Dating when you have kids: Knowing the right time and what to tell them

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Breaking up is hard to do blah blah blah. Let’s get to the good bit — eventually you’ll probably want to date again.

You’re over the ex, ready to have fun and find love again (if that’s what you’re into).

But just because you’re good to go, doesn’t mean your kids are.

“I often see a parent‘s readiness for dating far surpassing the children‘s readiness,” says Elizabeth Seeley-Wait, clinical psychologist and principal of a children‘s psychology clinic.

“If children are exposed to parental dating before they’re ready … this can complicate their grief and actually delay their ability to feel healing and acceptance to their parents‘ separation.”

So when is the right time, and do you need your kid‘s blessing first?

Why you’re probably ready before the kids

Separations can come after a long period of unhappiness, reflection and attempts to heal the relationship, Dr Seeley-Wait says.

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But the experience is different leading up to the separation for children — so understandably the parent is often ready to move on before they are.

“For very many children, even if they can see their parents were unhappy, they will feel great grief in seeing their family break up,” Dr Seeley-Wait says.

“Often children‘s hopes for their parents to get back together even continues for a longer time after parents separate.

“That denial and wish for things to go back to how they were means they will be slower to move toward acceptance than many parents think.”

Time and “adjustment to the fact their family will forever be different” are the only ways to move forward, she says.

So, should you wait before dating again?

If your child is still grieving the break-up, or hopeful their parents will get back together, it’s best to wait or at least make sure they don’t know you’re back on the dating scene, Dr Seeley-Wait says.

“[That] includes very young children,” she says.

That’s the approach 44-year-old Lucy Good from the Sunshine Coast took with her daughters.

Lucy Good supports other single mums through her blog.(Supplied: Lucy Good)

They were aged five and eight when the marriage with their dad ended.

Lucy, who runs a blog supporting single mums, had been going out and having fun, but didn’t have her first date until nine months after the split.

“That first date, they had no idea about that, and I didn’t feel there was any need for them to,” she says.

Because she has the girls 50 per cent of the time, it allowed her to date without exposing them to it.

“For single mums who are solo parents, it’s probably a different situation,” Lucy says.

When she first got serious with a man, her kids were a little older, and she slowly introduced the idea to them.

“They were quite nonchalant, really. Because it was very gradual, they came to know that there was somebody in my world they hadn’t met.

“They were aware it wasn’t changing me as a person or a mum to them. There was no threat.”

Lucy is single at the moment and says now her daughters are 13 and 16, she’s much more open about dating.

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‘I could date from the couch’

Katie Keenan felt ready to date shortly after the relationship with her daughters’ dad broke down.

But the 35-year-old kept her dating life separate from the girls, who were three and six at the time.

“Their dad moved on within six months and the girls had met her very early on, so I was very protective as I didn’t want them having too much change.”

Katie Keenan says her kids wanted to know if her new partner had kids too.(Supplied: Katie Keenan)

The NSW Central Coast local relied on online dating to help her keep up while she had the girls.

“They spent every second weekend with their dad which gave me time to date,” she says.

“I was all for the online dating … I could spend 10 days dating from my couch when the kids had gone to bed, and then I would see any appropriate suitors when the kids were at their dad’s.”

A couple of years after the break-up she met someone she wanted in her life on a more permanent basis and took steps to introduce him to her daughters.

“They were very excited for mummy to find a boyfriend. They had decided I’d been on my own for too long.”

When the time is right, this is what to say and do

When children are ready to be told about your dating life is “highly variable”, Dr Seeley-Wait says, but you can expect it to be at least six months after a separation.

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“This will depend on how upset the child was about the break-up or how amicable — or not — the parents have been. The more amicable, the more capable kids are to grieve and adjust and move forward,” she says.

She says to let your child know it’s normal to want to date, and describe what it will involve without going into too much detail (this can be age dependent).

Reactions will be age dependent and Dr Seeley-Wait says it’s good be prepared for “feelings related to fearing the parent will throw them over for this new relationship“.

“Reassuring that your number one priority is your children would be good here,” she says.

“Older children may ask if you’ll have sex, etcetera. Think carefully about how you answer this as it may have ramifications on what they think is OK.”

When it comes to introducing your new flame, Dr Seeley-Wait recommends “waiting longer than you think is reasonable”.

It’s best to keep your dating away from the kids until they are ready to learn more.(Unsplash: Rohit Tandon)What to expect from the kids

As well as children being scared, you might also notice them regress, warns Dr Seeley-Wait.

“Children who are really upset may lose their earlier established milestones — bed wetting, for example.”

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If they’re not ready for you to move on, you might see strong negative reactions like “refusals to see the boy/girlfriend, looking upset, withdrawal”.

“Taking more time might be warranted,” she says.

Katie’s kids were full of questions, so she recommends being prepared for a grilling.

“Their biggest ones were did he have any kids, where does he live?” she says.

“I had been very open with them when I did re-partner it would be someone that loves me and would be willing to love them and would treat us all well.

“So they asked, ‘Does he love you, is he kind to you, will he be kind to us?’”

Lucy says everyone in the family deserves to be happy again, so don’t deprive yourself just because you’re worried.

“It’s OK for Mum or Dad to be happy again. As long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, and you don’t take it too fast, dating is fine,” Lucy says.

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