When children start school, it usually becomes more obvious to them that many children have two parents. Not of course always in the same home, but present to some extent in their lives. Therefore, children may start to ask questions about their own parents. For children in Catholic schools, the First Holy Communion preparation often encourages children to explore family trees and this can be the first time it becomes obvious to them that one of their parents is not a part of their life.
Here are our suggestions on how you can start to talk to your child (aged 4-8 years) about their other parent:
- The first step is creating a nice space for you and your child to talk without interruption. There are lots of books written on this topic – a list is available from One Family, which you can use to read to your child to introduce the topic. When you are reading about the giraffe that has no daddy, or the penguin that has no mammy, you can then start to relate this to your own child.
- Tell your child that they do have another parent. Tell them a little about them at first. Show your child a photograph of their other parent, if you have one. You can tell them you were tidying up and came upon it.
- Talk with your child about the day you found out you were pregnant, or that they were going to be born. Tell them a positive story about how you felt. You can then also tell them a little bit about how their other parent felt. Maybe they were scared to become a parent as they knew it was such an important job, they worried they would not be good at it. Tell them that you said ‘I can do it’ and took on this wonderful adventure with your child.
- Sometimes at this age, children will not ask that many in-depth questions. They may be happy with some basic facts and just move on, they may not even seem that interested. That is fine, but don’t use it as an excuse to bury the issue.
- Once you start talking about the other parent, stay brave and keep talking. You don’t have to talk everyday but now and again, drop in comments about the other parent. Tell the child something about the other parent that the child might like to know. Try to keep the information positive.
- When you don’t talk about the other parent, you may think that is good, you are not saying anything bad about them; but saying nothing about the ‘elephant in the room’ sends a negative message to children. Talking is key!
- If your child is curious or feels sad that their other parent is not involved, talk with them some more. Tell them about your relationship with the other parent. Tell them about things you did together and the fun you had, maybe you can do some of those things with your child.
- Create a shoe box parent. Many children don’t need to have the parent physically present, but they do want to have something that represents them. You can use this using an old shoe box. Tell them to decorate the box and then give them a picture of the other parent to put in it. Draw pictures with them that represent stories you have told them about the other parent. Give them bits to put in the box such as a small ball if the other parent loved football or something from the team they supported. A shell if you enjoyed going to the seaside. Pictures of food they liked to eat. It can be anything but there must be a story attached to it. When they want to feel close to the other parent or they need space to think about their family form, they can go and sit with the box, the stories inside it will comfort them and allow them to, in some way, spend time with this person.
- Be honest as much as you can with children. Be positive too. Children do not need to know the story of your relationship as a couple. Keep it factual. Tell them that you believe the other parent does love them, but they don’t know how to show it. Tell them that you don’t know if they will ever meet the other parent. You have no control over that.
- Try to explore their dreams. Ask them what they think it would be like if they met the other parent, what they would do? Try to identify what needs the child feels the other parent would meet. Then as the parent actively present to your child, see if you can meet any of these needs. If you can’t, acknowledge them and listen.
- Give your child permission to talk openly about the other parent. Often at school children will ask other children about parents. Make sure they feel confident to answer the questions. Usually when a child has a solid relationship with at least one adult who loves them they are often not concerned about who maybe absent from their lives.
- Finally, remember you can’t ‘fix’ it; you can’t undo the past and you can’t control the future. Allow your child talk with you and express their feelings. Just tell them thank you for sharing how they feel with you. You don’t have to justify it or try to explain it to them. Some things just cannot be explained. Children process information by talking and asking questions, they may ask you the same question many times over, this is the nature of children. Be patient with them and help them to process their feelings and the world around them.
- Help your children understand the diversity of the world, using books can really help to show them that their family form is wonderful just like any other family. Have belief and confidence in your family as a parent will support your child to know they have a great place in the world with a parent who loves them.
The hardest part in talking with your child about the absent parent is dealing with your own feelings. If you have not explored your feelings over the years and have tried to put aside any pain and heartache it caused you, then you may need to seek professional support before you talk with your child, during and after. One Family can support you with this.
Next you might like to read: 10 Ways to Explain an Absent Parent, 10 ways to Talk to Your Child About an Absent Parent (0-3 Years)
Find out more about our parenting skills programmes and parent supports. For support and information on these or any related topics, call askonefamily on lo-call 1890 66 22 12 or email email@example.com.
This ’10 Ways to’ article is by One Family’s Director of Children & Parenting Services, Geraldine Kelly, as part of our weekly ’10 Ways to’ series of parenting tips. You can read the full series here.
LIVE Facebook Q&A with Geraldine on this topic Tuesday 11 August from 11am-12pm in our NEW One Family Parenting Group which is a closed Facebook group (meaning that only members can read posts) that anyone can join. Post your questions and share your experiences.