Here are a few tips to remember when talking with your children:
Keeping Neutral Will Always Benefit the Kids
It can be hard to hide your emotions from the kids, especially on painful topics, but it’s essential that you find a way to stay neutral. You may want nothing more than to show your child how horrible their mother/father is and how they hurt you, but it’s not in your child’s best interest. It will be your child’s journey to find out in time how they will view their other parent and the type of relationship that can be built, it is not yours to own or dictate. Remember that a bad partner or spouse does not always make a bad parent. One day the absentee mom/dad may turn their life around and legitimately change for the better. By poisoning your child’s thoughts you are standing in the way of them being able to someday build a relationship that they need. The other parent may have chose to walk away but don’t fuel the fire by destroying any hope for a future reconciliation.
Think Long Term
Remember that just because your situation is a certain way today, does not mean it will remain this way forever. Mentally prepare for the idea that the absent parent may come back into the picture and keep that possibility known when talking to your children. There is a line to be aware of between instilling false hope and being honest. If your child asks if the parent will ever come back or it they will ever meet them, it’s okay to tell them that you don’t know.
“I wish I had an answer for you, but I’m not sure if your father will ever contact us. I know that it’s hard not knowing. Even though we aren’t sure, we don’t have to worry about that today. If he comes back in the future we will make a plan that works for everyone.”
Having an honest reaction with reassurance of your support will make the future unknowns easier to handle than if you simply state – “Don’t worry about it, he’s long gone”. Also keep this in mind if tempted to tell stories about what may have happened to their parent. If you tell them that their father lives in another country and can’t visit, how will they feel when they eventually learn he lives 40 minutes away?
Respond in an Age Appropriate Manner
What a 3 year old needs to hear and what they can handle will be very different than what you can tell a 13 year old. Keep their age and maturity in mind when discussing heavy topics. Younger children will often move on from subjects quickly and they can get overwhelmed with too much information. Pay attention to their responses and physical cues to show you how much detail to share. A 7 year old shouldn’t hear about your breakup but a 16 year old may be able to accept more information. Though no matter what their age, always use good judgment while keeping in mind healthy parent/child boundaries.
Let Their Questions Drive Your Discussions
You may not know how to start conversations or at what age you should begin talking about the absent parent. Most likely your child will tell you when it’s time and it may be earlier than you were planning. Even though a 3 year old can ask, “why don’t I have a daddy?”, they can’t handle long winded or complex responses. Keep your answers short and to the point. If they ask deeper questions, continue and let them lead the conversation. The complexity of their questions can help you to better understand the level of information you should respond with.
Keep it Nonchalant
By this I mean that topic of not having an involved mother or father doesn’t always have to be emotionally charged. If your child is younger you can start right away by creating the reality that ‘this is just how our family is’. They don’t need a deep discussion at a certain age to label the state of their family, build it from the beginning. Just as in many adoptive families, the child always knows they were adopted without a single ‘big reveal’ moment. With younger kids this can be done by discussing how all families look different and that there is no ‘right’ way for a family to work.
Deal with Your Own Emotions
If you are holding onto anger, resentment, sadness or guilt it’s time to work through it. Letting go of past situations can help you to move on from unresolved emotions that may impact the conversations you have with your children. By being happy and healthy it provides your children with a stable environment. They will be better able to work through the emotional ups and downs they will face when a parent leaves and it will build a solid foundation for them. If you are struggling to cope with weight of your situation, please consider turning to an experienced professional to work through the pain.
Being a single parent is hard. Being a single parent with the weight of anger and depression is even harder. Take care of yourself and always remember to keep the best interest of your children at heart.