Dating is hard enough when it's just two single people, add children into the mix, and things get even more complicated. I feel very qualified in advising how to date with kids as not only was I a child of divorced parents who both spent a lot of time searching for love but I also spent a good portion of my thirties as a single mother with two kids while trying to navigate the dating world. My partner and I now have a blended family with five children, ages ranging from seven to sixteen and I can honestly say I'm happier than I've ever been.
From my own experience, and as a therapist, I knew how easy it was to make mistakes that could traumatise your children as well as yourself. So after my divorce, I did what any self-respecting therapist would do in that situation, I booked myself in for therapy/coaching with a therapist who specialised in dating, divorce and blending families. The way I saw it, I could pay now and figure out how to do dating with children right or pay for my children's therapy later after the damage was done.
Here's my best advice on how to date as a single parent or date someone with kids without screwing it up (very much)…
1. Be Honest.
I'm always shocked at how many people are not upfront about the fact that they have children. If someone's not going to be okay with you having kids, it’s better for both of you to go your separate ways before you get involved. You will end up feeling hurt when they reject you, and they will feel betrayed because you were not honest. The more comfortable you are with your circumstances, the more accepting other people will be of it as well. And if they're not, why would you want them in your life anyway?
In the six years that I was a single mother, I never had a man tell me they didn't want to go out with me because I had kids (and I went out with a lot of men). Maybe I just didn't come across them, or perhaps I scared men who didn't want to date someone with kids away because I was so upfront about it in my dating profile. Either way, the fact that I had kids was never an issue. If anything, I found a lot of men preferred it because either they had children as well or they found that single mothers tended to be a lot more grown up and didn't put pressure on men to get married and have babies right away.
2. Take Your Time Before Involving the Kids.
A common mistake I see is introducing children to potential partners too quickly. Even talking to your children about dating is very age-dependent. The younger they are, the less you should involve them until you are sure that this relationship is getting serious. If they are under 10, I wouldn't even talk to them about dating and if you want to introduce them to someone, introduce them as a friend. It's also very traumatic for younger children to bond with someone and then that person disappears from their life.
If you're dating a lot, this can happen over and over again which can traumatise kids and make them believe it's something to do with them or that you can’t depend on people. It's important to reassure your children that they are the most important thing in your life and you will always be there for them. When families break up, children can also worry that you might break up with them.
3. Don't Wait Too Long Before Introducing New Partners and Kids.
While you don't want to rush your new partner and kids into meeting, you also don't want to wait too long. I made this mistake by waiting six months after dating a new partner before introducing him to my kids. The kids instantly disliked him, and he seemed to have no clue how to act around kids. He then gave me lots of advice on how I should parent and what I was doing wrong (people with children LOVE to get advice from people who don't have kids on how to parent). Things went rapidly downhill from there. In hindsight, I should have introduced them around the two or three-month mark as a friend to see how they interacted before I allowed the relationship to progress.
I also believe it's important to give your ex a heads up if you are getting serious with someone and having your child involved with them - unless your ex is an unreasonable jerk. And if they are an unreasonable jerk, in most cases it’s still better for them to hear from you rather than your child. Save your child from having to be the one who has to deal with your ex’s initial reaction to you having a new partner, if you can.
4. Do Not Allow Partners Or People You're Dating To Discipline Your Kids.
This one is one of the worst mistakes I see people make, and this was the first bit of advice the therapist I saw who specialised in blended families gave me. Do not let other people discipline your children when you're around. You are the parent and your partner punishing your kids is probably one of the fastest ways to ruin their relationship with your children. Nothing will build up resentment quicker than your partner bossing, yelling, or deciding punishments for your child. Do not tell your child that your new partner won’t be disciplining them, just let them notice this naturally.
The way I see it is the parent needs to be the bad cop, your partner the good cop. The most important thing you need to focus on at the beginning of a relationship once the children are introduced is your partner creating a bond between them. The more your child feels safe with your partner, the better the relationship between them will be. The only time a partner should correct a child’s behaviour is when the child is doing something directly to them that they don't like or if they are babysitting the child. In this case, the partner should always use a very calm and gentle tone of voice.
5. Teach Your Partner To Take Responsibility If They Lose It (And Make Sure You Do The Same)
Now I understand that we are all human and no one can cause you to lose your sh*t more quickly than a child. If you do lose your temper, it’s important to apologise and move on making it the exception not the rule. This will help strengthen the relationship with your new partner and child as well as teach your child to take responsibility for their actions. Most importantly, you as the parent needs to abide by this rule not only with your children but in all of your relationships. We all screw up but if we are accountable for our actions, our relationships will continue to improve rather than deteriorate.
5. Let Your Kids Be Kids (Do Not Involve Your Kids In Adult Matters).
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, parents of my generation thought it was perfectly acceptable to talk to their kids about their relationships and sex lives. This is probably a big part of why I’m a therapist today as I spent my childhood counselling my parents. Kids aren’t emotionally equipped to support you in your relationship troubles, and it stresses them out worrying over things that they have no control over.
Do not talk to your kids about your ex’s (your child's other parent) relationships or partners unless it's in a supportive way. It’s okay to acknowledge how your child feels about things but refrain from disclosing negative thoughts or interactions you have about your ex or their partner. It is psychologically more damaging to speak badly about your child's other parent than it is to say something nasty to your child about them personally. Be the bigger person, which I know from experience is easier said than done. Your children will remember the things that you said, and the more positive you are, the more positive they will be and behave.
Most of it comes down to communication.
Good communication with your child, your ex, and your new love. Having boundaries (rules for your life) in place will help save a lot of heartache in the long run.
Breaking up is messy, and divorce can be hell. Moving on with your life and finding love that makes you happy can be great for you and your kids. You deserve a fulfilling relationship that gives you a chance to model for your kids what a healthy and happy relationship is all about.