According to the experts, it depends.
“Kids do what they need to do,” says Patricia Papernow, a psychologist and the author of “Surviving and Thriving in Stepfamily Relationships: What Works and What Doesn’t.” “They are probably just trying to simplify things. My guideline is to let kids take the lead in what they call stepparents.”
Plus, Papernow says, what kid wants to think about their mother in a romantic way?
“Our society is pretty Puritan, and kids, especially older ones, don’t want to think about what their parents are doing behind closed doors,” she says. “Saying ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend’ might feel a little more sexual. It’s just easier to say ‘mom’s friend’ rather than thinking about their mother dating.”
One Texas mom who divorced when her kids were 2 and 5 met her future husband a year later. Her boyfriend grew very involved with her kids and she saw a natural progression in their relationship.
“My boyfriend was another person in their lives to love and take care of them,” she says.
Today, her stepkids call her “mom” and all the kids refer to their extended stepfamily the way the biological children do, as grandparents, brother and cousin, rather than affixing the word “step” to any terms.
“It happened naturally,” she says. “There was never much focus on it and we let them choose the names they were comfortable with. We didn’t make a big deal of it, so the kids grew up not knowing any differently.”
When she started dating her future husband, her kids were too young to know about boyfriends and girlfriends, so they just called her boyfriend by his name.
“It might just be a matter of age, and kids not understanding what the different types of relationships mean,” she says.
Then again, she teaches at a school that spans kindergarten through 12th grade, and says the term might just be outdated among kids today.
“I’m not even sure the phrase ‘boyfriend-girlfriend’ is used anymore,” she says. “I hear ‘dating’ rather than ‘boyfriend’ or ‘girlfriend.’ ”
Leigh Tuttle, a clinical social worker in Massachusetts who works with children and families, agrees that referring to a parent’s partner as a friend might be completely innocuous. But, he cautions, parents should also pay attention to hints that it could be a sign of underlying issues.
“It could be an easy shorthand, but parents also have to be careful; sometimes they might not understand the depth of their children’s feelings,” Tuttle says. “There might be many complex variables at play, including their age, their relationship with their mom and dad, their feelings toward their parent’s new partner, and whether their parents’ divorce is amicable or filled with conflict.”
In other words, a child’s response to something as simple as referring to their mom’s boyfriend as a friend can be as individual and complex as a fingerprint.
Of course a child calling a stepparent “mom” or dad” can cause challenges as well.
A North Carolina mom of two says her stepchildren refer to her by her first name. They agreed early on that it would be respectful, neutral and easy. Yet the blended family ran into an issue when her husband’s ex-wife remarried and the kids began calling their stepfather “dad.”
“This really hurt my husband’s feelings,” she says. “He asked his ex-wife to encourage their children to call their stepfather by another name. He hasn’t said anything to his kids because it’s a hard conversation and he doesn’t want to upset them. He’s doing the best he can.”
If you are concerned about the words being used in your family, Papernow says that how you approach the situation makes a difference.
“Have an attitude that is curious, not anxious, so your child knows you’re just trying to understand,” she says. “Try saying something like, ‘I notice you call my boyfriend my friend and I bet there’s a good reason for why you do that,’ ” Papernow says. “Ask them if they know why they do that, and if they don’t know or want time to think, tell them you can talk again tomorrow. Some kids are good at talking about their feelings and others aren’t.”
Don’t rush to assume everything is okay, though.
“Sometimes kids don’t want to upset their parents, and other times they don’t want to pretend they have a big happy family,” Tuttle says. “Parents might not appreciate the level of their child’s grieving, or how it manifests. Try talking to your kids, try listening, and if you’re still concerned, talk to a professional.”
In the case of my children, I’ve chosen not to correct their choice of words. I’m tuned in, though, and I probably talk to them about their feelings more than they would like. For now, at least, I’m convinced they are just doing what’s most comfortable for them, and that’s okay with me.
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