How To Talk To Your Child About An Absent Father

Every two weeks I answer anonymous questions to an exclusive segment of my list. This week's question, however, was important enough that I wanted to share the answer more widely. (If you'd like to be on this exclusive segment of my list, you can sign up here.)

An anonymous reader asked:

My son often asks for his daddy. I don't know what to say to him. It breaks my heart because I've done everything I can to bridge the gap and encourage his father to be a part of his life. But he's totally absent. Only visits maybe 20hrs a month sometimes less. Can you give me any advice on what to say to my son about where his father is? Why he isn't here etc?

First of all, let me say that these kinds of questions break my heart. According to Psychology today, "...24 million children live in biological father-absent homes— in the United States alone. And 1 in 3 children grow up without a father." What this means first and foremost is that you are not alone. 

Here are some top-tips for handling these questions, some of which depend on age and development, but most of which can apply:

  1. Answer all questions simply and generally. Don't give too much detail, or infuse your own thoughts and feelings into your answers. Deborah Roth Ledley, PhD, licensed psychologist advises: "A child's worries and thoughts are much simpler than ours and the last thing we want to do is start projecting our own worries and negative thoughts onto them. So, when very young children ask questions about their absent parent, try to be very simple and general. Something like, "Sometimes mommies and daddies don't get along well and they decide that everyone will be happier if they live apart," or "Some kids live with their mom and dad, or just their mom, or their grandma. Families are all different." Then, ask the child for their follow-up questions. As the child grows, the discussion will too — one day at a time." (Psychology Today)
  2. Never speak ill of the other parent. Sticking to the basic facts of why he's not there is a good idea, but you may have to fudge them slightly so as not to throw dad under the bus. You'll want to tell the truth, but always speak kindly about the absent dad. As time goes on, your child will begin to draw their own conclusions based on their own observations. You may want to write out some stock answers so you're well-prepared in the moment, as it might be hard for you to come up with answers that aren't infused with your own anger and sadness in the moment. While your feelings are entirely valid, you don't want to put them onto your child.
  3. Always validate their feelings. When they tell you their feelings, don't try to minimize them or take them away. Make sure you tell your child that it's ok for them to feel sad or mad. Validation is as simple as mirroring: "I know it's hard," "You really miss your dad. I miss him too sometimes," "I can see that you're really angry; I feel angry too sometimes."
  4. Reiterate that it's not their fault. Because children are all self-referential thinkers (they naturally think the world revolves around them), they will assume their father's absence is because of them. Michael Gurian (the insightful best selling author of "The Wonder Of Boys" and "The Wonder Of Girls") stresses the importance of reassuring the child they’re not at fault, saying: "First and foremost, a child who is abandoned must be constantly and repetitively told (and convinced) that s/he was not at fault for the abandonment. This can take months and years of repetition—gentle, firm, clear, loving—with realistic dialogue about exactly why the father left so that the child can see that the child was not causal of the abandonment." (Parenting.com) In addition, be sure to affirm your child's great qualities and value as often as possible by encouraging and praising good behavior, rather than disciplining bad behavior. They'll need the extra boost of confidence this will provide.
  5. Make a list of the dad's good qualities. If a child begins to understand that their father has some kind of deficiency (for lack of a better word) that allows them to not show up for their child, they may begin to wonder what that might mean about them, genetically speaking. ("If my dad has no conscience, does that mean I won't?") Listing their father's good qualities will enforce their feelings that they come from "good stock," while also creating space for the father to step back in, should they have a change of heart down the line.
  6. Identify father figures in their life now. Be sure your child is surrounded by at least one father-figure that you can call upon in times of need, such as Father's Day, or a dad-day at school, or a time when you think a father-figure might be most appropriate for working through a problem. Sometimes our sons in particular don't want to talk to us moms about certain things, so having someone on call to take him out for ice cream for some dude-time can help provide them with an outlet.

Hopefully this will help you navigate through some of these really tricky waters. Remember, your son is lucky to have your unconditional love and support, and you are enough for him. Some incredibly successful people in our society have been raised by single moms: Barack Obama, Michael Phelps, Jay Z, Jon Stewart, and many more. They all attribute their success and world-view to the mothers who raised them alone. ❤️

If you'd like to submit a question to my bi-weekly Q+A, click here.