My last column addressed a question from a partner of a divorced dad. Struggling with rejection from his daughters, she asked for more suggestions. She admitted her tendency is to voice strong opinions to her partner about the girls’ behavior, how she thinks they should be disciplined, sometimes stepping into that role herself. It sounds like the dad/her partner is doing the best he can, determined to be the father he never had. Although he expresses frustration with their behavior, he is not parenting the way she thinks he should. He wants his daughters to feel secure in his love for them, sometimes “spoiling” them more than she thinks is appropriate.

My suggestions:

• Be supportive of the dad, hearing his frustration with their behavior without adding your perspective or judging him. Comment only if he asks for your feedback, expressing any concerns with compassion and respect. He will be more amenable to sharing your lens when you defer any judgment until he solicits your input.

• Never disparage his ex-wife, the girls’ mother, to him or to them. No matter how much you may dislike her or disagree with their co-parenting, they will always be a family. Having a mutually respectful, effective relationship is the first priority for the girls’ healthy development and support. They need both their parents, and with your acceptance of their co-parenting you’ll be far more successful in your relationship with him. Regardless of how negative you might feel, keep those opinions to yourself.

• When the children’s behavior is challenging — refusing to engage with you, raising the volume too loud, or being rude — you can choose to remove yourself, to focus on good self-care. No criticism or judgment, simply take your leave, quietly going outside or into another room for some emotional space. Maintain consistent boundaries, attending to what you need to do, rather than focusing on what they should be doing differently, or how your partner should discipline.

Getting involved with your partner’s children should be a gradual, gentle process, taking your cues from them and from him. The children will certainly let you know when they’re ready to fully accept you, when it feels “safe” to be openly affectionate with you, to care about you without worry of possibly upsetting the other parent. The behavior and attitudes you’re experiencing are sometimes the result of their loyalty conflict between you and their parent who is alone, left behind. Children easily worry about their absent parent being lonely, jealous, upset, creating a bind for them to establish a seamlessly caring relationship with the significant adult. Often children hold on to the fantasy that their parents will eventually reconcile; thus, any new partner understandably stands in the way of that.

In particular, young children may harbor the fear that dad may abandon them for this new relationship. Caring relationships typically evolve over a long period of gradual adjustment. If the children are experiencing difficulty accepting a new partner (manifesting with challenging behavior), the dad should encourage his child(ren) to discuss this with him. It’s easy enough for a child to feel her father’s girlfriend is taking over her father’s love for her or is taking over the place where her mother should be — and where the child should be. Divorce will always be a grief that just keeps on giving. In other words, understanding the importance of a healthy, amicable co-parenting relationship also means the ex-spouses will continue being involved with each other, needing to communicate respectfully and kindly until the children are adults. Understand that, even if/as your relationship leads to marriage, his children’s well-being — financially, emotionally, and psychologically — will always be his first priority.

When children react strongly around transitions or changes, it usually means they’re carrying the tension between the two homes. Some children simply need time to adjust and will ultimately settle into the routine. Chances of that happening depend more on the absence of conflict between parents rather than on the child. They need to feel their parents’ unconditional love and acceptance, without pressure for loyalty to one parent. Neither parent should ever speak negatively about the other parent or his/her new partner.

As expected, the age and temperament of each child, and the degree to which the children feel stable in their lives, impact how they respond and adjust to the idea of one or both of their parents becoming involved with another adult. Different ages bring different concerns; although, generally, younger children will be more accepting of new, fun, kind adults than older children. Given the ages of these girls (4 and 6), this information provides some insight into the behavior:

Preschool and early school-age children usually want to know if you “love” someone, will you be getting married, and is she/he going to be their new mommy/daddy. They need to know, to have the sense of family they identify in their friends and their short life story.

School-age children sometimes struggle with conflicting emotions: a desire to reject the new partner and a desire for the new partner to accept and love them. They can vacillate between soliciting attention from the new partner and acting out with rejection, rudeness, defiance. The emotional root is usually fear of losing that parent to the romantic partner or becoming less important.

Simply put, children need to recognize dad as their parent, not someone in love or the romantic partner of someone new. This can be confusing for them, experiencing their family change as another adjustment potentially bringing their rejection or abandonment.

“Love and trust, in the space between what’s said and what’s heard in our life, can make all the difference in the world.” — Fred Rogers