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Dating After Divorce: Keep Kids' Feelings in Mind

Released: 2/12/2014 12:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: Indiana University
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Finding love is hard enough as it is. Finding -- and maintaining -- love after a separation or divorce can be even harder, especially when bringing a new romantic partner into your kids’ lives. But parents should be sensitive to their kids’ feelings when bringing a new romantic partner into the home, especially if the divorce is still fresh in their memory.

“We know that the process of divorce is not a one-time event,” said Jonathon Beckmeyer, an assistant professor at the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington. “It starts well before parents separate, and it’s ongoing into the development of these new relationships for the now-separated parents -- that’s all part of the process. And that process can negatively affect children.”

Following divorce, research has shown that kids and adolescents might later develop problems at school, display signs of aggression, or feel anxiety, stress or sadness.

A number of factors can depend on how kids deal with their parents’ new romances, or the divorce or separation itself. Beckmeyer, whose research focuses on how family relationships influence adolescents, said kids can show signs of stress from a change in family structure from as early on as infancy.

While kids younger than 13 tend to have different perceptions of what goes into a romantic partnership, they have limited outlets to cope with their frustration. Beckmeyer said once kids move into older adolescence and begin attending college, they’re more able to remove themselves from what’s going on at home. But literature shows that children who are in their early 20s can still struggle with their parents starting new romantic relationships following a separation or divorce.

Children who have strong relationships with their parents might also feel forced to choose a side or to start treating the new partner as a parental figure.

"Parents should keep in mind who they’re introducing their children to," Beckmeyer said. "You don't want your kid to form a bond with another adult caregiver and then have that caregiver be gone, and that's just going to create another family transition. More family transitions are usually not beneficial for kids.”

Beckmeyer suggests the following tips for parents to consider:

*Communicate: "The real key is to maintain warm and supportive involvement from both the residential parent, the primary caregiver and the nonresidential parent to a degree that’s appropriate for the family," he said.

*Manage expectations: Parents should communicate their romantic partnerships with their children in a way that's age-appropriate for their kids. "You’re going to tell a kid who is 4, 5 or 6 a different kind of narrative of what's going on than what you're going to tell a kid who is 13 or 14," Beckmeyer said.

*Slow and steady: After re-partnering, parents might feel tempted to rush the dating process, but Beckmeyer suggests parents slowly integrate their new romantic partner into their kids' life, such as bringing them over for dinner a couple of times or having their kids meet them in a low-pressure situation. "It's going to take years for the family to feel like a 'family' again," Beckmeyer said. "So the more you're able to build those relationships over time, the easier it will be for the children to adjust."

Beckmeyer, who is the coordinator of Family Health Concentration in the Masters of Public Health program, can be reached at 812-856-4220 or jbeckmey@indiana.edu. For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 and traljame@iu.edu.

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