Coping with divorce is hard enough for kids without a parent’s new love interest thrown in the mix. If your child complains constantly about her wicked stepmother, or you’re a dad whose kid can’t stand mom’s new boyfriend, it’s best to think before you react.
Unless the child is in danger, teaching them how to cope and accept their new family dynamic is essential.
As a licensed family therapist in Tarrant County, Gina Galloway, Ph.D., regularly helps parents and children navigate family challenges before, during and after divorce and child custody disputes.
While every situation is unique, we asked Dr. Galloway how she generally approaches the new love interest scenario in her practice and what steps parents can take to help kids cope.
Getting to the root of the problem
The reasons children dislike their stepparents or a parent’s new love interest vary. The child may blame that person for breaking up mom and dad; resent him or her for monopolizing mom or dad’s time; or truly dislike that person because they say or do mean things to the child. In other cases, a child may dislike dad’s new girlfriend because mom said negative things about her.
Speaking derogatorily about an ex or their new significant other doesn’t do the child any good. In fact, it can be very confusing and anxiety provoking for a child. Don’t do it!
To help the child move forward, it’s important to find out the real reason why the animosity exists. Bringing in an objective family therapist can be very helpful.
According to Dr. Galloway, “In my role, it’s important to flesh out what’s really going on. Does the child dislike that person simply because it’s not dad, and it’s another man in mom’s life? Or is it a situation like some of my dad and daughter clients, where the daughter has been the woman in dad’s life for awhile. Now there’s this other woman in dad’s life, which feels like a competition to the daughter. A counselor can get to the root of the problem and help the child understand and process their feelings.”
What to do if the problem was triggered by the ‘situation’
If the child is upset by the situation—say she doesn’t like someone taking mom’s place—that’s something a therapist can help the child manage through counseling.
“We need to help the child learn how to accept the fact that the parent has a new partner. Depending on the situation, that parent may also need to do things a little differently, like allot some extra one-on-one time with the child to help the child understand they are still special to that parent,” Dr. Galloway says.
The other parent can also help by listening to the child’s concerns and empathizing but NOT adding fuel to the fire.
“Saying negative things about the other parent and their significant other can make the child feel anxious and scared. It’s typically best to stick to the facts and keep your feelings out of it. Instead, acknowledge the child’s concerns and reinforce that both mommy and daddy still love them very much. You could say something like, ‘Our family may look different now, but that’s OK. We’ll all get through this together,’” Dr. Galloway says.
What if stepdad or new GF really IS the problem?
In some cases, the child may raise legitimate concerns that need to be addressed. As Dr. Galloway explains, “I do see cases with mean stepparents, so I’ll probe to find out what’s going on. For example, is a stepmom talking bad about mom? Is stepdad belittling the child? What did he say or she say? When there are legitimate concerns, and I’m involved, I can address those with the parents.”
For parents who aren’t working with a counselor, Dr. Galloway believes it’s typically appropriate for the parent who isn’t in the relationship to broach the subject with the parent who is—as long as they try to keep the conversation non-confrontational.
“For example, a mom could say, ‘Hey, Sarah told me that your girlfriend did XYZ. I don’t know if it’s true or not. I just want to bring that to your attention because she was upset.’ The truth is the other parent may have no idea that things are going on. Open communication is so important when you’re co-parenting,” Dr. Galloway says.
What can parents do from a legal perspective?
As established divorce attorneys in Fort Worth, we’ve seen our share of cases where a parent believes he or she should pursue a child custody modification to get full or sole custody because a child has a conflict with the other parent’s significant other. Unless the child is in imminent danger, those parents can look forward to an uphill climb in the family courts.
In the state of Texas, family court judges resist restricting a parent’s access to a child unless that parent poses a physical or emotional threat to the child. Most judges believe it’s usually best for kids to have a relationship with both parents.
If it gets to the point where you fear for the child’s safety, contact your family law attorney right away. He or she can advise you on the appropriate legal steps to take to protect your child.
Need guidance from a family counselor or divorce attorney in Tarrant County?
Parents who live near Dr. Galloway’s Keller, Texas practice—Galloway Counseling Center—can reach her office directly at 817-932-3105. Dr. Galloway has been helping families as a licensed professional counselor for well over a decade and is frequently called upon by the family courts in Tarrant County to testify in divorce and child custody matters.
If you have legal questions about divorce and child custody in Texas, the Sisemore Law Firm and its Fort Worth divorce attorneys are here to help. To schedule a confidential case review with our founder Justin Sisemore, contact our Fort Worth law office at 817-336-4444 or connect with us online.
The information above is general in nature and shouldn’t be construed as legal or medical advice. Consult an attorney or mental health professional to find out what steps your family should take next.
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