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The Parent Trap: Dating, Your Kids and Feeling Guilty

We sat down with noted parenting consultant and eHarmony Parenting contributor Dr. Tina Payne Bryson to discuss strategies to help single parents successfully navigate getting back into the dating world.

Why do single parents feel guilty when they do things for themselves, like dating?
Dr. Bryson: Parents, in general, feel responsible for their kid’s happiness, and to some degree it’s healthy. But it isn’t our job to make them happy. Of course we want to do that as much as we can; but ultimately, we’re here to nurture our children and give them the experiences they need. Single parents often have an additional burden, especially if the child doesn’t spend much time with both parents. The custodial parent may feel like they have to overcompensate—to somehow make up for the missing parent. When you feel that, and you are responsible for both sides of parenting, your whole world becomes your child. And anything you do for yourself feels like it takes away from their world.

What effect do outside activities like dating actually have on children in Single Parent homes?
Dr. Bryson: When you add up all of the factors that determine whether your child is going to be happy and mentally healthy as an adult, the most important question to ask is, “Have they had a secure attachment with a loving caregiver who perceives and meets their needs a majority of the time?” That’s it. The concern that most parents should have is, “Am I taking care of myself enough to respond to those needs in a positive way?” Think about how hard it is to parent well. We are constantly expending our resources. If we don’t give ourselves experiences that refuel us, adult activities that make us happy, it will be much harder to do the good work of parenting. Ironically, we probably SHOULD feel guilty when we stop tending to our own needs. That’s when we can’t give our best as parents.

What if your children express a negative reaction to your interest and participation in meeting new people?

Dr. Bryson: The first thing is to authentically and honestly talk with your child, and you can even do this with very young children in an age-appropriate way. Show them the respect of having an honest talk. “Mom’s going to spend time with friends, because it’s good for me. I’ll set up something fun for you to do.” The level of detail will need to be determined by the age of the children.

Problems begin when there is a change in you and your routine and nothing’s said. When you don’t talk to your child they begin to draw conclusions on their own without any input from you. Most negative reaction comes from a child’s fears that he/she may be falling as a priority in your life.

This also needs to be part of your first conversation on the subject. “I’m ready to start dating. I’m going to be spending time with friends. I’m doing it because it’s good for me, and I can be a better dad when I’m taking care of myself. I want you to know that no matter what new friends I make you’re the most important person to me.” Ask if they have questions and leave the door open to talk about it again whenever they like.

How do I handle tantrums and instances when my child really acts out?
Dr. Bryson: When a child is acting out about your decision to date, it can help to see things through their eyes. Sometimes we make inaccurate assumptions about the reasons for their frustration. For example, your child may be happy you’re dating and furious that you’ll miss the TV show you both usually watch on a particular night. If you can zero in on the problem, the solution may be quite easy. If they are indeed angry with you leaving the house, be up front with them. You can respond to their needs without doing what they ask. “I know this is hard for you. I know you’d rather me stay at home, but this is important to me.” Keep your boundaries. Do what you need to do, and keep the communication open.

Dating often means meeting and getting to know several people. Some relationships, naturally, don’t work out. How do I keep my children from getting hurt?
Dr. Bryson: You can protect them by delaying an introduction until the relationship has met three important benchmarks.

    1. You’ve been on 8 dates.
      This is obviously somewhat arbitrary, but the idea is that you’ve seen each other for about 6 weeks in a variety of circumstances.


    1. You’re very clear that this person really likes you.
      As a single parent, I believe you’re within your rights to say, “I have to consider more than just my feelings here. Before I introduce you to my children I need to know that you are interested in a relationship with me.”


  1. You and this new person seem like a great fit and you share the same life goals.
    You need to be excited about a long-term relationship with anyone who gets introduced to your children. I also suggest that the first meeting between your new match and your children be short, casual and a “just friends” meeting. For younger children ice cream is a great excuse. “We’re going to go get some ice cream with my new friend Bill.” You and Bill should refrain from any kind of casual affection and just hang out chatting with the children and trying each other on.

Should children have “veto power” over a romantic relationship?
Dr. Bryson: You have to decide whether their objections are substantive or not. I’ve heard teens or pre-teens say, “I hate that guy. He’s a dork.” They will express this opinion repeatedly and loudly, but they probably just feel a sense of competition for their parent’s attention. In most cases, I don’t believe the children should have veto power. The adult decides and then helps the children with the transition.

The truth is your children aren’t going to let you choose their mate. They probably aren’t even going to let you choose their friends. We can be sensitive to how they feel and still maintain our position in the home. Children may get angry when you and your new partner express affection. A kind of “I hate it when you hold hands with him!” outburst. Again, I think your strategy is to respond to what they are feeling and stand firm. “I know you don’t like it when I hold hands with him, but that’s what grownups do when they like each other. Over time you’ll get used to it.” Being the best parent possible means choosing the adult relationship you want and helping your child adjust to your choices.