Meeting Your Date’s Adult Kids
You don’t have to win over the entire brood, but there are 6 things you absolutely must do if you want to develop good relationships with your date’s family.
f there’s anything potentially more disastrous than trying to strike up a conversation with your date’s suspicious seven-year-old, it’s attempting to communicate with (say) her college-age daughter. Here’s why: That almost-grown daughter has probably read enough Annie Dillard and John Cheever in her American Lit 101 class to be acutely self-conscious about meeting her mom’s new squeeze. And it’s not as if the degree of difficulty eases up with children deep into their 20s or even 30s — as the potential new stepdad-to-be (in their eyes), you’ve got to deal with them simultaneously as adults and as the kids they’re capable of behaving like, especially if they don’t like you.
Fortunately, there are some ways to traverse this emotional moat relatively painlessly — or at least to
prepare yourself for possible failure. Here are a few tips from the experts:
|“Regardless of age, children are still children when it comes to mom or dad.”|
1. Adjust your expectations.
“The Brady Bunch only happened because there were no exes involved,” says April Masini, a dating coach. “Don’t expect to form an insta-family; don’t even expect them to like you. What you can expect is for them to be polite.” Or, as relationship coach Hu Fleming puts it, “No matter what you do, you should realize that it’s not about winning or even winning them over. Your strategy simply needs to be to get along — and with time, you can gain acceptance.”
2. Approach them carefully.
“We’re all adults here” is a fine sentiment to express when meeting your date’s 30-year-old twin daughters for the first time, but look at it this way: Psychotherapy wouldn’t exist if every seemingly mature adult didn’t have a wounded five-year-old sulking somewhere inside. Says Carole Brody Fleet, author of Widows Wear Stilettos: “Regardless of age, children are still children when it comes to mom or dad, and they may perceive their acceptance of a new relationship as disloyalty to the absent parent.” To avoid any more awkwardness than absolutely necessary, Fleet advises, “The parent should gently and lovingly advise their children that — while he or she will always value the time shared with the child’s absent parent, whether by death or by divorce — this period of time has come to a close.” You can’t make your date do that, but you can perhaps suggest such a chat if the kids are less than cordial to you.
3. Strike the proper balance.
Just as there’s a fine line between condescending to a 10-year-old
girl and honestly sharing her enthusiasm for Barbies, it can be difficult to discuss the New York Giants’ playoff prospects with your date’s 20-something son without appearing to be a) desperate to win his approval or b) a patronizing, middle-aged stuffed shirt who wouldn’t know the football Giants from their MLB counterparts. “Don’t try to become the child’s friend,” says Dr. Fleming. “You’re the one replacing one parent and potentially competing for another parent’s affection, time and money.” That’s not to say you can’t have a freewheeling discussion about sports or school, but don’t expect to be invited to any house parties anytime soon.
4. Understand the limits.
Surprisingly, says Dr. Fleming, older adult children can be much harder to
deal with in a dating context than toddlers, grade schoolers or high schoolers. Not only do they have (hopefully) fond memories of their absent parents, but they also have their own lives, homes and relationships, meaning they only have to endure your company to the extent that they want to (whereas an eight-year-old boy is a minor and has to let you drive him to soccer practice, whether he’s happy about it or not). “Give them reasons to want you involved in their life, not the opposite,” Dr. Fleming says. Share your interests and take an interest in theirs, and, adds Dr. Fleming, “Give them time.”
|An adult child has the option of never, ever granting you parental status.|
5. Avoid playing the parent.
After a few years of dating his mom, even the most truculent tween will grudgingly accept you as some kind of authority figure, but an adult child has the option of never, ever granting you parental status (even if you get married, move into the house and write your new wife into your will). Not only shouldn’t you play the “mom” or “dad” card before the kid is good and ready, but don’t butt in and share advice unless specifically asked. Oh, and one other thing: No matter how much your sweetie has complained about his or her ex, “Never bad-mouth the other parent, ever,” Masini says. Any progress you’ve made toward genuine stepmom-hood or stepdad-hood will vanish in an instant… and you’ll have to start all over again.
6. Don’t blame yourself.
Unless you look and act like Jim Carrey in A Series of Unfortunate Events, being rejected by your date’s adult kids shouldn’t reflect badly on you. “If you sense that you’re not going to win, no matter what, chances are that it’s not because of you personally,” says Fleet. “It may be due to your date’s lack of proper communication with the children. It’s actually up to the parent to help facilitate a relationship between children and a prospective date, even before they’ve been introduced. This is best accomplished by sitting down alone with the kids to discuss the matter of dating and possibly falling in love again.” So cut yourself some slack if things don’t go smoothly, be patient — and don’t take it personally.
Bob Strauss is a freelance writer and children’s book author who lives in New York City. He’s also written the Dinosaur guide on About.com, the online information network owned by the New York Times.