When a divorced parent begins dating, it can be an anxious time for children and parents alike. Children often question if they will be forgotten or if the parent will not have enough time for them while parents are struggling with a balance of taking care of their children’s needs and their own need to move on.
“For children, parents' dating is a concrete and clear sign that their parents are not going to get back together. and it’s an adjustment realizing that they have to share their parent with another person,” said Dr. Tamar Chansky, a leading anxiety psychologist and author of “Freeing Yourself from Anxiety and Freeing Your Child From Anxiety.”
Though as with any change there may be growing pains along the way, leave room for the possibility that this could be a good thing for all, said Chansky.
Depending on how long ago you and your ex-spouse divorced, children often struggle with a feeling of disloyalty when approached with a new person or partner in their parents’ lives. “It helps younger kids (5 to 10) to understand the concept of divorce before their parents’ date,” said Jodi Lobozzo Aman, a New York-based psychotherapist. “They don’t understand how people can love each other and then not any more.”
Aman recommends explaining the concept of divorce in general terms versus focusing on the specific problems in the marriage. Discuss the need to establish new traditions, routines and even new friendships. Most importantly, parents need to empathize and understand that it may take a while for a child to understand, said Aman.
“There is also a grieving period where there are tons of tears and kids are in need of tons of cuddles and attention,” said Aman.
Give them this time before introducing a new person into their lives.
As a parent, when you decide you and your family are ready for dating, it’s important to validate your need to date while reassuring your children in concrete ways what won’t change as a result of it. Chansky recommends using phrases that will help ease your child’s anxiety about someone new entering your life.
“It’s similar to how you talk to kids about divorce. Tell them ‘I’ll still come to all your soccer games, you can still have playmates at our house, I’ll still tuck you in at night, but some nights there will be a babysitter for you to hang out with',” said Chansky.
For young children, provide examples about dating that relate to their personal experiences. Chansky recommends phrases such as, “You know how happy you are when you play over at your friend’s house, and sometimes you get grumpy if you haven’t had friends over in a while. Mom is like that, too. Mom needs to spend time with friends just like you.”
When talking with teens, be open ended and respectful of their feelings. “Let them know that you are beginning to date and that you know it can be confusing and complicated and that you want to know what they think about it,” said Chansky. “Teens want their views respected and their input considered.”
With any age, it is key to invite your children to talk about their feelings. “Normalize that it is okay to have many different feelings,” said Chansky. “They may be happy for mom, worried about themselves or mad all over again about the divorce.”
Encourage your child to talk about those feelings while giving them the space to process them.
While exploring your own feelings about dating, it’s important that you are honest with your children when you embark on this new journey. Kids can see right through “this is my friend,” said Aman. “Use 'boyfriend' and warn them first before a meeting. Don’t try the chance meeting at the park – it feels like a lie and that makes kids feel uncared about.”
Instead, ask for your child’s input about where and how the meeting will happen, such as a baseball game, walk in the neighborhood, dinner or dessert.
Also, be honest with yourself, suggests Chansky. “You will feel anxious about this and so will your kids,” she said. “Keep your expectations flexible and realistic and know that it doesn’t need to go perfectly – this needs to stay fairly brief and casual.”
Relationships of all kinds take time to develop, so it is possible that your kids may not adapt immediately to your new love. “If you can manage your own anxiety and expectations, this will leave room for your kids to be able to talk to you without fear of upsetting you, and you can help them with their adjustment,” said Chansky.