We often hear from single parents asking how to help children cope with an absent or mostly absent parent. For instance, “My daughter is asking a lot of questions about her father, who is in and out of her life. She wants to know why he doesn’t see her more, why other kids live with their fathers” or “Doesn’t he want to be my dad?” and other difficult questions.
These single parents have the daunting task of raising a child with little or no assistance from the other parent, not by choice, but because the absent parent has abandoned the child. They know their child will have questions and feel sad about the absent parent. The single parent on her own is often worried about how to answer questions in a way that won’t make a bad situation worse.
If you find yourself raising a child alone under these circumstances, you need a game plan for how to discuss the situation with your child. Even if a child isn’t openly asking questions, by the time he reaches kindergarten, he has noticed that other families function differently. Left to their own devices, kids often come up with their own conclusions. It’s probably not necessary to point out they are almost always the wrong conclusions.
• Don’t speak negatively about the other parent. This age-old advice for divorced parents holds true in this situation also. The fact that their father or mother chooses not to be a part of their life speaks volumes to children. No need to rub salt in the wound.
• Don’t sugar-coat the situation. Making excuses for the absent parent such as “he’s very busy” or “she works long hours at her job” isn’t helpful. Neither is changing the subject or ignoring questions. If anything, those responses potentially damage your relationship with your child. Children realize when a parent is covering for the absent parent. They wonder why you would defend them and what else are you less than honest about?
• Matter-of-fact honesty is your best policy. If you know, tell your child age-appropriate levels of information about why the other parent isn’t around. Kids feel very rejected when a parent is absent. Make sure your child knows that just because the absent parent “doesn’t love and care for you the way he (or she) should doesn’t mean you’re unlovable.”
There are numerous reasons a parent is absent in a child’s life. Guilt, addiction, incarceration and mental illness are a few. “He wasn’t ready to be a father” or “she had some things she needed to work out” are good conversation starting points. Stress that it has nothing to do with the child; they didn’t cry too much as a baby, ask too many questions as a toddler or require too much help with their homework as a school-age kid.
• When possible, share positive memories of the absent parent. Children with an absent parent are starving for details about that person. After all, the child shares half his genetics with that parent. Hearing positive stories helps children find commonalities that are comforting and provide a small link between them and their missing parent.
• Consistently state your unconditional love and commitment to your child. Stress that you aren’t going to abandon her no matter what she does. While this is important for all children, it is more so for children with an absent parent.
• Be prepared to repeat yourself. Children often ask the same questions over and over. Repetition helps them solidify a concept in their mind. They also may ask just to be reassured by the same old predictable answer.
While there is no perfect or easy way to talk to children about an absent or mostly absent parent, being honest and providing some positives will help children work through this difficult situation. Children repeatedly ask the same questions, so if you think you could have done better on a certain subject, chances are you will get
several more opportunities. ■
Cary and Tonja Rector are married and live with their children in Manlius. Cary is a licensed mental health counselor and Tonja is a licensed marriage and family therapist. Consult your own health care provider before making decisions affecting your family’s well-being. To comment on this article, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(pictured above: © Olga Sapegina | Dreamstime.com)