyfully as you can. Our kids want to see that joy in us! For children of all ages, books are an excellent way to reassure them that their worried feelings are normal, and these books can be excellent conversation starters. I would go to your local library and see what speaks to you. You know your children best. Good luck.
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