It can feel like one of the most difficult conversations to start with your child – yes, even trickier than talking about sex, or porn. But at some point, if you’re a single parent, or have recently split with a partner, you might find yourself wanting to introduce someone special to your child.
“I don’t know how to do it,” one mum told me, after getting into a serious relationship with someone for the first time in her four-year-old son’s life.
“It’s only ever been the two of us, and he’s been really clingy with me. The other day, for the first time, he put his arms out to my partner for a cuddle. But the whole conversation makes me nervous, because I want to do it right.”
Another mum told me that when she first introduced her children, aged six and eight, to her partner, it was as “mummy’s friend”. “We didn’t overload them with it,” she says. “We did it softly, at first. He’d be around for an hour or so on the weekend. No longer, until they got more used to him. We staggered it out, over time, and it gradually became ‘normal’ to have him around.”
Dee Holmes, senior counsellor at Relate, tells HuffPost UK that there are ways to ease the transition – and to help your child come to terms with the presence of someone new. But these approaches can vary depending on the context or duration of your break-up – and the age of your child.
“If you’re newly separated and your ex-partner is still around in your life, it may become something your child will talk to them about,” says Holmes. As co-parents, talking is important, otherwise the child becomes the messenger, she adds. “If you’ve got a good relationship with your ex, it’s a good idea to discuss beforehand how you’ll deal with either one of you finding a new partner.”
Holmes says it can actually be easier embarking on a new relationship if your children are younger. “Particularly if you’re splitting childcare with your ex, you can actually have a relationship relatively secretly,” she says. “You don’t really want to introduce them to a succession of people who come in and out of their lives – you want to wait until they’re important.
“Older children are much more aware of their parents’ dating lives – I’ve heard stories of teenagers asking their mums or dads ‘have you had sex, yet?’”
Just because you’ve fallen for someone new, you shouldn’t expect your kids to feel the same. “Be mindful,” warns Holmes. “You might be madly in love with this person and want to spend Christmas Day or Boxing Day with them, but your children may not like being told who they have to like.”
At the same time, don’t over-compensate. “While you can be sensitive to your child’s feelings – they may worry about being ‘dumped’ or ‘replaced’, just like an only child does when there’s a new sibling – they shouldn’t take control. A child should be a part of everything – but not the centre of everything.”
Here are six ways to make that first meeting a little easier.
Meet somewhere neutral
Holmes advises meeting for a walk, or for a pub lunch, or even at the park – to give you a focus. “Plan an activity – such as the cinema – then a pizza, afterwards. It keeps it time-limited, with a focus. It takes the pressure off.”
It can be easier than meeting at your partner’s place – or even you own. “In that situation, kids often say: ‘when are we going home?’ And if you have your partner over to your house, your child may disappear to their bedroom. Going somewhere neutral avoids those pitfalls, and also helps limit the feeling of encroaching on their ‘territory’.”
Tell your child in advance
“You can explain that you’ve got a friend you’ve been spending some time with; you like them quite a lot and you’d like your kid to meet them,” Holmes says. “You can say, ‘I like meeting your friends – and it’s good for you to meet my friends, too.’ Keep it light and to the point.”
Try not to say too much
“We can often overshare or overload our kids with information,” Holmes says. “Instead, tell them something, then pause and see what questions they ask.”
Keep it simple, such as: “I’ve got a friend might be nice for you to meet. On Saturday we are going to go to the cinema to see Frozen 2, is that okay?”
“They might just say, ‘yes’, or they might ask questions, such as, ‘what’s your friend’s name?’ You don’t need to go in immediately with the details. Just answer the question and see if another one comes. You can also ask if they want to ask any questions.”
Teens may react differently
“Older children might be more conflicted by their sense of loyalties,” Holmes points out. “It sometimes depends on the context – such as how long you’ve been split up. You could introduce the idea as, ‘There’s someone I’m seeing I’d like you to meet.’ But give them a choice over how they meet. Say to them, ‘Would you like to meet them when they come over to pick me up? Or would you like us all to go to the park together?’ Don’t give them a blank canvas and expect them to come up with an idea, but give them a few different choices. It will help them feel like they have agency over what’s happening.”
Keep PDAs to a minimum
It depends what your child is used to, but Holmes advises taking cues from your ex-partner if they’ve been through it, too. “If your ex is in a new relationship, then perhaps you can link to that in a useful way. Say to your child, “I’ve got a friend who’s important to me, too – like Daddy’s friend”.”
Discuss it with your partner, too
It’s important to find out how your new partner feels about meeting your kids (as well as how your ex feels about the same meeting). “Discuss the introduction with them,” says Holmes. “If you’re introducing someone to your children, chances are it already feels like a ‘significant’ relationship or the start of a step-family, so it’s a good point to see if you’re on the same page as that person.”