Dating Someone with Kids? You Need to Know These Three Things

Kelly E.

When you fall in love with someone who already has kids there are a whole different set of challenges to negotiate.

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Photo by Raamin ka on Unsplash

We often think step parenting begins once you get married, but it actually starts the minute you meet your partner’s child. How you deal with and build that relationship from the start makes a huge impact long-term.

Here are three basic guidelines for being a great bonus-parent:

1. It’s not the same as being a birth parent

Know you’re not the child’s birth parent and don’t try to be.

Leave big decisions up to the birth parents, unless asked to help with them. Big decisions such as education, medical treatment — even haircuts and piercings — should be left up to the birth parents.

Leave discipline up to the birth parents. You role is a support one. If you have sole care of the children sometimes, such as when the birth parent is at work, gently reinforce the rules that the birth parent has established.

“For new stepparents, it is best to proceed slowly — not as a disciplinarian, but as a supportive friend to the child and a supportive resource to your partner,” says Dr. JoAnne Pedro-Carroll Ph.D., clinical psychologist and expert on parenting through divorce.

You are a co-leader in your family: an adult with authority, but this needs to be approached carefully.

Any discipline needs to be done with kindness, gentleness, and care so that it doesn’t damage the relationship.

You are a co-leader in your family: an adult with authority, but this needs to be approached carefully.

Kids don’t have the same reassurance that they are unconditionally loved and accepted with stepparents — conflict damages your relationship much more.

Don't lose your cool

There should never be any physical discipline, yelling, swearing, or harsh punishments. These are not necessary in any parenting, but especially not in step-parenting.

“It’s hard enough when tempers get out of control between children and their own parents. The incident and the painful memories of [harsh discipline from a stepparent] can last a lifetime and take a toll on any chance of building trust and respect in the new family,” says Pedro-Carroll.

Leave the main disciplining and big decisions up to your partner and their ex. Instead of trying to be the parent, try a mentoring role or just enjoy being the fun aunty/uncle.

2. Loving other people’s kids takes time

Building relationships takes time. Step parents often feel discouraged when they try hard to connect with their partner’s children and get rejected.

Loving other people’s kids, especially when they don’t seem to like you, is not easy. It requires a very unconditional kind of love; a love that isn’t dependent on how they treat you back.

Kids don’t know how to say things like “I really want to try to like you, but I feel like if I like you, then I’m not loving my mother as much.”

Back off if the kids need that. It takes months or even years for children to get to know and like a step-parent. Often you’re entering a situation where the kids have experienced a difficult family breakdown. They may be angry, upset, resentful, or un-trusting because of it.

Family therapist, Ashley Graber says “It’s helpful to have a practice of being able to grab onto a tool that helps us to pause, take a step back, and broaden our perspective.”

What to do if you get upset

Pausing and walking away when things trigger you emotionally is an important practice to learn in any kind of parenting, but is especially useful in step-parenting.

Graber suggests pausing helps us remember, “it’s not about “This kid doesn’t like me.” I can widen my perspective and say, “Oh, they’re hurting because their family was ripped apart, and there’s a new person in the mix that they didn’t ask for. And they don’t know how to tell me that because they don’t have the language for it.”

Kids don’t know how to say things like “I really want to try to like you, but I feel like if I like you, then I’m not loving my mother as much.”

Take it slow. If they need time alone with their birth parent, give them that. Be in the background, so they get used to you, but in a more natural way. Instead of thinking, “I’m being pushed out” try “I’m allowing them space to build a strong healthy bond with their birth parent.” It also allows you take some time for yourself — you can go out with friends or do something you enjoy!

Relationships take time. Hold a loving space for your step-kids and don’t try to force it.

3. What you don’t say matters

Good step-parents never talk badly about the birth parents – they keep any complaining or negative comments to adult discussions only.

If there’s conflict between your partner and their ex, be supportive of your partner but don’t add fuel to fires by getting directly involved in arguments. It only makes things messier and more stressful. Don’t side with other birth parent either; you’re the support for your spouse — even if you disagree with them — just listen and understand that co-parenting with an ex is hard and emotional.

Remember, even when it feels like it is, it’s not your problem. Co-parenting is often strained— your partner and their ex broke up for a reason and it’s likely they’ll have struggles and conflict about the kids at some point.

Very few people manage to perfectly co-parent all the time! When conflict happens, all that’s required of you is to have empathy for your partner.

But what about your feelings?

It’s fine to feel sad or frustrated with the difficulties. You can get mad, cry; I know I have at times! You can try to work out a solution with your partner, but remember they are the ones that needs to handle it. It’s their responsibility — not yours.

Step back. Let your partner deal with their ex, and make sure the kids don’t hear either of you complaining about it. Most children love their birth parents even if things are difficult. Your step child may feel upset, mad, or confused but hearing negatives about their birth parent is never helpful and may even backfire on you when they chose to be loyal to their parent.

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Allow yourself the freedom to be the mentor or fun relative, and support your partner as a co-leader in your family. Your relationship with the kids and your partner will be better for it.

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