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After divorce: when to tell the kids that mom or dad is dating

 
 

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Recently, I was asked if I had any research addressing how soon after separation kids should be exposed to the other parent’s new partner. This is a tough question, but if you are in children’s ministry, you might have to deal with it more often than you like.

There are so many variables with this question. There are also a lot of articles on what people think about the issue but not much actual research.

I believe Judith Wallerstein, in her book What About the Kids has the best overall research. Her data are based on a long-term study of the same 131 children for more than twenty-five years.

Quoting Judith Wallerstein

In chapter 27 of What About The Kids[1] Judith states that when a single parent first he decides to date, he should let the kids know they have a new friend.

She goes on to state, “Keep in mind that children really have no idea how adult relationships develop. When they ‘met’ you, you were already married to their father. The appearance of a new adult in the wings is a major statement that the divorce is for real. It foretells the fact that big changes lie ahead.”

While the adult may be excited to begin a new relationship and move on with his life, the children usually are not.

Also, keep in mind that there are two parents, and they may disagree on these issues. I’ll discuss strategies on how to respond when an ex-spouse behaves unwisely later in this blog post. Here are some tips to help you talk to the single parent that might be thinking about dating.

When not to introduce a new person

  • If the parents are not yet divorced, and by this, I mean the divorce is not final
  1.  If it is a Christian family, bringing the other woman or man into the picture while still married tells children that “marriage” is a farce.
  2.  It says to children that all those scriptures on marriage and families you’ve read to them were wrong and of no value.
  • If the single parent still calls the spouse “my husband” or “my wife.” Bringing a potential new mate into the picture then will be very confusing for the children.
  • If the children are still deeply and openly grieving the loss of the once intact family

Other variables to consider

  • A lot depends on the interaction between the parents. Are they friendly with each other, or are they constantly arguing? Constantly arguing parents are still at war with each other. Introducing someone else into what the kids may consider “family” will be met with trepidation and possibly even fear.
  • The age of the kids has to be considered. Tweens and teens take it the hardest and are ruthless in their anger toward the person they assume “broke up the family.”
  • Some little kids can also be ruthless, and they may ask a lot of questions. They are more forgiving, though, if the other person is likable and tries to win them over.
  • Is there a support system for the children? This could include extended family, church family, DC4K, or friends and neighbors who help the children work through various issues.
  • Another consideration is the visitation schedule. Is it a co-parenting arrangement in which the children spend equal time with each parent? Or do the children only get to see the other parent every other weekend or on special occasions? If the children don’t get to see the other parent very often, they more than likely will not want to share the visitation with anyone else.
  • The length of time the couple has been separated before the divorce should be considered. If the whole divorce thing is new to the kids, give them time to settle into the new normal before bringing in a potential new parent because that is how they will look at this new person.
  • Is the new person the reason the couple is divorcing? If the person is, then bringing in this person too soon will only serve to cause conflict and pain to the other spouse. If this spouse is still in pain and agonizing over the loss of the spouse, the kids will sense it. They will hold this against the new person.

One thing I know for sure: there isn’t a whole lot the parent can do if the other ex-spouse decides that’s what he wants to do. The parent may ask the ex-spouse to not introduce the kids to someone new, but beyond that, there is nothing legally he can do (unless something is written into the divorce decree about the length of time one must wait before allowing the children around a new person).

Suggestions for the parent whose wishes are not respected

Ministering to these parents may be difficult but you can help by sharing the following tips.

(In this scenario, I’m going to imagine that the mom is the one who left, and the dad is the one who doesn’t want the kids introduced to the other person.)

  • Encourage the dad to stay calm.
  • Answer all of the children’s questions the best he can.
  • Answer truthfully and honestly according to the children’s developmental level and understanding. Never lie to children.
  • Do not give sordid details about the mom’s affair or illicit love.
  • Sometimes the dad will just need to say, “Hmm, that’s a Mom question. Why don’t you ask her?” And he will need to say this as nicely as he can manage.
  • Tell him to ask God for wisdom and basically let the Lord take over the conversation.
  • Live a Christian lifestyle with a strong faith walk.
  • Develop his own moral code he wants to project to his kids.
  • Live a life with integrity, spunk, and determination.

While it may be hard to understand, share with divorcing parents there is not one thing they can do about what the ex-spouse is doing or saying with the kids. It is the other parent’s time and life, and to the kids, they are the ex-spouse’s children. As long as there is no abuse or illegal activity going on, the parent is pretty much out of the picture in what happens in the other home.

When the kids grow up, if they have been exposed to a Christian parent who has lived out his faith before them, prayed over them, and exposed them to church and the scriptures, they will have a better prospect of choosing life with the Heavenly Father.

 

[1] “What About The Kids” by Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee (Hyperion, New York) page 279 & 278

 

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on July 29, 2014.

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6 thoughts on “After divorce: when to tell the kids that mom or dad is dating

  1. Such a critical issue, Linda! From my personal experience, years of conversations with divorced/remarried couples, Divorce Care sessions, etc., I have shared some insights in my book. I feel strongly about really healing from separation and divorce first and avoid the “bandaid fix” of another relationship. I suggest to parents that they try to keep their initial dating adventures private from their children. “Socializing and having a night out” are good, safe terms to use for the kids to explain why their parent is going out on a Friday or Saturday night. I then suggest that when that time comes when the parent feels the dating relationship has turned a “serious” corner, then to introduce the children in a social setting to avoid discomfort, shyness, or pressure either on the new person or the kids. This is a snapshot comment, hopefully even within the brevity, parents will understand that the kids really need to be protected from further emotional aches until they are stronger and more settled, and mom or dad is more healed. God bless you and your ministry!

  2. After my divorce I decided to keep my dating life away from my children until the relationship becomes serious. The reason for this is because children will bond with that person, grow to love that person. If it doesn’t work out it’s another loss.
    I share this with my DivorceCare participants, and others reentering the dating world! We parents need to protect our little ones!

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