My partner's children don't even want to meet me

Request for help from 'Julia'

I have been with my boyfriend for over 3 years now, one of the only reasons we get into arguments or discussions is almost always somehow due to his kids, he has 3 kids from a previous relationship

His kids are now in their teens, have their own opinions and are influenced by their mother (who they live with).

The kids have no interest in meeting me or allowing me into their lives or being part of our life. They judge me without even having met me. It is very hurtful and makes me feel powerless because I cannot force myself into their lives.

My partner feels torn between his kids and me. We are constantly planning our time and their time and trying to coordinate our schedules with theirs. But I technically have no influence since I am not part of the plans as far as it concerns them. 

I find myself constantly having to be the understanding one, the patient one and the one that puts my hopes and wishes on hold. 

Do you have any advice as to how to cope with teenagers that seem to go out of their way to make their dad's life difficult and unhappy due to his time constantly being divided and his nerves being tested?

Image quote. When you love someone, you love the person as they are, and not as you'd like them to be.Leo Tolstoy

Guest article with advice by 
Miriam Chachamu, London-based Family Therapist

This is not an easy situation – I have a lot of sympathy for you and can see why you feel frustrated and upset. I wish there was simple advice to offer which would guarantee to make your boyfriend’s children accept you or - even better - welcome you as a positive addition to their family.

Should you push and demand to be accepted?

You're right to think that there is no way you can force yourself into your boyfriend's children's lives, and unfortunately I don't know any one thing you could say or do which would make the situation better straight away.

But this does not mean that you shouldn’t work together to make this a more likely possibility. I’m not suggesting that you establish practical agreements - such as not cancelling things on you last minute - because without a deeper understanding of the situation I don't believe such agreements would last.

Your boyfriend has already asked his children to see you and they refused – if he requires that they do, or worse, threatens them with sanctions, they are likely to stick to their refusal and resent you even more.

On the other hand, waiting and hoping for the best is unlikely to be helpful either. You've waited for three years already with no progress in sight. In order to move forward, we need to try and look at this complex situation from different points of view.

Your boyfriend’s approach to all of this is key and I therefore invite you to ask him to read this, and for the two of you to discuss the issue together. 

How do you feel about being rejected as a 'stepmother'?

What about your self-confidence?

For your own peace of mind you need to learn to separate your boyfriend’s children's attitude towards you from the way you see yourself as a person.

Your boyfriend’s children do not like or dislike you as a person for the simple reason that they've never met you. They resent what you represent– the breakup of their family as they knew it, their shaken sense of security and their lost innocence.

When you feel lacking in confidence please reassure yourself that their attitude has nothing to do with the person you are and everything to do with the situation they found themselves in. Naturally it's upsetting for you to not be given a chance – we all wish to be accepted and liked.

On a practical level, it can't be easy for you to constantly compromise your schedule and make allowances for people who don't even acknowledge your existence. However, you need to know that their attitude is not about who you are, therefore it should have no bearing on your self-confidence. 

Don't children want their parent to be happy? Why do they reject their new partner?

Let’s look at the situation from the children’s point of view:

  • They suffered a significant loss (the loss of the family as they knew it) with all the emotional pain that entails
  • It is easier for them to blame you than to blame him, because they love their father
  • They witnessed their mother's pain, which would have been particularly difficult to bear if it was their father's decision to leave
  • They may see you as the 'monster' who caused the breakup of the family
  • They may see you as the person who makes it impossible for their parents to ever get back together
  • Getting to know you, and potentially liking you, carries the risk of upsetting their mother
  • Liking you may lead them to realise that their father is equally responsible for the family breakup - if they weren't already aware.

These are difficult feelings for young people.

They're torn between their parents, and for their own sanity they take the easiest route available to them– refusing to recognise you. They're unlikely to "go out of their way to make their dad’s life difficult" – they are probably just trying to hold on to the world they know. They behave the way they do because they have a problem, not because they are being a problem. 

What about the parent with whom the children live?

I'm not sure whether the children's mother explicitly asks them not to see you. She may do no such thing, but her children may sense that meeting you would cause her pain and decide to shun you of their own accord.

