In today’s world it is all too common for children to grow up with absent fathers. Though this is unfortunate and should be avoided if at all possible, it is, to a certain extent, inevitable. Situations like this can occur in various ways. Of course, it is possible that children will grow up without a father due to the father’s death. Situations like this, though terribly tragic, will not be the focus of this article. Rather, the focus of this article will be situations where the father is alive but for whatever reason does not live with his children.
In situations like this it is perfectly natural for children to have questions. Children are curious by nature, and will be especially curious about why their father is not an everyday presence in their life. Whether you are their mother or exist in some other relation to the children, being asked these questions can be an uncomfortable, painful experience. Despite this, it is absolutely necessary that you engage with the children and answer their questions in as honest and forthright a manner as possible. Doing otherwise will often only make things worse down the line. It is therefore important that you recognize the inevitability of these questions and prepare to answer them to the best of your ability.
The best way to prepare for the inevitable questions is to become aware of what, exactly, those questions will be. Though the questions may vary based on the age of the child, they will typically resemble the following questions:
- Who is my dad?
- Why isn’t he here?
- Will I ever see him?
- When can I see him?
- Does he miss me?
- Why do other kids have dads and I don’t?
It may be helpful for you to “get your story straight” before these questions start getting asked. You may want to sort out the details in your head of what exactly you will want to explain to the child, and what you don’t want to disclose. For example, if the father is in prison or involved with a different partner, you may not want to disclose this to a very young child, as they may not fully understand. It may be advisable to wait until the child has grown more before disclosing information they can only understand upon reaching a certain age.
Another factor to consider is that the child will tend to approach you and ask these questions multiple times. In fact, you can expect to have this conversation again and again throughout the child’s life up until the point where they become an adult. You should be aware that the conversation can and should “evolve.” For example, you may make the personal choice to hold off on telling the child that their father has “another family” until the child is into their teen years. There are upsides and downsides to this strategy. The upside is that you are saving the information until the child is “grown enough” to process it. The downside is that the child may accuse you of lying and feel resentment toward you for it. There is no right answer here, and you should decide how to deal with your personal situation based on your own evaluation of the circumstances and possible outcomes.
In general, there are three pieces of advice that are always correct, regardless of your personal circumstances.
Be open and approachable. Do not make any questions “off limits.”
Be as calm and emotionally reserved as possible. Do not let your own emotions color how the child processes the situation and your answers.
Be as patient and understanding as possible. Realize that the situation is immensely confusing for the child and they have a right to ask the questions they are asking.
When preparing and coming up with a strategy to deal with the child’s questions, develop “talking points” that you can use as anchors to keep the conversation level and steady. Make sure these talking points use age appropriate language. For example, “your dad has another family” is more effective to use than “he has some other kids.”
Possible talking points might look like the following:
- He wasn’t ready to be a father.
- We disagreed about things and couldn’t make it work.
- He needed time to deal with some issues of his own.
As you can see, it is important that these explanations make it clear that the father’s absence is not about the child. Children have a tendency to project things inward, i.e. to “make everythinga about themselves.” Your answers to their questions should make it clear that the father’s absence is not because of anything the child did or didn’t do. In other words, “it’s not [your] fault.”
Following are some pointers, and some things to keep in mind while preparing how to deal with the child’s questions.
Do Not Lie
Under no circumstances should you tell an outright lie to the child. For example, you should never, ever tell them that their father is dead while he is, in fact, alive, or vice versa. The chances that the child will discover this lie later on and come to resent you for it are high.
Having said that, you should communicate the truth in a wise, sensitive, and caring way. In general, you should not sharing too much. Keep it as simple as possible. You should stick to the simplest facts and make a point to keep your own emotions and opinions out of it. The child has a right to process the information in their own time and come to their own conclusions. Keep in mind that the truth will come out eventually, and
Validate Their Feelings
As we’ve discussed, the child has a right to ask questions about their father and they have a right to be upset and confused about why he is absent. When the child shares with you their feelings, it is best to convey that you understand how they are feeling. Sometimes it is more important to be there for them emotionally than it is to actually provide answers.
The following comments are useful in conveying that you understand the child’s emotions and are there for them:
“I can see that you are angry/confused/sad.”
“I know it’s hard.”
“I know that you are confused.”
On the other side of the coin, you should avoid at all costs saying or doing anything that invalidates their feelings or might come across as insensitive or neglectful. Under no circumstances should you say something like “get over it” or “suck it up.” Keep in mind that this might be the single most important conversation of the child’s life, and it is more important that you be there for them at this point than ever.
Conversely, avoid writing off their feelings, telling them to get over it, or saying something trite like “It is what it is.” None of these things are helpful nor do they help your children cope with the multitude of emotions they are feeling.
If you think it appropriate, it is good to share positive memories of the child’s father. This can serve to ease the child’s pain and will allow them to paint as positive a picture as possible in their imagination. It is certainly better for the child to build upon positive memories than negative ones.
Identify Father Figures That Are Present
Whether they are aware of it or not, all children have multiple “father figures” in their life who are not their actual biological father. In cases when the biological father is absent, it is more important than ever to identify these father figures. They can be a grandfather, an uncle, a neighbor, a teacher, a coach. They can be anything! As long as they are good, kind men who can serve as positive role models.
Provide Coping Mechanisms
This is going to be one of, if not the most difficult thing the child will go through in their life. For a child, dealing with an absent father can be absolutely heartbreaking. They will need tools to cope with the pain and confusion. You can and should suggest options here and facilitate wherever possible. For example, you might suggest the child keep a journal or diary about their thoughts and feelings, and then give one as a gift for a birthday or holiday. If the child is particularly artistically inclined, you might suggest that they draw what they imagine their father looks like, or maybe to draw how they are feeling. You can ease the burden on the child by providing the art supplies and then praising the work, which will validate their emotions.
Finally, you should make a pledge to always be there for the child to answer questions and talk through things, no matter how difficult it might be. If it comes to it, you can and should offer to connect father and child, if that is possible and mutually desired. Keep in mind that you might make mistakes during this process, but the biggest mistake you can make is to make the situation worse by being absent yourself, even for just a moment.