Q: My boyfriend has been divorced for a little more than a year. His kids see him every other weekend, and when they visit, he sleeps in the same bed with his 13-year-old son and his 8-year-old daughter. This is a red flag to me. Should I be worried? When are kids too old to sleep with their parents?
A: Most kids sleep with their parents at times, and this happens a lot right after divorce because both parents and kids are looking for a sense of security, and cuddling at night helps, but the age of the children you mention is suspect – not necessarily because of anything sexual, but because if they are sleeping with dad on a regular basis it’s indicative that the family has not progressed to a “normal” (and I use that term loosely) flow after the breakup.
Most often the catalyst to this type of behavior is the parent’s guilt about the divorce. They miss the kids, the kids miss them, and the parent wants to offer the child comfort – so let’s all pile into bed, watch some TV, and fall asleep.
When it becomes a problem is when the parent gets serious with someone new and the new person wants to sleep over. If the parent then kicks the kids out of bed, it’s very easy for the child to feel as if the parent prefers the new person – and that will alienate the child from the parent. It’s also a surefire way to sabotage any positive relationship between the kids and a new partner, so it’s best to establish a regimented sleeping ritual well before you introduce someone new into the mix. Have to say it, though, if your boyfriend only sees his kids every other weekend, he has plenty of time to sleep with you when the kids are not around. You don’t introduce a new person on that level unless you both have discussed the future and see the relationship as long term.
An easy way to help kids feel as if they “belong” is to let the child weigh in on how they would like to fix up their room at each parent’s home. Allowing them to pick out the colors, the décor, or maybe a new comforter will all help them to look forward to “coming home” every other weekend. Unfortunately, not everyone one can afford separate bedrooms for visiting kids, but children the age of your boyfriend’s should at least have their own beds, and your boyfriend should be modeling modest behavior and individual privacy in front of both children.
I’m stereotyping here, but in his former life, your boyfriend may not have been the primary caregiver or the “homemaker” and establishing new family rituals may not come naturally. He could need some help getting organized. Do your best to offer positive suggestions without dictating policy and he may want to look for some co-parenting classes that will help him structure his new single life and better understand his responsibilities as a divorced dad.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, www.bonusfamilies.com. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.