When my ex walked out, my daughter wasn’t even two yet. I remember saying to my mom that I didn’t know anyone else who was divorced, single parenting and dating. She looked right at me and laughed, “Give it 10 years, you’ll have lots of company.”
She was right. While I’ve since married a great guy, I’m watching many now-divorced parents navigate blossoming relationships. They’re quickly discovering what I did—dating with kids in tow is a whole different scenario.
One of the biggest issues we face from the get-go is: What do we say to our kids? How do we avoid scarring them for life? I asked Toronto psychotherapist Jana Brankov for some surefire tips.
1. Talk to them
Trying to hide the fact that you’re dating won’t work. “Be truthful,” says Brankov. “You need to be authentic because kids sniff us out. Whatever is happening, they sense it.”
2. Keep it simple
Brankov says one of the biggest mistakes dating parents make is telling their kids too much. “This is one of those cases where less is more,” she says. “Provide basic information to a child, depending on age and developmental stage.”
And remember: They’re your kids, not your friends. When you’re first dating all you need to say is that you’re going out with a friend. They don’t even have to know his or her name at this stage.
3. Reassure them
“All kids want to know is that they’re still the most important people in your life no matter what. And that you will always be there for them,” says Brankov. “They really don’t care about parents’ romantic life or social life.” And this can be to your benefit. “It’s not rejection,” she continues. “It’s just kids being kids.”
4. Be clear
If you have a particularly inquisitive child who is asking for too many details, you don’t have to divulge all the information. But don’t just dismiss them, either. “Clarity is important,” says Brankov. You can acknowledge their question, assess whether or not it’s one you should answer and just simply tell them that you aren’t going to answer that right now.
5. Baby steps
Go really gradually, advises Brankov. If you’re getting to the point when it’s time for your kids to meet this new partner, create a scene for success. Make sure everyone has slept and eaten. Say that you’d like them to meet this special friend (they should know the person’s name by now). Then listen, acknowledge and validate—no matter what their reaction is. As Brankov says, you want to send the message “’You’re important to me, no matter what you have to say. I value your opinion. I value who you are.’ It’s one of the ways to build self-esteem, when you take them seriously.”
6. No secrets
If you tell them not to tell grandma or your ex about your “new friend,” you’re only setting them up for keeping secrets from you in the future, says Brankov. It’s better to assess the situation and just tell your ex before they do. After all, you’re the parent and role model.