How to Introduce a Future Stepparent to Your Kids
When in a new relationship as a single parent, it’s easy to stress about how your kids will the handle the news. Will they enjoy the company of the new face at the dinner table? Or will they shut down every time your significant other comes around? You're hoping for the former, we know.
But it’s hard to predict how your children—no matter what age—will react, especially if it’s your first time bringing someone around that you're romantic with. "Just because you like this person doesn’t mean that your kid necessarily will," reminds James H. Bray, Ph.D., chair and professor of the Department of Psychology at University of Texas at San Antonio.
The good news is most kids adapt to new changes like these just fine. A 2002 landmark study by developmental psychologist Mavis Hetherington found up to 80 percent of children from divorced homes were able to adjust well to their new life.
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Yet research also shows, it usually does take time for a relationship with a stepparent figure to develop, says Dr. Bray, author of Stepfamilies: Love, Marriage, and Parenting in the First Decade and former president of the American Psychological Association.
And a first encounter is really important in setting the tone. Experts offer tips on the best way to bring a potential future stepparent into your child's life—and that includes preparation before the first hello, during, and after.
Serious relationships only
You can't guarantee a significant other will turn into a spouse, but ensure there's some stability first. Multiple people walking in and out of a child's life can be really confusing for them.
"When somebody is around a lot and the kids get to know them and get attached and suddenly they are gone because the relationship didn’t work out, it’s another loss for them," says Dr. Bray. "And that can be challenging."
He points out, it can also model promiscuity even when that's not a parent's intention. "Kids learn from what their parents do, not what they say," he says.
On the other hand, an introduction shouldn't be done too late, either. You want to avoid making your child "feel like a side act...rather than a key element" in your life, says Randall Hicks, author of Stepparenting: 50 One-Minute Dos & Don’ts for Stepdads and Stepmoms. "Once it is known this new person will have some 'staying power' in the life of the parent, that's a good time to introduce them to the child, whether that person might be a future spouse or not," he adds.
Prepare them for who's coming around
Once you know your partner is here to stay (yay!), get your child ready for the meeting before it happens, says Molly Barrow Ph.D., a licensed mental health counselor and executive director of IMAGINE Children’s Health Center, Inc. in Naples, Florida, which treats school-age children suffering from trauma, PTSD, ADHD, stress, autism, chronic pain, and depression.
She recommends dropping little hints like "you hope to remarry" and "parents get lonely and want someone to be their special person." Make sure to "keep it focused on the parental need as your children do not know or believe they need a stepparent."
And always keep kids in the loop when planning the first big encounter wherever it might be. Don't have someone new just show up without your kid knowing; give them some kind of warning, says Dr. Bray. Even if you say it's simply a friend of yours you'd like them to meet, it's a "good idea for the parent to say something in advance...rather than just springing it on them."
Routines are a good thing
The setting of the first meeting matters, but that doesn't call for a fireworks display. "Oftentimes it’s a good idea to do something where there’s an activity that’s usual and the kids are going to enjoy," says. Dr. Bray. That keeps children in routine and usually makes for a much smoother introduction. Think grabbing food or attending a ball game where your significant other can just tag along.
And Dr. Barrow recommends avoiding special days, such as a birthday, holiday, or school event to avoid ruining a big moment. Same goes for when a child is having trouble at school, going through a breakup, or has an illness. "The introduction can wait until emotional loading subsides," she says.
Let things unfold naturally
There's no need to force anything during the introduction. Don't pressure kids to be affectionate with your partner, and that includes making them offer a handshake, hug, or kiss, says Dr. Barrow.
Keep that mindset going even after the first hangout is over.
"You probably took a little time to get to know them and like them, so you need to give your kids that kind of space," says Dr. Bray. Your kid may not like your new friend just yet, "and that needs to be OK for the child because otherwise they will feel a lot of pressure or they may pushback a lot."
Save some alone time for your little ones too
So the first introduction is over, and you can breathe a sigh of relief. But now it becomes important for parents to really pay attention to children's feelings.
"If the parent is all in love...and they want to include that person all the time, what the kids miss out on is that alone time with their parent, which they often really value after a divorce because it’s really helped them adjust," says Dr. Bray. It's common, he says, for children to start to feel jealous. That's especially true when a parent has been a single parent for a while and has become especially close to their child.
Make an effort to save some alone time with your child, even if it's something as simple as watching a movie together. Don't worry, though. Once your child develops a bond with your partner, they may become even more eager than you to extend an invite on your next trip to the zoo!
And keep conversation flowing down the line, too. "Once marriage is considered, children in an existing family should have a voice in this new person being part of the family," says Hicks. He suggests letting them know your plans and establishing the fact that their happiness and opinion is just as important as yours.