The term ‘absent parent’ refers to a parent whom a child has never met or has had very little contact with. Note: This is different to a ‘non-resident parent’, ‘non-primary’ or ‘secondary carer’, or when parents co-parent/share parenting of their child.
People find themselves parenting alone through a variety of circumstances. It is natural that children will become curious about their other parent and start to ask questions about them as they grow. This can be very difficult to deal with as a parent, especially if processing our own feelings of hurt, rejection, anger or grief. What is most important is to be prepared for this question, and to be consistent, honest and straightforward.
This week, our ’10 Ways to’ series becomes ’15 Ways’ as we explore how to explain an absent parent to your child.
- Children will usually start to ask about their absent parent once they start school and start to notice that many children have two parents. Questions can increase as they grow – especially if they are working on family trees in school as they often do.
- The best approach to take is to be brave and tell them that yes, they have two parents. Then start to tell them a little about the other parent.
- You can tell them that the other parent was not yet ready to be a parent, perhaps that they were scared and choose not to do it. Reassure them that they have you and you are 100% committed to being their parent and to loving and supporting them.
- There is no value in painting a negative picture of the parent who is absent for many reasons and young children don’t need negative information. Keep it simple and give the basic information they need for now. “Yes, you do have two parents, your other parent is called [their name].” Talk about any similarities the child might have to the other parent.
- Take out any photographs you have of the other parent or photos with both parents. Talk with your child about when you and their other parent loved each other or really liked each other – whichever the case may be – and that you both made the child together.
- Create a ‘shoe box parent’ for the child. This is a box where you can place anything which has a story about the child’s other parent. This could be photos, pictures you make together of what the parent looks like, what he or she liked to do or eat, or places you visited with them.
- Talk with the child about any contact the other parent had with them and make it positive for them. When children grow up they will know the full story but for now, keep it simple. Children need to identify with both parents.
- Give some thought to making contact with an absent parent if it is safe to do so. Allow the other parent an opportunity to explore some form of contact. If this can’t happen, then work with your child to help them understand that maybe the other parent will be ready to be a parent some day. Often when children are very keen to meet an absent parent, it is because they feel this parent will meet a currently unmet need. This often turns out not to be the case. Help your child to identify their needs so you can try to meet them.
- Think about contact with extended family members of the other parent if you feel it is helpful for the child. Just because a person may not want to be a parent, that may not be the same for their family members. Enable grandparents in particular an opportunity to engage with their grandchild.
- Always allow children to ask you many questions and talk with you. Expect that every three years or so, another round of questions will come. Be patient with your child and give them permission to talk about the absent parent and ask any questions.
- Be honest and consistent and give them as much age appropriate information as you can. Often children just need basic information. They simply need to be able to say to other children, for example, “Yes, I have a daddy and his name is Jack.” Children are curious by nature so support them with this.
- It may be very hard to talk with your child about all of this, but be brave, take a deep breath and do it and then get support for yourself afterwards. Remember that your relationship with the other parent and what you experienced is not what your child has experienced. Most children do not feel rejected by not knowing an absent parent, it is we as the parents who feel rejection.
- Get support if you find it difficult to talk about the other parent. Many people don’t deal with the hurt and pain of the past and benefit from professional support to let go and move on. Allow life to give you all it has to offer.
- If you became pregnant or a lone parent through an abusive experience or relationship, get support to deal with this. You can still support your child to have a positive healthy childhood. Children don’t need to know the circumstances of how they came to be. Talk with them about who is in their life and how much they are loved. You can explore with them what they imagine life would be like with two parents and help them further explore the negatives and positives of that life. Talk with them about how wonderful that vision is for them. Don’t try to corrode it by being negative. Tell them that you are glad they shared that with you. You can’t make it different so just be the best parent you can be for your child.
- Children can grow up perfectly happily and successfully in a one-parent family, as current research shows. What they need are quality relationships with people in their life who like to spend quality time with them, people who understand them and who can support their needs. Once you can love your child and support them, they will and can be very happy and confident in their family form.
Next you might like to read 10 Ways to Talk With Your Child About “Where do I come from?”
This article is part of our weekly ’10 Ways to’ series of parenting tips, and is by One Family’s Director of Children and Parenting Services, Geraldine Kelly. Coming soon: 10 Ways to Nurture Your Role as a Stepparent and 10 Ways to Make Christmas Stress Free.
LIVE Facebook Q&A with Geraldine on explaining an absent parent on Monday 17 November from 11am-12pm on One Family’s Facebook page. Join in and post your question.
Find out more about our parenting skills programmes and parent supports. For support and advice on these or any related topics, call askonefamily on lo-call 1890 66 22 12 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.