Q. My boyfriend of eight months has a five-year-old daughter from a previous relationship. He separated from his ex 18 months ago and sees his daughter a few times a week. Our relationship is going well and the question has come up about meeting his daughter. He has her for a full six days at the end of the month and he was wondering if we could all go away somewhere together for part of this. I feel a bit nervous about meeting her and am wondering if there is any advice or tips you can give to make it go well. There is also the problem with how her mother might react. His relationship with her can be difficult and she has never really accepted them splitting up. Sometimes she threatens to reduce his contact. I don’t know how she will react when she discovers he is going out with someone new.
A. Moving on and starting a new relationship post separation can be a challenge for everyone involved. Frequently for young children, their parent’s new relationship can bring up the hurt of the original separation and can end a fantasy that their parents might get back together again.
Further, when one parent starts a new relationship, children can experience a divided sense of loyalty, especially if the other parent has not moved on and is unhappy with this new development. For example, if a boy forms a friendship with their father’s new girlfriend, he can feel he is somehow being disloyal to his mother. He can also feel worried and insecure that the arrival of a new partner in his father’s life might reduce his own importance.
The key to helping children in this position is going slowly and being very sensitive to their feelings and where they are at. Generally, the advice is not to introduce a child to a new partner for some time until you are sure that the relationship is a long-term feature of your life. It also helps to think carefully about how you introduce a child to a new partner and to make sure that they are ready. It is good that you and your boyfriend are taking time to think all this through.
I’m not sure if going away together on holiday is the best way to start this introduction, as this might be too much too soon. Generally, the best way is to start gradually maybe for an initial short time and then to build up slowly. Perhaps, during the six days, her father could take her away for a holiday and make a plan to meet you with her a few times over the period.
Before meeting you, it is also important that her father sits down and talks through the situation with her, explaining that you are a new person in his life whom he hopes she will get to like. He should clearly indicate that your arrival does not change her relationship with him nor her relationship with her mother.
He should have this conversation alone with her, so she is free to share her feelings with him. He should be prepared to talk to her a few times about it. Often when you give children important news, they need time to process it before they are aware how they feel or can think up their questions. There are some useful child-centred story books that positively explain forming new families that he could read with her such as It’s Not Your Fault Koko Bear by Vicke Lansky, that you could look for in your local library or online.
Before meeting you, it would also help if her father could communicate directly with her mother about his new relationship with you. My advice to separated parents is that if they are going to introduce a new partner to a child, they should be prepared to communicate this to the other parent.
This saves the child from feeling they know a secret, or worrying what the other parent might think, or witnessing the other parent’s reaction when they find out etc. This is, of course, a difficult communication to get right, although it can be best done in a concise matter-of-fact way – “I am just letting you know that L will be meeting N my girlfriend this weekend and I wanted to let you know.” The introduction of a new partner could put tension on their co-parenting relationship especially if she has not moved on from the original separation and your boyfriend should anticipate this and work hard to positively communicate and seek mediation if necessary.
When you do meet his daughter for the first time, I would keep this low key and informal – perhaps the three of you could go for a walk and keep it short. In forming your relationship with her over time, the key is to go slowly and not to expect too much. You should make sure that she continues to get alone time with her father and she does not see your arrival as a threat to this.
Take your time in getting to know her, focusing on establishing a friendship with her. Don’t expect to be adopting a parenting or discipline role in the near future – this is her father’s role. Also, it is very important that you speak only positively about her mother in front of her and are sensitive and supportive about her relationship with her.
Finally, though being introduced to and getting on with a new partner’s children can be a delicate process, in many situations it can go very well. Lots of children I work with accept their parent’s new relationship especially if they see that it makes their parent happier and it does not compromise their own relationship with their parent. Further, they can also gain a new supportive person in their life and, handled well, this can be a bonus to them as well.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2012. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.