Q: I’m the father of an 11-year-old girl. My wife died almost two years ago. I have recently started a new relationship with someone familar to my daughter (she has taken her shopping, babysat for her and so on before the relationship started), and my daughter is fond of her but since the start of the relationship she has been throwing wobblies. We went on holidays recently and she wasn’t at all happy with the sleeping arrangements; I suppose she was shocked that we were sleeping together as she hadn’t witnessed this before. My partner is devastated and wants the relationship to end as she doesn’t want to hurt my daughter. I have always been my daughter’s chief carer, as I was always a stay-at-home dad.
A: It can be hard for children to accept their parents starting new relationships, especially as they come into adolescence. However, with a bit of patience and support, and some firm rules, they can adjust to the new situation. I wouldn’t give up on your relationship as it is important to you; instead, try to help your daughter manage.
Communication and understanding
Parents often start new relationships without talking to or preparing their children and this can lead to problems. It sounds like it might have been a shock for your daughter on holiday when she realised that the person she thought was a family friend was now confirmed as your new partner.
This might have been very awkward for her. While it is important to keep new relationships private for a period, it is important to tell children directly when they need to know; for example, before going on holidays. This gives them time to adjust and they may well respect the fact that you have told them.
In helping your daughter, it is important to take time to appreciate how she might be feeling. Like yourself she went through a major bereavement two years ago, losing her mother, and my guess is that she is still coming to terms with this. The fact that you are starting a new relationship might remind her acutely of the loss of her mother and bring up again her feelings of grief.
In addition, she might see the start of the new relationship as a sign of disloyalty to her mother; she is not yet ready to move on and include someone new in her close family unit. The start of the new relationship might also bring up fears that she will lose you to your new partner. Unconsciously she might be jealous and worry that your new partner will be more important in your life than she is.
At 11 years old, your daughter is starting into her adolescence and is likely becoming much more aware of sexuality and adult relationships. Young adolescents can find it awkward and embarrassing to think of their parents starting sexual relationships and these awkward feelings can be displayed by being critical, judgmental or even hostile.
Help your daughter manage her feelings
It is quite likely that your daughter is unaware of her feelings and will need help articulating them. The goal is to encourage her to put names on her feelings rather than acting them out in tantrums.
Pick a good time to check in with her when you are alone, and ask her how she feels about you being in a new relationship. Listen carefully to what she might say and encourage her to express things without being defensive.
It can be good idea to address directly some of the fears she might have: for example, “ Just because N is my girlfriend, it doesn’t change in any way how special you are to me”, or “It also doesn’t change in any way how we feel about Mum and how we remember her”.
You can also use the time to share your own feelings: “N is a special person in my life and I hope she will continue to be a good friend to you too.” Once their own feelings are acknowledged, many older children do accept their parent’s new partner, especially when they see that the relationship makes them happy.
Insist on respect from your daughter
Whatever your daughter might be feeling, it is important to acknowledge that you do have a right to start a new relationship and you can’t put your own life on hold because your daughter is upset about it. While you can be sensitive to her, you also have to do what is important to you. She might be upset at times, but it is right as a parent to insist your daughter shows respect to you and your partner.
Talk to her after one of her wobblies and say, “I appreciate that you might be upset, but it is not okay for you to throw a tantrum.” Be prepared to use consequences if her behaviour continues. For example, you might warn her that if she is rude again like that, then she will lose some of her pocket money or screen time.
The key to managing tantrums and challenging behaviour is to have a step-by-step plan for how you will respond in a calm way. For example, you might start by asking her to be polite or calm down, and if she doesn’t you withdraw from the conversation and then follow up with her later to talk things through.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, September 2014. John writes in The Irish Times Health+Family every Tuesday.