I’m dating a wonderful man, following his divorce two years ago. We’re similar ages, but while my kids are now grown and in their 20s, his are still young—14 and 16. Every time I see them, they’re incredibly rude to me. They don’t acknowledge me when I come to his home, even briefly. The daughter even got into a screaming match with her father over the fact that I parked in front of her. According to my boyfriend, his ex-wife told them more than she should have about their divorce. Now they see him as the culprit in the breakup, and me as an unwelcome addition. What should I do?
You and your boyfriend both need to think about the behaviors you can control—yours and his. Not the children’s. Not the ex’s. It might not be the ideal situation, but it’s one with variables you can manage.
Try to remember that the kids’ reaction isn’t the least bit personal; they simply don’t know you. And from their position, you’re a representation of their father’s betrayal and evidence of the upheaval that’s taken place in their formerly settled life. So, cut them some slack. Especially if their mom has yet to begin dating, they have no precedent for what it’s like to see a parent with a new romantic partner.
Still, no matter what the ex has said to her children, it’s your boyfriend’s job to set boundaries about behavior in his household. Ask him how he wants you to interact with his kids for now, and respect any wishes he has in terms making this easy on everybody. (Like, maybe easiest for all if you park on the street?) You can also gently ask him to articulate his expectations for his kids to them, if he’s failed to do so. Whether he requires a polite greeting when you arrive, or for them to sit through household dinners, he needs to create rules and stick to ’em. Children look to parents for what’s OK, and if he’s affirming their behavior, actively or passively, they’ll keep on doing it. So, encourage him to be clear with his kids, but do your best to stay out of those discussions.
Another rule of thumb: While your boyfriend is no doubt bothered by what his ex-wife is saying when he’s not around, never talk about the kids’ mom in front of them. Ever. If your boyfriend inadvertently vents while his children are within earshot, try to diffuse the situation. If one of the kids complains about her, resist the urge to join in. It will set your relationship with them back and will ultimately make you appear untrustworthy.
In terms of your behavior around the children, I’m assuming you’ve been warm and kind toward them from the get-go. Don’t change this one bit. Say hello every time you see them, whether they reply or not. Ask questions when the opportunities present themselves. Ask more if they let you. Try to engage with their hobbies. Go with Dad to pick them up from band practice. See if they’ll let you shoot hoops with them in the driveway.
Keep these interactions short and sweet, and overflow with positive reinforcement--without trying too hard to be a bff. (Totally cool to compliment his daughter on her outfit. Maybe don’t offer to take her and her four best friends shopping.)
Teens are resilient, but when their home life feels foreign, they need time to find a new normal. So, while you wait, be a giver--of time, space and kindness. With that, you’ve got the best shot of becoming friendly with them down the road.
Jenna Birch is a relationship coach, journalist and author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life & Love. Have a question for an upcoming column? Send her a note: firstname.lastname@example.org.