With divorce rates over 50 percent, chances are a parent will start dating and considering new relationships while their children are still in the home. When parents are recovering from divorce and beginning to date again, they are typically dealing with a range of emotions. Many are still experiencing pain and may be questioning their readiness to enter a new relationship. Others may feel ready to step into the world of dating, but may feel out of practice and if they married young, have little dating experience to draw upon when venturing out into the single world again. To complicate matters, children's reactions to their parents' dating can be complicated, intensifying parental guilt or anxiety about putting their children through more emotional turmoil.
The age of the child, the circumstances that preceded the divorce, and the non-custodial parent's availability and presence in the child's life all affect the child's readiness to accept a new romance in a parent's life. A young child may feel more confused by the absence of one parent from the home. Reassurances by one or both parents may be too intellectualized for a youngster to understand or to accept that one parent has a new home and that the family will never be the same again.
As the new life unfolds and children are more secure with the presence of both parents in their lives, parents grow more relieved. But this does not necessarily indicate that their children are ready to know about them entering into new relationships. Many children become adept at emotional caretaking with their parents during and after divorce. After seeing one or both parents suffer and then having to contend with new burdens, the child often resists adding his own feelings or needs to the parents' already overburdened shoulders. This pseudo-maturity can be highly valued since it makes parents' lives easier in the short term. But the child pays a high emotional price for this behavior. When the child's real feelings are not expressed but are buried, one day they may surface in the form of depression or anger as the result of childhood needs not being met.
When parents begin to date, some will introduce all their new acquaintances to the child, thinking it is in everyone's best interest to keep their activities honest and out in the open. Others will conceal the fact that they are dating and only introduce a child to someone whom they date for a long period of time and who appears to be interested in a long-term relationship.'s reactions vary. Some will be outwardly hostile or rejecting of the person the parent is dating. Others will appear accepting on the surface but harbor other feelings they may feel too guilty or angry to express. Many children feel threatened by the presence of an important new person in a parent's life and may wonder about the security of their own place in the parent's life. This worry is not groundless. Many remarriages lead to reconstituted families if the other party has children and if not, there may still be a renegotiation of old rules or styles in the family that was once composed of both of the child's parents.
Since children are busy with the work of being children--growing and developing, attending to the demands of school and extra-curricular activities, their changing bodies, concerns about acceptance in the peer community and other social matters--it does not help them to be kept informed of the details of their parents' dating lives that may only serve to increase anxiety. Children's lives should remain as stable as possible, since many have already had to withstand major disruptions as a result of divorce: the breakup of the family unit, sometimes a forced move and change of schools, or adjustment to new financial circumstances that are common after divorce. The additional details of their parents' dating lives can cause distraction from school work, and emotional symptoms including anxiety, irritability and sleep disturbance, and are an unnecessary burden.
What Parents Can Do
-Avoid the "revolving door" that takes place with multiple, casual dating. Children do not need to meet every new person, especially if it is likely that they will not become a regular presence in the child's life.
-Avoid discussing the details of dating life even if it is a positive experience. Children should never be in the role of their parents' confidantes. Teenagers are still children, too.
-Remember that children are dealing with loyalty issues regarding both parents even if both are dating, and even if everyone appears happy on the outside. If a child grows to like and accept a new dating partner, this can still feel like disloyalty toward the other parent.
-Be aware that older children can be embarrassed by their parents' new images: youthful or revealing clothing, new hair color or style, sports cars and other new additions. Children still need their parents to behave like adults.
-Be observant of persistent behavioral or emotional changes in children. Irritable or oppositional behavior, sullenness, crying, sleep disturbances, poor concentration in school and other symptoms can be signs of stress or difficulty with the post-divorce adjustment and may indicate that the child needs someone neutral to talk to.
KAREN KAUFMAN, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., works in private practice in New Rochelle and on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and is a faculty member at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service/Tarrytown Division. She can be reached at (212)639-9614.