Dear Mr. Dad: I have three children and have been divorced for several years. My girlfriend of six months and I are thinking about getting married. But I’m concerned about her relationship with my kids. It’s not that she doesn’t like them—I’m sure she does. It’s just that she always seems shy and reserved around them. I really want us to be a family but I don’t want to put pressure on her. What can I do?
Stepping into the middle of someone else’s family can be incredibly intimidating, and it’s no wonder that your girlfriend is feeling reserved around your kids. At the same time, it’s great that you’re concerned about her because you’re the one who’s going to determine whether or not she’ll thrive as part of your new, larger family. Here are some ideas that will help her feel more confident:
- Establish the rules. Since you and your girlfriend are heading towards marriage, it’s essential that talk about—and reach some agreement—on the following issues:
- Discipline. Who will discipline your kids and how? For now, it’s best to leave as much of that to you as possible. Over time, give her more authority and back her up when she uses it.
- Everything else. How involved do you expect her to be in the mundane parts of parenting, such as helping the kids with their homework, driving carpools, grocery shopping, attending parent-teacher conferences, and so on?
- Money. A judge may include your new wife’s income when calculating child support. Hopefully, that won’t happen, but if it does, how will she feel about it?
- She’s not your children’s mother. Since you said you’re divorced, your kids already have a mother.
- Relationships take time. Give her and your kids plenty of space to develop their own relationship with each other. Let things develop at their own pace and don’t pressure her to be more involved than she’s comfortable being.
- Love takes even more time. Your kids and their soon-to-be stepmother may never love each other. However, it’s perfectly reasonable to expect all of them to treat each other with kindness and respect. Eventually the L-word could develop.
- Talk to your kids. Make sure they know what her authority is, and make your expectations very clear with regard to their interactions with her.
- Ask how she’s feeling. As you know, parenting brings out every possible emotion—positive and negative. Help her celebrate the joys and be there when she needs to cry on your shoulder.
- Feedback is important. She may not want to admit it, but more than anything, she wants the kids to like her and to feel that she’s doing a good job. So if they say something nice to you about her, pass it on. Compliment her when she does something great with the kids, and give her some gentle pointers only when absolutely necessary. You developed your parenting chops by making mistakes. Give her room to do the same.
- Help her cope with your ex. Your girlfriend and your ex probably won’t see one another very often. But there’s a good chance that they’ll come face to face at family events-, school, or sporting events. You can minimize potential conflicts by being careful about how you talk about your ex. If you spend a lot of time criticizing and badmouthing her, your girlfriend is probably (and understandably) going to be somewhat hostile towards her. But if everything you say about your ex is glowing and complimentary, your girlfriend will probably (and just as understandably) be jealous.
Previously Published at MrDad.com
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