Finding love after a divorce or breakup can be exhilarating, especially when you feel a deep connection with your new partner. And if you have children, wanting them to be a part of your newfound happiness is natural – but how can you tell if they’re ready?
Maybe you’ve been dating your new partner for a while, and you’re both in it for the long haul. Or maybe you’ve only been dating a few months, but you’ve fallen madly in love. Either way, you might be considering introducing your children to your new love interest. And why not? After all, you’re happier than ever. Surely your kids will feel the same way.
Not so fast. According to experts, introducing your children to your new partner can be complicated. Here are factors to consider before introducing your kids to your new significant other to make the transition as smooth and stress-free as possible.
Timing is everything when introducing your kids
Children who have been through a divorce have already experienced a form grief, so they’re extra sensitive to loss, said Katie Lear, LCMHC, a children’s therapist specializing in childhood anxiety and trauma and author of “A Parent’s Guide to Managing Childhood Grief.” Because of this, Lear said it’s a good idea to hold off on waiting to introduce a new partner until you’re confident they’ll be in the picture for a long time. This could mean waiting anywhere from 6 to 12 months, she said.
First, take an objective look at your child and see how they’ve been coping with the divorce, said Jacqueline Ravelo, LCSW, a therapist specializing in counseling teenagers going through a parent’s divorce based in Miami, Florida. For example, has your toddler started having tantrums and accidents overnight? Has your young child been getting in trouble at school, nervous, and displaying behavioral problems? Has your teenager been skipping classes, experimenting with substances, or expressing that they are overwhelmed?
If your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, chances are they’re not coping well with the divorce, Ravelo said. “It might not be a good idea to introduce a partner (and more changes). Instead, focus on your children’s wellness and coping first, and then revisit making the introduction,” she advised.
How to tell if your child is ready to meet your new partner
Your child’s readiness to meet your new partner will vary according to their age, said Carla Manly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist, relationship expert, and author of “Date Smart: Transform Your Relationships and Love Fearlessly.” Here’s what to look out for.
- Toddlers: Toddlers aren’t fully able to verbalize their feelings and desires, so it’s up to their caregivers to make these decisions, Lear said. They won’t fully understand your new relationship, but that doesn’t mean they should meet your partner sooner, she said. That’s because toddlers can become easily attached to a new partner, so a relationship that doesn’t work out can have a big impact on them, Manly said. “It is hard to have an attachment figure introduced and then taken away again,” Lear added.
- School-aged kids: Children in this age group are often deeply affected by new partners, Manly said. They’re also old enough to understand the significance of meeting your new love interest, Lear said. That said, they may still be building their capacity to deal with the emotions that come with this kind of change, Lear said. The best way to determine if they’re ready for an introduction. Simply ask them directly, Manly said.
- Teens: Because their emotional and social skills are more fully developed, teens are generally more flexible when it comes to meeting new partners, Manly said. But be aware that teens often experience hormone-related mood swings, making them extra sensitive to change, she said. Lear advises following your teen’s lead – they should be able to choose if and when to meet a new partner.
The bottom line? Be sure you’re in it for the long haul before making any introductions. And keep in mind that kids who are still experiencing frequent, intense negative feelings about the divorce, expressing strong wishes for their parents to reunite, or having difficulty talking about the divorce may not be ready to meet a new partner, Lear said.
Be up front with your ex about your plan
If you have a good relationship with your ex, it’s a good idea to be direct about the upcoming introduction, Manly said.
“For example, you might say, ‘I’ve been dating someone for about three months, and I’d like to introduce them to our kids. I just wanted you to know in case they talk with you about it,’” she said.
Even if you don’t have a good relationship with your ex, it’s a good idea to let them know that you’re planning an introduction, Manly said. “You might say, ‘I’m going to introduce our children to my new partner. I think the timing is good, and I hope you can be supportive.’” Manly said.
Ultimately, it is not your ex’s decision whether or not you are in a relationship, Ravelo said. But it’s only fair to have a conversation with them before introducing your new partner to your kid, she advises. And being open and honest with them may help to reduce any potential resentment or animosity, she said.
Introduce your kids on a weekend or before leaving on a date
Regardless of age, the best way to introduce your children to a new partner is on a weekend or other time when they’re feeling relaxed, Manly said.
Toddlers often do best when a new partner is introduced in the context of play, such as taking a walk to a local park, while school-aged children do best in a time-limited, fun setting such as going for ice cream or sharing a snack, she said.
Teens tend to do best when first encounters are brief and upbeat – such as going for a quick slice of pizza or a scheduled chat before leaving for a date, she said.
“When introducing your child of any age to a new partner, always do your utmost to avoid introductions if your child is stressed, unwell, or facing a personal crisis of any sort,” Manly said. A child fares far better in the short- and long-term when new partner introductions are made when the child is feeling their best, she said.
What to do if your kids aren’t ready to meet your new partner
If your kids say they don’t want to meet your new partner, take the opportunity to explore their hesitation, Ravelo said. It might not be about your new partner at all; rather, your child may be worried that your family dynamic will change or that they will no longer be a priority, she said.
Reinforce to your kids that they matter, and their opinion is important to you.
“Address those fears and reassure your children (of any age) that they will remain your and your ex’s first priority. If your kids tell you they are afraid to meet a new person, you can ask, ‘What would you need to feel comfortable to meet my new partner?’ and answer as well as you can,” Ravelo said.
But forcing kids of any age into a relationship with a new partner is unlikely to end well, Lear said.
“Children have no control over what happens in a divorce: the choice wasn’t up to them. Offering children control by respecting their decisions about whether or not to meet your new partner is one way of restoring safety after loss,” she said. What’s more, following your child’s lead can result in a better relationship with your new partner over time.
Meeting a new partner can be a challenge for children after a divorce but listening to their cues and respecting their boundaries can make it a positive experience for all.