Q: I’m the divorced father of two kids. I’ve been going out with a wonderful woman for a few months now and we’re heading in the direction of getting married. The problem is that she’s not quite sure how to behave around my kids. What can I do to help her—and my kids—feel more like a family? How do I help my kids accept her as part of our family?
A: You are the single most important factor in determining how the new woman in your life will deal with her roles as your girlfriend and possible step-mother to your children. You’re the one who has to welcome her into your family and you’re the one who has to make sure the children understand her role. Like just about anyone stepping into a pre-existing family unit, your girlfriend is probably going to feel a little insecure. Doing some of the following will go a long way toward helping her feel more confident:
- Let her know that she doesn’t have to be your children’s mother. In most cases, in fact, she can’t be-they already have one. What she can and should do, however, is treat your children with love and respect. After a while she’ll get the same back from them.
- Give her plenty of time to develop her own relationships with the children. This means letting things happen at their own pace, not forcing her to take on more responsibility than she’s able to.
- Let her know how she’s doing. She may not say so but she really wants to know that the kids like her and that she’s doing a good job. So if they say something nice to you about her, pass it on. Complement her when she does something great with the kids, and give her some gentle pointers if she does something wrong. Hovering over her shoulder puts way too much pressure on her. Instead, let her discover how to do most things for herself the same way you did-by making mistakes.
- Talk to your kids. Make sure they know what her authority is and that they know what’s expected of them relative to her.
- Encourage her to tell you her feelings. She may be having the time of her life, or she may be frustrated, exasperated, and annoyed. Help her celebrate the joys and be supportive when she needs to cry on your shoulder.
- Help her cope with your ex. Your girlfriend and your ex probably won’t have that much to do with one another. But they might bump into each other at family, school, or sporting events. You can help minimize potential conflicts by being balanced in the way you talk about your ex. If you’ve been saying nothing by bad things, your girlfriend is probably going to be somewhat hostile. But if you’ve been nothing but complementary, she’ll probably be jealous.
- Set up some ground rules. It’s critical that you and any woman you’re involved with on a long-term basis reach a clear understanding about the following issues:
- Discipline. Who will discipline your kids and how? This can be especially important if she has kids of her own and an established way of handling them.
- Other involvement. To make her feel a part of your family you have to give her some authority over the kids and back her up when she uses it. At the same time, you don’t want her stepping in and telling you how to run your (and you kids’) life. Also, will she be expected to help the kids with their homework? Drive your carpool? Attend parent-teacher conferences?
- Money. How will you handle household finances? Will any of her income be used to pay child support for your children or, even worse, alimony? If she has kids of her own will any of your income be used to pay for them?