I’m a single parent. How do I talk to my child about my dating?

It’s common for kids to have a hard time if their single parent begins to date. They may complain, sulk, or otherwise act out their discomfort and unhappiness. One girl told her mother, “When you go out with a man, it’s worse than the divorce!” Another child cried whenever she saw either of her parents with a new companion.

Parents who are looking forward to resuming their social lives may resent this display of anger and sadness: “Don’t ruin things. I need a life too. It’s not my fault your father left me.” While parents can understand some of their child’s unhappiness, they’re often surprised by the depth of her negative feelings.

Most children resent their parents’ dating because they believe it makes a family reconciliation less likely. Ten- to thirteen-year-olds may still think that they can bring their parents back together, or that their parents will re-unite on their own. A child may act rudely to her parents’ dates in hopes of discouraging relationships outside the original family.

She also may worry about receiving less attention once her parent begins dating. In a sense, she feels abandoned as her single parent focuses time and energy on a new companion. A date is an intruder and a threat.

Sometimes a child remains distant toward her parents’ dates because she fears involvement: “I think this guy will walk out on us like my dad did.” The child doesn’t want her parent to get hurt, and she doesn’t want to get hurt herself. Depending on the circumstances of the divorce, she may fear that her parent won’t be loyal to the new companion.

Finally, she may be uncomfortable with her parents’ social life because she herself is becoming interested in dating. Twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who are discovering their own sexual and romantic feelings dislike imagining that their parents might have similar thoughts.

To deal with your child’s worries, keep the lines of communication open if you start dating. Find out what she thinks, even if you’d rather not know. She’ll feel better talking openly about her concerns. Acknowledge your difficulties: “This is awkward, isn’t it?” “How can I help you feel better about my dating?” Imagine yourself in her place – it might help you understand and be more patient.

When you begin to date someone, meet him or her at a location other than your home. There’s no point in upsetting your child by having her greet the people you go out with.

Before bringing dates home, tell them about your child and offer advice on dealing with her. If they seem overly friendly, she may withdraw. Brief, casual contact is best. If dates show a genuine interest in her, she may respond favorably, although she may not want to spend much time with them. If they complement you or act affectionate in her presence, she may feel threatened and worry about losing you.

Don’t have a date spend the night at your house. Your child will feel embarrassed and awkward knowing that you’re sleeping with someone in the family’s home. In addition, she’ll be negatively influenced by what goes on. She’s looking to you as a model, and eventually she’ll copy you. If you want her to have good values as she enters adolescence, don’t expose her to sleepovers.

As you continue to date, you may be tempted to ask your child for acceptance or even advice. But don’t expect too much. She won’t be able to understand or validate your social life. She’s more likely to be uncooperative since she’d prefer that you didn’t go out. If your expectations are unrealistic, you’ll only become frustrated and angry.

You’ll have to work hard at helping her adjust. The more time you spend talking with her, being with her, and building a positive relationship, the easier that adjustment may be. If your dating takes time and attention away from her, you and she will be in conflict. If she has unusual difficulty with your dating, she may need extra support, including a therapy group.

Once you understand the problems your dating can cause, you may want to consider an option some parents have chosen: not dating until your children are older or even grown. Certainly this involves a sacrifice and may seem an unusual alternative. But the years of active parenting go quickly and you may find that putting your energy into family life, especially after a divorce, will have lasting benefits while still leaving you time for personal intimacy later.

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