Single With Grown Kids?

Here’s what older children need to know about your love life—and what they’re most worried about (yes, they do worry about you!).

By Lisa Cohn

f you’re back on the dating market after having raised your kids and ushered them into adulthood, it’s easy to think, Of course they can handle the fact that I’m seeing people. They’re grown-ups, after all! But the truth is, even older kids have strong opinions and intense worries about their parents’ dating decisions. What’s more, many kids think it’s their responsibility to just cope on their own—which leaves them struggling and you wondering what the heck is up. If you’re getting weird vibes, know that there are plenty of ways to ease their worries, address potential concerns, and stay connected to your kids while you cultivate some romance. Heed this advice from experts and real parents who’ve found ways to help everyone they love in their life get along.

Don’t wait for them to talk to you
Older kids may be articulate, but that doesn’t always translate to them being upfront. Paul Sonner, 55, of Las Vegas, knows exactly what it’s like to be left in the dark after having
If your children feel sidelined, get them more involved by asking for their advice.
his 27-year-old daughter bail on plans to spend a holiday weekend with him and his new flame. “When I asked her what was bothering her, she acted like, ‘What are you talking about?’” he recalls. “But her actions spoke louder than words.”

Bottom line is, while you might think kids this age would be comfortable volunteering their issues, you actually may have to initiate the conversation, more than once even, to break through their alibis and defenses, says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist and author of Nobody’s Baby Now: Reinventing Your Adult Relationship with Your Mother and Father. Begin by saying something like, “I’ve been dating Ron for two months. Is there anything you want to know about him?” Explains Newman: “With this open-ended question, what you’re doing is giving them permission to ask you anything,” she says. After that, if you suspect your children are worried about something specific, asking about it point-blank may be necessary to get an honest answer. You might say “Are you concerned that I won’t have time for you anymore?” or “Do you feel as if you need to be loyal to your Mom (or Dad)?” Focus on how they respond as well as what they say and you may better be able to pinpoint any problems and allay their concerns.

Assure them you’re being careful
Many times, an adult child’s concerns aren’t What about me? but an entirely different anxiety: Is my mom/dad doing OK out there? Think of it this way: If they’ve seen you go through a divorce or the loss of your life partner, it’s understandable they might feel a little protective. Deborah Ruff, a twice-divorced mother in Golden Valley, MN, was surprised to find out this was the case when her 22-year-old son Charlie expressed alarm over how quickly her relationship with a new flame was heating up. “After dating for five months, my boyfriend Larry and I had begun talking about getting engaged,” she says. “Even though Charlie liked Larry, Charlie was alarmed and wanted me to slow down, see a counselor with Larry, and so on.” When a grown child is feeling protective like this, be sure to take their concerns seriously—especially if things have happened in your past partnership or dating days that weren’t smart moves in retrospect. You might say, “I’ve made mistakes in the past, but I’m being very cautious and I’m worried sometimes, too.” This shows your kids that their reservations aren’t theirs alone, which can help keep them calm.

Ask for their advice
If you think your dating life may be making your children feel ignored, sidelined, or unimportant, here’s an easy way to change that: Get them more involved by asking for their advice. Robyn Reese, a 49-year-old divorced mom from Las Vegas, says she often solicits input from her four children, aged 20 to 30. “My children have tons of opinions, and I enjoy hearing every one of them,” she says. “I ask for their two cents whether I’m
Use common sense about how much you tell your children.
going on a date and feeling too nervous, worried that my top is too low-cut, or wondering if this guy is too forward.” Laughing, talking and sharing like this, she says, enhances communication and closeness with her kids.

“This approach has its plusses because it makes your kids feel like part of your life,” observes Newman. However, don’t make the mistake of giving your kids too much negative info about your dates; such openness may come back to haunt you later if you two end up getting serious. “If you offer negatives, you leave room for your child to come back to you later when you are about to marry this person to say, ‘But Mom, you said you didn’t think he was right for you,’” warns Newman. Also know that your kids might be leery about hearing too many details about what’s going on in the bedroom. “Use common sense about how much you tell your children,” says Newman. “You can reserve the details of your intimacy for your friends (who will probably be happy for you and get a vicarious thrill or two).”

Address their money worries
Oftentimes, the introduction of a new love interest makes kids worry whether this new person and his/her kids will eventually snap up the entire inheritance, says Grace Gabe, a psychiatrist and co-author of Step Wars: Overcoming the Perils and Making Peace in Adult Stepfamilies. As awkward as it may feel, it’s important to gauge their level of concern, hear their expectations and, when the time is right, discuss any revisions you plan to make to your will. You should also make it clear that your new honey is truly interested in you and not just your retirement fund. Steve LePoidevin, for one, was glad he set the record straight on this front. “I was dating this young woman who was not working and living off me—or at least that was my kids’ interpretation,” he says. “But in reality, she wasn’t working because she couldn’t.” (She had just moved to Canada from the U.S. to be with him and didn’t yet have the necessary documents for employment). After he filled them in on the whole story, things went much more smoothly.

Tell them you’re happy
It’s all too easy for your kids to idealize your married days, back when they were little tykes and both mom and dad were watching over them. That’s why it’s imperative that you make it clear, in no uncertain terms, that you are happier now than ever. Steve, for one, went so far as to write it all down in a letter to his son. “It was a two-page spilling-my-soul letter about his mother and our last few years together,” he recalls. He also explained that he was much more content in his new relationship. “My son wrote back and said, ‘That’s the first time you told me the whole story,’” he says, adding that it really helped him share and connect with his son and improve their relationship.

Of course, it’s important to respond to your kids’ concerns—but you don’t need to let them run your life. When Steve’s kids complained about his dating, he dealt with it in this manner as tactfully as he could: “I told my son, ‘The first twenty years were for you, but the next twenty are for me,’” he says. “I told him, ‘I’ll still be here for you. But I’m not the same person.’” The bottom line is, your kids may not always agree with you, but in the end you should do what you think is best for you. After all, they want you to be happy, and while their ideas of how you should do that may differ from your own, once they see how much the new person in your life means to you, they will eventually warm up.

Lisa Cohn is co-author of One Family, Two Family, New Family: Stories and Advice for Stepfamilies.
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