Q. My 6-year-old son seems to have adjusted well to our divorce 18 months ago, but he's struggling with one big area: my boyfriend. When my friend visits, my son rebels against me and pushes all the boundaries. I rarely have trouble with my son when my friend's not around. What do I do?
-- E.A., Raleigh, N.C.
A. No matter how well a child seems to have adjusted, a new boyfriend is likely to provoke misbehavior. It's typical and should be expected.
There are lots of things a single mom should do -- everything from enforcing the family rules to limiting the time a child spends with the new boyfriend.
"If dad is still in the picture, the child may still have reunion fantasies and want to take up for his father," says Carl E. Pickhardt, author of the recently published "Keys to Single Parenting" (Barron's, $6.95).
If mother and child have been a cozy twosome for quite some time, the child may feel threatened.
"This child has lost one parent and he thinks he's on the verge of losing half of another," says Pickhardt, a child psychologist in private practice in Austin, Texas.
Be sensitive to those fears by reserving some time that is exclusively for your son, suggests Child Life reader Kim White of La Grange Park, Ill.
For instance, if Friday was always video and popcorn night, keep that tradition going. Then go out for a late dinner with your date, explains Andrea Engber, a single mother and founder of the National Organization of Single Mothers.
Additionally, talk to the child about his feelings -- just the two of you. Acknowledge his feelings, and reassure him of your unconditional love and your commitment to being his mother, says Ms. Engber of Charlotte, N.C., co-author of the new book "The Complete Single Mother" (Adams, $12.95).
But don't excuse bad behavior. Explain to him that the rules of the household still stand, Ms. Engber says.
Even though it may not be easy, single parents shouldn't feel pressured to abandon all thoughts of a private life until the kids are grown and gone.
"You're single, not dead," Ms. Engber says.
Caution and discretion are the keys. Ms. Engber recommends that single mothers not even introduce their children to a boyfriend until the relationship becomes serious.
One reader from Gig Harbor, Wash., agrees.
"Try to have your time with your boyfriend when your son is with his father," Marge Redman suggests. "Since you are recently divorced, you will more than likely be going through a succession of short- to medium-term relationships."
Pickhardt says parents having a difficult time deciding whether a relationship is serious enough to involve the children should ask themselves three questions:
Do I like how I treat my boyfriend? Do I like how he treats me? Do I like how I treat myself in the relationship?
"She's got to be able to answer an unequivocal yes to all these questions," Pickhardt says.
Here are more ideas from parents and the experts:
Limit visits between your child and boyfriend and keep them brief, Ms. Engber advises.
Arrange those visits away from the home on neutral ground, such as a park where the child will enjoy himself, advises Child Life reader Dana Moore of Wadsworth, Ohio.
Find a mutual interest between the boyfriend and child such as flying miniature airplanes or playing checkers, suggests June Hirsch of Sun City, Ariz.
Start slowly when showing affection in a relationship, Ms. Engber and Pickhardt agree. "It's really not appropriate to start hugging and kissing in front of the child," Ms. Engber says. But at the same time, don't allow the child to wedge himself between the two of you while sitting on the sofa.
Don't ask the boyfriend to take a role in discipline, reader Bob Wilson of California recommends.
Don't discuss your dating life with your children, Engber says. "They are not your confidante."
Be patient. Kids often need more time before they are ready to move on after divorce. "The child has a lot of catching up to do," Pickhardt explains. "He's not the enemy. He's just a kid."
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