If she was seeking help I would advise her to put her own hurt aside, however difficult this might be, and encourage her children to take full part in their dad’s life - which includes seeing you. You could see how selfless and excruciatingly difficult this must be for deserted ex-partners, and why some feel unable to do this. But since she is unlikely to read this, I will go back to you and your boyfriend… 

Your partner's attitude may not help!

Your boyfriend is torn between you and his children, as you say.

He probably feels guilty about having broken up their family and worried that if he insists on them seeing you he may lose them altogether. The fact that they are four teenagers, all close in age, makes this even more difficult as they probably function like a little tribe. They're bound to influence each other, get support from each other and encourage each other to conform to the norms of their ‘tribe’. He may worry that they can all turn against him together.

I have seen many men in similar situations. Because they feel trapped and can't see a way out they become passive – they sit and wait, choose the path of least resistance, hoping time will heal hurts and that people will move on.

Unfortunately time in itself rarely changes anything; it is what we do with that time which makes a difference.

The good news is that your boyfriend can use time to help his children gradually accept their situation, and perhaps also accept you. After all, the current state where they can't participate in his life fully is not healthy for them either. It's also likely that they too make compromises about accessing their dad in order to avoid you.

How to break the status quo

As a positive way forward, I'm inviting your boyfriend to have conversations with his children - both individually and as a group. His sole aim would be to understand them. In these conversations he should not ask them to see you.

His children have gone through difficult times and they probably still feel hurt, torn and possibly confused – otherwise why would they not be ready to meet you? Often children of separated parents say that at any point in time they either miss their mum or their dad.

  • Is this true for them?
  • How did they feel when they first heard about the divorce?
  • How is it now?
  • What are the difficult aspects of the separation for them?
  • Do they want to ask any questions but don't dare to do so?
  • What is bothering them?
  • What makes them happy?
  • How can their dad make things easier for them? 
Image quote. Go for it while you can. I know you have it in you. I can't promise you get everything you want, but I can promise nothing will change if you don't try.  J.M. DarhowerIf you keep doing the same, don't expect a different result!

How to maximise the chance of a fruitful conversation with the children

Evidence shows that once people feel completely understood they experience a huge sense of relief. Their anger, frustration, disappointment and other difficult feelings often reduce just through the act of being acknowledged by the relevant person. Usually when this happens they feel cared for and respected. The whole atmosphere becomes more trusting and calm. Regardless of any other results, being heard and understood is a great gift your boyfriend can give his children.

So, here are some tips and advice to help make the conversations a success...

10 tips for a better conversation with children

Here's what your partner can do:

  1. Put his own feelings aside for a while
  2. Seek to truly understand his children
  3. Allow these conversations to take place slowly - give them plenty of time (it might work well during a walk or other joint physical activity)
  4. Ask one question at a time
  5. Allow for silences - giving the children plenty of time to think
  6. Listen and only listen (see the page on communication skills further down)
  7. Avoid agreeing, arguing, contradicting, minimising their experience, explaining, trying to justify himself or defend his position
  8. Reply to questions when he is asked
  9. Explain to his children that he's keeping quiet because he wants to hear them fully
  10. Ask for time to be listened to after a few of these conversations (see further down)

This will not be easy for him as his children may blame him, or express their pain which can be very hard for him to hear. But it's the only way forward I know in situations like this. 

The right time to invite the children to meet you

After a few conversations of that nature, once his children are fully heard, your boyfriend may ask to be listened to as well.

He can reassure his children that he absolutely loves them and that he would hate hurting them. He can also say that he's now with a woman he loves, and he would like them to get to know her at some point. Is this something that they would consider doing?

Perhaps the next time the two of you plan to do something together and he's asked to change this plans to accommodate his children, he can say that he would be happy to help but since he also agreed something with you, perhaps they can join you. The chances are that if he is patient, they would consider saying yes.

I don't know about the relationship your boyfriend has with his ex, but if at all possible, he can kindly ask her to make it OK for the children to see you.

Related Articles

Children in the Middle
How Children are Affected by Divorce
How to End a Relationship
Divorce Advice for Men
How to Build Self-esteem
Advanced Listening Skills

Other helpful links

Amazon author profile of Miriam Chachamu

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