How To Talk To Your Kids About Your Dating Life, From A Family Psychologist
Dating can be hard, and when a single parent has to consider not only their own needs but also the needs of their children, it becomes even more nuanced. However, that does not mean single parents should stop dating—in fact, if a healthy relationship develops, it can be positive for the whole family. The key is figuring out how and when to talk to your kids about your dating life to create a more positive experience for everyone involved.
How to talk to your kids about your dating life.
When a parent begins dating—and their kids are old enough to be aware of it—it's important to inform them of what's happening. "I don't think that going out to spend time with other people is something that parents need to hide from their kids," holistic child and family psychologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS, tells mbg.
In general, it's pretty harmless for children to know that their parents are going out with other people. "Whether that is referred to as dating, or not, depends on the age of the child," Beurkens says. In other words: Telling them is fine, but the delivery matters.
"Having an age-appropriate conversation to let the child know about the relationship is important," Beurkens says. Her recommendations for the conversation:
- To protect kids from feeling rejected or abandoned, focus on the fact that this new person won't change or interfere with the existing parent-child relationship.
- Approach the conversation as providing information, not trying to gain approval.
- If you're still dating casually, it's good to be honest about why you're going out, but you don't necessarily need to explain who you're going out with to young children. Unless you plan on introducing your kids to that new partner, it's better to keep the details to a minimum.
When is the right time to introduce a new partner to your kids?
When it comes to introducing kids to a new partner, the conversation should be handled with a bit more delicacy. "When casual dating partners are brought into children's lives, there is the risk of them getting attached and then feeling abandoned," Beurkens says, "as well as general confusion about the person's role in their life."
To avoid that confusion, she says parents need to determine whether the person they are dating is committed. According to Beurkens, once the new couple has discussed being serious, defined the relationship, and are on the same page about moving forward, it's perfectly acceptable to talk to the kids about it. Then, everyone can start spending time together, she says.
Planning a fun activity that involves everyone is a casual way to introduce a new partner without any pressure—especially with younger kids. During the outing, allow your kids to form their own opinions about the person, Beurkens advises. "Kids are allowed to have their own thoughts and feelings about a parent dating someone new, and those need to be acknowledged," she says, "but they are not allowed to control the situation."
Because children may be afraid of a changing dynamic, their emotions can manipulate the situation. Rather than ending a relationship to appease your kids or, on the flip side, ignoring your kids' emotional needs, pay attention to how they're responding and try to communicate about it effectively.
3 ways kids may respond to a parent's dating life, and how to deal:
1. They may fear they're being replaced.
"Young children may become fearful that someone new is going to take their place," Beurkens says. Reiterating that a new partner won't alter the existing relationship between parent and child can be helpful. "It's important to continue having open dialogue about this, reassuring children that this isn't the case," she says, "and spending an appropriate amount of time with them without the new partner."
2. They may become concerned.
"Older kids can be wary and concerned that their parent is going to make a mistake or get hurt," she explains. To quell these concerns, encourage kids to ask questions. If they still don't feel comfortable, give them space and time to work through those feelings. If the feelings persist, seeking out family counseling may be helpful.
3. They may become manipulative.
Kids will sometimes use the presence of a new partner as leverage with their other parent and cause conflict in both homes, Beurkens explains. "It's best in these situations to set boundaries with the other parent around how information is shared, how parents will both respond to information about the other parent's dating life, and not allowing kids to manipulate with this kind of information," she suggests.
The bottom line.
It's important for single parents to enjoy their dating lives, but they must also keep their children's emotional needs in mind. Introducing a person too soon can lead to feelings of confusion and ultimately abandonment if the relationship doesn't work out. Proper communication throughout the entire dating process is important.