Q: "I'm 32, and have been a single mother for almost 3 years. My husband fell in love with someone else, and left me with my two daughters, now ages 8 and 11, for the other woman. He sees the girls once a week and on alternate weekends. I've been dating the same man (who isn't a parent) for about 2 years, and even though he's totally kind to them, and can be a lot of fun, my girls can sometimes be borderline rude, or sometimes they just ignore him. I really love my boyfriend, and I'm afraid that if my daughters don't start being more accepting or inclusive, that he'll have enough and walk away. He spends some weekends with us, but left our house early last Sunday, and I could tell he was hurt. I'm afraid I'm going to make it worse by my reaction. I need some advice about helping my children to accept my boyfriend". Shelby R., Philadelphia, PA
A: It's amazing how complicated dating can get when kids are involved. There are a couple of issues that need to be addressed, right off the bat:
1. Are your daughters getting enough uninterrupted time with you?
You mention that your boyfriend spends some weekends with you, so if your daughters are with you on a bi-weekly basis, and find themselves having to share you with another adult on their "Mom" weekends, they may see your boyfriend's presence as an impediment to spending alone-time with you. Yes, you have them on the weekdays, but these days are usually hectic and rushed. It's likely that your girls would do better with your boyfriend if you limited the mutual time you spend with him to an occasional day on the weekends when the girls are with you, instead of having him over for the entire weekend which the girls see as "their" time. Instead of seeing him as competition, they will be able to enjoy him for who he is.
2. Ask and really listen
Pick a time when you and your daughters are in low-conflict mode, and sit them down over a cup of hot chocolate or tea and tell them that you'd like to know how they feel about your boyfriend's visits, and if they have anything they'd like to discuss with you. Make sure you really listen to them, instead of simply waiting until they are finished talking to tell them what you think or how you feel. If you need to take some time to process anything they say, let them know that you appreciate their willingness to communicate, and will get back to them about their concerns. Remember-- you asked, so let them tell you without harsh or defensive reactions.
3. Don't accept unacceptable behavior
Most importantly, let them know that regardless of their feelings about him, or about time spent with him, you will not tolerate rude behavior to any adult, particularly ones you care about. Let them know that there will be consequences for their actions, and above all, follow through! Be careful not to shame your kids in front of others, but feel free to call them on unacceptable behavior, and then take it in the other room for real follow-up and consequences. This is a lesson that can be universally applied to other scenarios involving respect.
4. Have a heart to heart with your boyfriend
Talk to your boyfriend about your children's (normal) jealousy, or their feeling protective of their time with you. Let him know that you need to devote some time to making sure that things are balanced for you as a family, and that you predict that as they get more "Mom" time, they'll be better able to accept the inevitable sharing of their mom. And let him know that you have established rules of behavior that include strong limits and consequences for rudeness. Thank him for his support and understanding- and let him know that you cherish the alone-time you have with him.