Change is difficult for many people, particularly for children. When my children were younger, it was not uncommon for them to shy away from new people by hiding behind my husband or me, avoiding making eye contact, or ignoring that new person altogether.
Although children are resilient, many have trouble adapting to new situations specifically when their core family lies at the centre of these changes.
There is a lot of research which addresses how to help children adapt to meeting their mother’s or father’s new significant other. The research, however, is mixed in its findings.
I have found both in my practice, as well as within my own social circle, that children will adapt best to their changing situations when parents are able to adhere to several basic principles.
These principles are as follows:
#1 – Ensure the introduction to a significant other is done in a time-sensitive manner, while keeping in mind the emotional and cognitive level of your child.
There is no ‘norm’ as to what this timeline should look like, as every relationship is different as are the coping levels of your children. And timing needs to be adapted to the needs of the child; what is a good time for one child, for instance, might be entirely too soon for another.
Introducing your children to each partner you have, could be confusing for the child. It is wise, therefore, to ensure that the new relationship is not a passing one and has potential for longevity.
#2 – Parents should try to treat this fear or anxiety as they would other childhood fears.
Parents often underestimate the impact that having a new partner can have on their children. For some children, the experience can be quite traumatic yet is often dismissed by parents who do not quite understand the effect that it is having.
Like with other fears or anxieties, exposure to a new significant other is best done in stages. The conversations are best started weeks before the intended first meeting. Slowly introduce your children to the idea of a partner, while at the same time try to assess their response to the idea.
#3 – Parents must ensure that they continue to have time alone with each of their children even while in a relationship with a significant other.
Let’s face it….It is important to have one-on-one time with our children no matter what. The individualized attention is healthy for parent and child and allows for some significant quality time.
This time is even more essential for children whose parents are split. These children often feel like they need to compete for their parents’ time and attention, making them more vulnerable. Parents need to ensure that they carve out time with their children to reinforce that the new partner has not taken their time away.
#4 – Ensure your ex-partner is aware of your new situation.
If you share custody of your children, as soon as the children are to be told or meet a significant other, it is advisable for parents to inform their ex-partners of their new romantic situation.
Children cannot turn their feelings off just at the flick of a switch. Having transparency with your ex about your relationship status provides children with the support they need regardless of which parent is taking care of them. If the relationship between the ex-spouses is a toxic one, it is wise to ensure that the child has another adult in whom they could confide.
Regardless of circumstance, introducing our children to a new significant other is a major step in any relationship.
As parents, it is imperative to remind ourselves that change and acceptance take time, and do not happen overnight.
In order for our children to be able to adjust, we must be patient with them, allow them to ask questions, and not be surprised if we encounter a little resistance along the way.
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